Vénézuéla, petite Venise [Venezuela, Little Venice] (1937) – Robert, Marquis de Wavrin*

Young Yukpa (Motilón) archer inspects the small birds he has shot – Vénézuéla, petite Venise (1937) – Robert, Marquis de Wavrin

53 mins, b&w, silent – extra-diegetic music, voice-over commentary in French

Source : CINEMATEK, Royal Film Archives of Belgium – DVD Collection, Marquis de Wavrin (2017)

Background – This film is much less accomplished,  in terms of both shooting and editing, than the Marquis de Wavrin‘s previous South American expedition films. As he does not appear in shot in these films, one is tempted to speculate that he shot this film himself, whereas in his other films, in which he does appear, he had someone with some expertise in shooting working for him. Certainly in this film, the camerawork is very amateurish, with many waving pans, unstable and lop-sided shots etc. The editing is similarly poor, with a high degree of redundancy in the material presented.

Nevertheless, when the film was premièred in Brussels in 1937 in the presence of King Leopold III, it was given many highly positive reviews in the local press. But there were also some dissenting voices, who compared de Wavrin’s film unfavourably with works by certain of his contemporaries, such as Charles Dekeukeleire’s Terres brûlées (1934) and  L’Ile de Pâques (1935) by John Fernhout and Henri Storck.

Film content – De Wavrin travelled to Venezuela in 1934, intent on discovering the source of the Orinoco, the only major river in the world whose source was unknown at that time. Unfortunately for him, unseasonally bad weather on the upper reaches of the river forced him to turn back before he had reached his destination.

This setback occurs about midway through the film. The  material that he had presented up until that point  had been decidedly limited, certainly from the point of view of the ethnography of the indigenous peoples of Venezuela.  In order to make something of his journey, it would appear, he then travelled to Western Venezuela and made contact with the ‘Motilones’ of the Sierra de Perijá (known today as the Yuko in Colombia, but as the Yukpa in Venezuela).

This was the same group with whom he had spent some time on the Colombian side of the border during his previous trip to South America in 1932-1933. It was with them that he had shot some of the strongest ethnographic material that he had produced, notably the sequence of the secondary burial ceremony that he would later be obliged to cut from the Belgian edition of Chez les Indiens Sorciers.

Sadly, he was unable to produce any material of similar quality with the Yukpa, the Venezuelan ‘Motilones’. The second half of Vénézuéla is not much better than the first, consisting mostly of some footage of largely indifferent quality of day-to-day life in a Yukpa community.

This material culminates in a collective dance that in terms of costumes, face paint designs, musical instruments and dance steps is suggestive of outside influence, be it of the Yukpa’s neighbours, the Guajiro, the local criollo (non-indigenous) population or some combination of the two. It is even possible that it could have been organised by de Wavrin himself who might well have been very concerned by this point to film something more dramatic than the Yukpa’s normally more muted dancing performances.

The concluding five minutes of the film offer a series of shots of the houses on  stilts in the water of the Laguna de Sinamaica, north of Maracaibo. These houses are supposedly the origin of the name ‘Venezuela’, a term meaning literally  ‘Little Venice’. According to legend, on seeing these houses on stilts, this was the name given to the country by none other than Amerigo Vespucci himself. It is this legend that also accounts for the title of de Wavrin’s film.

The indigenous inhabitants of these houses are today known as the Añú (formerly as the Paraujano). But although de Wavrin offers us some interesting shots of the village from afar, and also of the Añú gathering reeds nearby, he never gets close to them and does not even name them. Instead, he merely questions whether these “prehistoric” structures can possibly resist modernity, as represented by the oil derricks elsewhere on Lake Maracaibo.

Text : Winter 2017




Yuko (Motilón) secondary burial ceremony, working copy (1934) – Marquis de Wavrin *

The bones of the deceased are wrapped in cloth – Yuko secondary burial ceremony, working copy (1934) – Marquis de Wavrin

9 mins., b&w, silent.

Source : CINEMATEK (Royal Film Archives of Belgium) – Marquis de Wavrin DVD collection.

