Rituais e festas Borôro [Bororo Rituals and Ceremonies] (1917) – dir. Luiz Thomaz Reis*

Rituais e Festas Borôro – Luiz Thomaz Reis, 1917 [image presented in Rondon 1946: 263].

31 mins., b&w, silent. Portuguese titles and intertitles.

Source: available at the Museo do Índio and on their YouTube playlist here 


This film represents the first of a number of early ethnographic films, of varying complexity and seriousness, that refer to the Bororo funeral ceremony. Others include works by Aloha Wanderwell (1931), Dina and Claude Lévi-Strauss (1936) and Heinz Förthmann and Darcy Ribeiro (1953).

This film by Luiz Thomaz Reis is not well-known in the English-speaking world, but it deserves to be considered an early masterwork of ethnographic cinema. It also represents one of the first examples of an ethnographic documentary in the modern sense, that is, a narratively structured account of an event or situation without the fictional element found in work of Robert Flaherty and other ‘documentary’ film-makers of this period.

This film was shot between July and October 1916 in São Lourenço, a now extinct Bororo indigenous community of some 350 people situated on the banks of the São Lourenço river, about 100 kilometres south of Cuiabá, capital of Mato Grosso State, in Central Brazil. The principal subject matter is the funeral of a Bororo woman. The director and cameraman, and probably also the editor, was a Brazilian army officer, Luiz Thomaz Reis, the head of the Photography and Cinematography section of the Rondon Commission, which was the federal agency then responsible for ‘opening up’ and colonising the interior of the country.

This was one of several films of ethnographic interest that Reis made for the Commission, but most of the others were expedition films based on much more transitory contacts with the indigenous subjects. A tentative filmography, indicating the place of Rituais e festas borôro within Reis’s career as a whole, is offered here.

Reis wrote a detailed report about the making of this film that has recently been republished (see Reis 2011 in the listing of Texts below).  From this, it is clear that the making of this film involved a large investment of resources and it is therefore inconceivable that it could have been made without the explicit endorsement of the head of the commission that bore his name, that is, Colonel (later to become General) Cândido Mariano da Silva Rondon, who was one of the most well-known figures in Brazilian public life at the time.

Luiz Thomaz Reis [right] and Colonel Cândido Rondon [centre] with a group of Paresí beside the Utiariti waterfall, c. 1914, shortly after the setting up of the Photography and Cinematography section of the Rondon Commission [Acervo do Museo do Índio/ FUNAI – Brasil, CRNV0614].

Rondon would have had various motives for approving the making of this film. One would have been the fact that he himself was of part-Bororo descent and therefore not only spoke the Bororo language but was also aware of how elaborate Bororo funeral ceremonies can be.

Another very likely motivation would have been related to the fact that São Lourenço was the location of one of the most important posts of the Serviço de Proteção aos Índios (SPI), the organisation that Rondon had set up in 1910 to act as the principal intermediary between the indigenous populations and the expanding Brazilian state. The role of the SPI was to offer ‘protection’ as an alternative to the ‘catechisation’ imposed by missionary organisations which up until that point had acted as the principal intermediaries between Brazilian indigenous groups and the outside world.

In the particular case of the Bororo, Rondon was especially critical of the Italian Salesian missionaries who were then seeking to establish themselves in the region. As the Salesians actively sought to suppress the traditional Bororo funeral, considering it literally the work of the devil, a film that recorded this ceremony would have represented a direct challenge to their authority.

The film would also undoubtedly have had another propaganda purpose which was that of the Rondon Commission generally, namely, to celebrate the contribution of the indigenous population to the formation of modern Brazilian national identity. Accordingly, the film presents the Bororo in a somewhat romantic light, excluding any reference to their contact with the non-indigenous world, such as the sugar mill set up in the village by the SPI itself. The film also shows them in what is largely traditional dress rather than in the ragged European-style clothes that many of them would have been wearing by this time, if not on ritual occasions, then certainly while working in the mill.

Still photograph taken at the same time as the making of the film, showing the leading male participants in the funeral ceremony. [Acervo do Museo do Índio/ FUNAI – Brasil, CRNV0499]
Bororo men of São Lourenço, photographed around the same time as the ceremony, wearing everyday work clothes. It is very likely that some individuals appear in both photographs. [image presented in Rondon 1946: 239]

This propaganda purpose was probably also at least partially the reason for the exclusion of certain aspects of the funeral from the account offered by the film and also for a major alteration to the chronology of the event as will be discussed in greater detail below.

