Sertões de Matto-Grosso, Os [The Savannas of Mato Grosso] (1915) – dir. Luiz Thomaz Reis*

Luiz Thomaz Reis [right] with General Cândido Rondon [centre] and a group of  Paresí at the Utiariti falls, probably taken at the time of the shooting of Os Sertões de Matto-Grosso in 1914 or 1915 [Acervo do Museo do Índio/ FUNAI – Brasil, CRNV0614].
Lost, exact duration unknown, though probably between 60 and 90 minutes, b&w, silent with Portuguese titles and intertitles.

Source : a few fragments are held in Museu do Índio, available as part of a broader collection of isolated fragments of films made by the Rondon Commission here.

Background: this was the first major film made by Luiz Thomaz Reis after he had been appointed as head of the Photography and Cinematography section of the Rondon Commission in 1912. It is an expedition film chronicling one or more expeditions to remote regions of Mato Grosso that took place in 1914, and possibly also in 1915, and which were led by the then Colonel (later to be General) Cândido Rondon himself.

The place of Os Sertões in Reis’s overall filmography, and its relationship to an earlier, seemingly prematurely aborted and also lost film about the expedition to the Mato Grosso jointly led by Rondon and the former US President, Theodore Roosevelt, is discussed here.

Although Os Sertões itself may be lost, one can get some sense of it from the intertitles, which are preserved in a Rondon Commission report dating from  1916. These indicate that the film was organised into six parts, each with a number of subsidiary sequences. As the length of the parts of such films at that time could be up to 15 minutes, this suggests that overall duration of the film could have been as much as 1.5 hours. [These intertitles are reproduced in Lasmar 2011: 260-263].

Rondon asked Reis to make Os Sertões because the interior of Mato Grosso was more or less unknown, not only to Brazilian citizens of the great cities of the eastern seaboard of the country, but even within the state of Mato Grosso itself.

The film fulfilled its remit in this sense magnificiently. When it was released on the commercial cinema circuit in 1915, it was a huge success and attracted very large audiences, not only in Rio de Janeiro, but also in a number of other major cities. Indeed, it generated a substantial income that was assigned to various charitable causes, as well as helping to fund the Rondon Commission itself and its film-making activities [see Lobato 2015: 303-306].

Film Content

As described above, the surviving intertitles indicate that Os Sertões was divided into six parts:

The first two parts follow an expedition that departs, seemingly in January 1914, from Tapirapuã, a small village on the headwaters of the Sepotuba River, north of Cáceres, close to the Bolivian border,  and travels in a northwesterly direction across the Serra dos Parecis to Utiariti on the upper reaches of the Papagaio River. This was the site of a Rondon Commission telegraph post, and also a village of the Paresí visited by Edgard Roquette-Pinto in 1912. (The autonym of the Paresí is Halíti, often corrupted to Aríti in early sources, as in the name of their village).

These two parts are mainly concerned with the logistics of the expedition itself and aspects of the natural environment, including the Salto Bello waterfall on the River Sacre.

Most of the third and the fourth parts are then dedicated to sequences about the Paresí at Utiariti. The first of these is mainly about Paresí women,  showing them coming back from their horticultural plots with laden baskets and preparing food. There are also various individual portraits of women and another of the chief of the village, wearing an army major’s uniform and accompanied by his wife.

There is also a sequence showing the distribution of presents to a group of young Paresí women, which is represented in one of the fragments in the Museo do Índio archive. A curiosity of this sequence is that the person in shot giving away the presents is Luiz Thomaz Reis himself, raising the question as to who is operating the camera at this point.

Luiz Thomaz Reis distributes gifts to the Paresí.

The second part concerning the Paresí (and fourth overall) shows boys diving and swimming in a river, and young men playing a game with a rubber ball, which they hit back and forth using only the head. Both these sequences are also amongst the fragments in the Museu do Índio. This part also shows the Paresí working for the Commission and ends with some shots of the impressive Utiariti waterfall. This is where the photograph, shown above, of Reis and  Rondon with a group of Paresí was taken.

The last two parts of Os Sertões are primarily concerned with the Nambikwara.  There are grounds for believing that these sequences were filmed during a different and probably later expedition to that on which the first four parts of the film were shot. (For a detailed explanation of these grounds, see the Reis filmography available here).

The first part concerning the Nambikwara (and fifth overall) shows various groups coming to visit the Rondon Commission telegraph posts on the Juína river and at Três Buritis, both lying to the northwest of Utiariti, with Rondon giving gifts to both groups. The Três Buritis group are referred to as the ‘Tagnanis’ and appear to be the same group that had been filmed by Edgard Roquette-Pinto in 1912. In Os Sertões, the Tagnani chief declares his intention to attack another Nambikwara group, the ‘Taimandês’.

Nambikwara and Paresí, traditional enemies, dance together in an act of reconciliation.

The final part is preceded by a warning to the audience that it will show the Nambikwara ‘completely naked, just as they live in the bush’. This was supposedly to warn women and children that it was time to leave the cinema, but no doubt when news of the warning spread, it would have done nothing to reduce general interest in the film.

This part begins with a group of Nambikwara arriving at Utiariti, where they are given a cordial welcome, despite being traditional enemies. One of the fragments that survives in the Museo do Índio shows the Nambikwara and Paresí in a dance of reconciliation [see above].

This part and the film as a whole then concludes with Rondon meeting yet another group of Nambikwara, described as ‘Nenés’, when he visits their village on the Juruena river, to the west of Utiariti. Here, he again distributes presents. His travelling companions are reluctant to remain because they are afraid that the Nambikwara will eat their horses, but the Nambikwara themselves entreat Rondon to stay, offering to build him a house.

Texts: Rodrigues 1982; Portugal Lasmar 2011; Lobato 2015.

© 2018 Paul Henley