Background  – This sequence seems to have formed  part of the film that the Marquis de Wavrin made about his travels around Colombia, Chez les Indians Sorciers, when it was first released in Paris in 1934. Unfortunately, however, no copy of this version of the film has apparently survived.

What has survived is a copy of the second version of the film, released in Belgium in 1939. But shortly before this release, a new temperance law had been passed in Belgium, so as secondary burial ceremonies among the Yuko traditionally entailed the consumption of large quantities of maize beer, de Wavrin was obliged to cut this sequence.

Fortunately, however, the sequence is preserved in the Royal Film Archives of Belgium. This sequence has no soundtrack but, equally fortunately, a transcript of the original commentary has also come to light. On the CINEMATEK DVD, a new recording of this commentary script has been superimposed on a restored version of the original sequence.

Content – The sequence begins with preparations for the secondary burial of a  child, son of a Yuko chief, who had died some six weeks beforehand. Large quantities of maize beer are prepared and the boy’s mother weaves a cloth in which the bones will be wrapped before being re-buried.

Visitors arrive and dancing continues through day and night to the sound of panpipes played, interestingly, by women. The next morning, as the parents grieve over the grave, which seems to be at some distance from the village, at a pre-arranged signal, a group of male visitors arrive in an aggressive fashion and begin fighting, ransacking the grave.

The voice-over commentary interprets this as an effect of the maize beer, but it is almost certainly a mock performance of aggression on the part of the visitors, which would conform to a pattern that has often been reported as an integral part of rites of passage among indigenous peoples of this region.

Notwithstanding the disruption caused by the visitors, the father carefully wraps the bones in the specially prepared cloth and returns to the village, accompanied by the visitors.

Here dancing continues, along with serious drinking of the maize beer. Fights break out. The commentary claims that a woman was  killed, though this assertion should be treated with caution. We see a man squirming on the floor and are invited to think of him as being extremely drunk. However, it could equally be an intense expression of grief.


Next morning, young Yuko warriors defy death – Yuko secondary burial ceremony, working copy (1934) – Marquis de Wavrin

By next morning, the rage of the previous day has passed and a group of young warriors dance solemnly in a line with their bows and arrows in hand. The sun is still low and the shadow of the cameraman, cranking furiously, falls across the image. At a given moment, the dancers line up and fire their arrows into the earth – ‘defying death’ according to the voice-over commentary.

A few days later, the skeleton of the deceased child is taken in its cotton bag to be buried by the ‘closest male relatives’ (though probably not including the father, if this Yuko ceremony conforms to the local pattern). Traditionally, these bags of bones were buried in an collective ossuary in a cave, but in recent times, as in this film, the bag is buried in the earth, close to the village, seemingly amidst maize plants.


Text : Winter 2017




Chez les Indiens Sorciers [Among the Indian Sorcerers] (1939) – Marquis de Wavrin *

The Marquis de Wavrin (centre) with two Yuko (Motilón) elders – Chez les Indiens Sorciers (1939)

31 mins., b&w, sound – extra-diegetic music, voice-over commentary in French

Source : CINEMATEK (Royal Film Archives of Belgium) – DVD + booklet

Background  –  This is an expedition film shot in 1931-32, when the Marquis de Wavrin visited Colombia at the behest of the Belgian Ministry of Education to collect ethnographic objects for Belgian museums. It consists of sequences shot in a number of different indigenous groups around the country.  It was first released in Paris in 1934, but for reasons unknown, it was not released in Belgium until 1939. This second version is the only one that is known to have survived.

By 1939, a new temperance law had been passed in Belgium with the result that de Wavrin was obliged to cut a lengthy sequence dedicated to a secondary burial ceremony since this had  involved the consumption of large quantities of maize beer. Fortunately, this sequence has also been preserved in the Royal Film Archives and is available separately on the CINEMATEK DVD.