Film Content

This being still the silent era, there is no sound track, not even a voice-over commentary. Instead the film is structured by a series of intertitles, 38 in total, mostly identifying particular dances or other component events of the ceremony.

The first ten minutes of the film are dedicated to preparations for the ceremony, including a fishing expedition, the making of ritual paraphernalia and other artefacts, and the erection of the palm leaf screen behind which male dancers will be hidden from the eyes of women and children at certain important points.

This first period also introduces the people who will be taking part in the ceremony, mostly through various posed ‘team photographs’ of both women and men, a common device in early ethnographic film (this sequence includes a shot similar to the photograph above of the leading male participants). Certain individuals are also introduced, notably two leading shamans, but in contrast to a strategy often adopted in later ethnographic works, there is no attempt to follow them through the course of the ceremony.

A rare close-up portrait, in this case of a shaman who will play a leading role in the ceremony. [image presented in Rondon 1946: 270]

The film then follows the unfolding event, which is spectacular. For the era, the cinematography is accomplished though mostly straightforwardly observational in the sense that it merely follows what is going on in front of it. There are, however, a few moments of evident direction, such as the sequence in which leading figures, having been shot from the front in close-up, are then asked to turn sideways. This is reminiscent of the anthropometric photography of the era and unsurprisingly, since although he was not a trained physiologist, Reis often took anthropometric measurements during the course of his filming expeditions.

Dancers compete to see who can dance longest carrying ‘mariddo’ discs on their heads. These were made of palm leaf stalks and weighed around 60kgs. [image presented in Rondon 1946: 280].

Although the film is a remarkable work of ethnographic documentation in many ways, it is clear from the intertitles that Reis had only a limited understanding of what he was filming and some of its symbolism is completely misinterpreted. There are also some important phases of the ceremony that are simply missing from the account.

Male dancers decorate themselves in isolation from women. In an intertitle, Reis suggests that the man painted black and covered with tufts of white down represents a jaguar, while the man being painted brown with mud represents a puma. This is not correct: the ‘spotted’ man represents one of the ancestral spirits who customarily attend funerals, while the man being painted brown with mud represents ‘aije’, a particularly important spirit being who is considered supremely dangerous for women. [image presented in Rondon 1946: 288].

But the most significant limitation on the value of the film as a record of a traditional Bororo funeral arises from Reis’s entirely intentional manipulation of the chronology of the event during the process of editing.

For, in reality, the traditional Bororo funeral normally involved a secondary burial. That is, immediately after death, the corpse was buried in the village plaza, as indeed is shown in the film. As the burial was taking place, it was doused with water to encourage the decomposition of the flesh (see the image below). There then followed an elaborate series of dances and other ceremonial events, spread out over a number of weeks, by which time only the bones of the corpse would remain. These were then dug up, cleaned, ceremonially decorated with feathers and placed in a basket before being immersed in a nearby lagoon as the final destination.

The corpse is buried in the village plaza and doused with water to speed decomposition. [image presented in Rondon 1946: 278].

Reis had witnessed this stage of the ceremony in person and in his report, describes it as providing an important key to understanding the Bororo as a people. But as he also explains, much of it took place at night, so he was unable to film it, much to his great regret. He adds, however, that the final stripping of the bones of their flesh was a scene that was “hellish and frightening”, enough “to make one’s hair stand on end”. (These scenes would later be filmed by Heinz Förthmann, see his joint work with Darcy Ribeiro, Funeral Bororo, filmed in 1953).

Being unable to film this final stage, Reis clearly decided to place the first burial in the plaza at the end rather than, as occurred in reality, at the beginning of the ceremonial events that make up the main body of the film. He does not explain the basis for this decision in his report, and his reasons may have been purely editorial.

However, this ordering of the event would certainly have been more congenial and familiar to the metropolitan audiences at whom the film was aimed and whom the Rondon Commission wanted to convince of the important contribution made by indigenous people to the formation of Brazilian national identity.

Texts : Rondon 1946;  Tacca 2002;  Caiuby Novaes 2006a, Caiuby Novaes 2006b; Cunha 2010; Reis 2011; Caiuby Novaes 2016; Caiuby, Cunha and Henley 2017

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