Yagua (1944) – dir. Paul Fejos *


A posed synoptic image of Yagua life by Paul Fejos, director of ‘The Yagua’ (1944).

57 mins., b&w, sound: synch but not subtitled indigenous speech, and a combination of extra-diegetic music and field recorded music used intra-diegetically.

Source : Library of Congress

The Yagua are a small indigenous community whose territory lies in the Amazonian region of northeastern Peru and neighbouring parts of Colombia. Paul Fejos made this film in the course of a nine-month period of research in a Peruvian Yagua community from December 1940 to August 1941. During this time, in addition to making the film, he gathered the material that enabled him to publish a very respectable  ethnographic report about the Yagua (see ‘Text’ below).

The first part of the film is based around a story of the migration of a Yagua community, from one settlement in the forest to another (though it is not at all clear what motivates this move). Two young men go ahead and scout out a suitable site, then return to lead the remainder of the community there on a large raft. The shaman remains behind and burns the old house down, but then joins the others on the raft.

However, at the new site, in an echo of the initial story of A Handful of Rice, the migrants encounter a problem, namely, that a tiger (albeit a very small one) is getting into the chicken coop. They hatch a plan to set a trap to catch the animal, which after various failed attempts, they eventually do. The tiger is then killed, its skin stretched out on a frame, and the film ends with a ceremonial celebration of entirely dubious authenticity.

The story of this film is very weak, and many of the cultural practices shown are inventions of the film-maker (including most probably the raft expedition). But the actors are obviously indigenous people and they perform – both women and men – in a remarkably unselfconscious manner, even when they are doing things that they would not normally do. Equally remarkably, they are speaking their own language, in synch, though it is neither subtitled nor voiced over, so it is often difficult to know what they are saying.

Text : Fejos 1943