Film content – Although the film presents itself as an account of the expedition of the ‘courageous explorer’ de Wavrin – who often appears in shot as a link between the various sequences – it does not follow a geographically coherent route in the manner of de Wavrin’s earlier South American films. Although there are undoubtedly some passages of ethnographic interest,  the film is generally very muddled and the voice-over commentary is often erroneous and sometimes patronising. The extra-diegetic music is generally execrable.

Starting from Cartagena on the Caribbean coast, the film first makes a brief visit to the Guajira peninsula before jumping back to the Pacific Coast, where there is a somewhat more extended sequence that is mainly concerned with shamanic curing among an indigenous group of the Chocó region (probably the Embera). After a brief excursion to the mountains to attend a wake amidst an unidentified indigenous group, the film then jumps to the extreme southeast of Colombia to show a dance of the Yagua, who live in the Amazonian border region with Perú.

The film then cuts back and forth between the Yagua and the Guahibo, a very different group culturally, who live in the Llanos, a savanna region far to the north. The  theme of the film here is the simplistic proposition that inebriating substances cause indigenous people to dance – beer brewed in large pots in the case of the Yagua, the hallucinogen drug yopo inhaled through the nostrils in the case of the Guahibo. There is also a brief sequence showing criollos (non-indigenous Colombians) playing and dancing to ‘rhumba’ music, to show that they are much the same also.

The film then returns to the mountainous regions in the northwest of the country, first for a brief visit to the Arhuacos of the Sierra Nevada, followed by a somewhat more extended visit to the ‘Motilones’ (today known as the Yuko or Yukpa) of the nearby Sierra de Perijá. The film lingers here for a while, showing daily life in their villages and camps, and aspects of their subsistence. It was here that de Wavrin also filmed the secondary burial scene that he was obliged to cut.

Perhaps for this reason, the last five minutes of the film are especially incoherent from an ethnographic point of view. Some petroglyphs found in the  Sierra Nevada provide an unconvincing segue to a sequence of Bora girls on the Amazonian frontier having their lower bodies painted. This consists of only three shots totalling 20 seconds. As it seems unlikely that de Wavrin would have travelled so far for so little, it seems very probable that this is an outtake from his previous film, Au Pays du Scalp, in which there is an extended sequence of Bora body-painting.

The narrative then prepares for closure with a voice-over comment that the explorer ‘sets off again, tirelessly’. Back in the Llanos, we see de Wavrin setting out with a column of Guahibo porters, who make small bamboo rafts to cross a river. There is then a brief catalogue of stock shots of local wildlife, before a sequence showing a large dug out canoe being built. Another sequence of 20 seconds, this time showing two women, probably Piro, painting designs on large ceramic pots and probably also an outtake from the earlier film, signals that the expedition has returned to Amazonian mainstream. A final sequence on a raft in the middle of a large river, culminating in a sunset, brings the film to an end.

Text : Winter 2017

Au Pays du Scalp [In the Land of the Scalp] (1931) – dir. Marquis de Wavrin *

Bora ‘captives’ dance – ‘Au Pays du Scalp’ (1931) – dir. Robert de Wavrin

72 mins. , b&w, sound : extra-diegetic music, voice-over commentary

Production : Compagnie Universelle Cinématographique

Source : CINEMATEK – DVD released in 2017.

Background – This film is based on the South American travels of the Marquis de Wavrin over a four-year period, between May 1926 and June 1930.  At least as constructed in the film, he started in the Galapagos Islands, then travelled  through Guayaquil and the Ecuadorean Andes before descending along the Putumayo river on the Ecuador-Colombia-Peru border to the upper reaches of the Amazon. He then returned to the Andean altiplano through Peru, visiting Macchu Pichu and Cuzco on the way. After a brief visit to Lake Titicaca in Bolivia, he finally descended to the Pacific again, finishing his journey amid the guano islands off the Peruvian coast.

The film was constructed from 60,000 feet of 35 mm film (i.e. around 16 hours, if shot at the then-standard rate of 16-18 fps). Although a considerable proportion of this material concerns the natural environment, including its wildlife, and the Hispanic towns and cities through which the expedition passed, a particular focus is the indigenous communities visited during the Amazonian phase of the expedition.

It is not entirely clear who shot the film. While the voice-over commentary asserts that de Wavrin travelled entirely alone, at the beginning of the film he is shown loading a camera. This particular sequence could have been reconstructed afterwards, but de Wavrin also appears in shot at various important points in the narrative. Clearly, therefore, the film must have been shot at least partly by someone else.

The film was edited by the celebrated Brazilian editor and director, Alberto Cavalcanti (1897-1982), then based in France, while the music for the soundtrack was written by the French avant-garde composer Maurice Jaubert (1900-1940).

De Wavrin had no training as a film-maker and claimed that he never sought to become one. His objective was simply to provide visual documentation of the regions through which he travelled since they were so poorly known in the academic disciplines of geography and ethnography. Even so, when the film was first released in Paris in 1931, it received very positive reviews. Among its many merits, one critic noted, was that it was devoid of the colonialist propaganda typical of expedition films of the period.

Content –  This film constitutes a major contribution to the genre of expedition films, particularly in Amazonia where such films are relatively rare. Even so, its ethnographic value is limited by the fact that de Wavrin was constantly on the move and, with some notable exceptions, does not appear to have remained for very long in any particular community. Certainly the ethnographic material presented in the film rarely goes beyond relatively brief accounts of ceremonial performances and technical processes.

One major exception, however, is the material shot in a community of the indigenous groups then known as the Jívaro, and more recently as Aénts Chicham (for the reasons for the name change, see here). This was located on the Santiago River in the Oriente province of Ecuador and therefore probably part of the Huambisa subgroup. This material includes some interesting sequences on a range of different subsistence activities and cultural practices. There is even the relation in the voice-over commentary of a charming legend concerning the origin of fire.

On the other hand, the footage related to the principal concern of this stage of the expedition, namely the Aénts Chicham practice of hunting and shrinking heads (to which the title of the film refers, though somewhat misleadingly, since scalping was a rather different process to head shrinking) is so evidently staged that it fails to convince. Though equally staged, these ritual and technical processes are much more effectively represented in Haut Amazone, a French film made a decade later.

De Wavrin also filmed among many other indigenous groups. In Otovalo, in the Ecuadorean Andes, there is an effective sequence of a street dance involving elaborate head-dresses. In Amazonian Ecuador and Peru, there are sequences in Ocaina, Bora, Canelos Quichua and Piro communities.  There are also some shots of the “very poor” Uro living on Lake Titicaca in the Bolivian Andes, as they go about gathering reeds for constructing their canoes.

One notable scene, and unusual within the film as a whole, concerns a shamanic curing session among a group referred to as the Napo, living at the junction of the river of the same name and the Amazon.  This is an interesting sequence from an ethnographic point of view, albeit shot from a poor angle and underlit.

A Bora dancer pretends to threaten the camera – ‘Au Pays du Scalp’ (1931) – Robert, Marquis de Wavrin

But of all the sequences concerning indigenous groups other than the Aénts Chicham, undoubtedly the richest concern a group whom de Wavrin refers to as the ‘Boro’. This is undoubtedly the group more usually referred to today as the ‘Bora’, who live primarily on the Colombian side of the international border that runs along the Putumayo River and divides Colombia from both Ecuador and Peru. This was one of the indigenous groups who suffered most severely at the hands of the rubber-tapping industry in the early years of the twentieth century, until this was denounced some twenty years before de Wavrin arrived. It is reassuring then to see them looking so strong and healthy in his film.

No doubt on account of their previous experience of outsiders, the Bora were not initially welcoming. But de Wavrin seems to have taken some trouble to win acceptance. The four minute sequence that the film offers of the “totemic dances” of the Bora is particularly interesting (see image at the top of the post). There is also an engaging moment when a dancer comes right up to the camera and pretends to threaten it (see image immediately above).

The interpretations offered in the voice-over commentary regarding the meaning of these dances are certainly erroneous, but from a visual perspective, this is perhaps the strongest material in the film as whole. It also seems to be particularly authentic:  in contrast to the Jivaro material, which was evidently mostly performed for the camera, the Bora seem to be engaged in these dances entirely for their own reasons.

Text : Winter 2017

Au Centre de l’Amérique du Sud inconnue [At the Centre of Unknown South America] (1924) – dir. Marquis de Wavrin*

Young Lengua man – “Au Centre de l’Amérique du Sud inconnue’ (1924) – Marquis de Wavrin

39 mins, b&w, silent – titles and intertitles in French.

Source : DVD distributed by CINEMATEK (Royal Film Archive Belgium).

An expedition film that follows the journey of the Marquis de Wavrin from Buenos Aires, through Paraguay, northern Argentina and Bolivia, right up to the border with Brazil, but then suddenly jumps far to the north to Manaus, where the journey ends.

This film has been heroically reconstructed from fragments. Unfortunately, these seem to have been transferred at too high a speed, so the original film would probably have been somewhat longer.

Apart from a two-minute sequence, about ten minutes into the film, which shows the dancing of some Chiriguano peons on an Argentinian sugar cane plantation, it is only in the last third that the film focuses on the indigenous population.

These sequences primarily concern the Lengua, but there are also briefer sequences on the Mataco and some generically defined ‘Indians of the Gran Chaco’.  In the final three minutes, the film crosses into Bolivia, and here it encounters a group of fishermen with tall nets on the Rio Grande who certainly look indigenous, and finally, from afar, there are a couple of shots of a group identified as’Pareci of the Rio Guapore’.

Clearly, none of these sequences is based on an extended relationship between the film-maker and the subjects. The images of indigenous people are mostly distant shots of them dancing, or if they are closer portraits, the subjects are often treated as anthropological ‘types’ and asked to turn around and around for the camera, which some of them find highly amusing. Others just stare fixedly at the camera looking deeply uncomfortable. Although these images are all of some ethnographic interest, their value is primarily descriptive.



Matto Grosso outtakes: warrior dances and bull-roarers (1931) – Floyd D. Crosby *

A camera assistant holds up an identifying slate – ‘Matto Grosso’ outtakes (1931)

7:14 mins., b&w, silent

Source : Penn Museum. This footage can be viewed here

These outtakes from the material shot for Matto Grosso, the Great Brazilian Wilderness primarily concern dances, though there is also a fascinating sequence in the middle of men operating bull-roarers.

The first two minutes of the material concern the night-time dances around a large bonfire that are a striking feature of Matto Grosso and also the more abbreviated version of the more ethnographic material, viewable here. Here you can see that the dancers are being led by a player of the panna calabash trumpet. The dance also appears to be taking place at one side of the baimanagejeu, the men’s house.

There then follows about a minute of two men whirling bull-roarers. Unlike the other sequences in these outtakes, no part of this material was used in either of the Matto Grosso films, which is surprising, particularly in the case of the more academic short film, since the material is well-shot and such sequences are comparatively rare in Amazonian ethnographic film. The sound of the bull-roarer, on the other hand, was used in the longer film to cover some of the dancing shots.

The remainer of the outtakes again concern dancing, but this time during the day. Again, it is men wearing magnificent headdresses who are dancing. Initially, they are led not by the panna, but by one, or sometimes two, men shaking maracas. The women sit beyond on the ground and behind them is the baimanagejeu. Later, the panna returns, however, and a man playing both the panna and a maraca leads the dancing.

It is quite clear that the situation has been set up for the camera. There are several takes of the same dance and for most of these takes, the cameraman’s assistant comes into shot to hold up an identifying slate (see above).

Also noticeable is that as the takes proliferate, the dancers, presumably because they are getting hotter, throw off the pieces of cloth that that they have been using as loincloths, and instead dance dressed in the traditional manner, which as far as the genitalia are concerned, means no more than a penis sheath.





Yaruro (Pumé) footage, Venezuelan llanos (1934) – Vincenzo Petrullo *

An Otomaco woman among the Pumé? – ‘Yaruro footage’ (1934) – Vincenzo Petrullo

7:32, b&w, silent

Source : Penn Museum. This film can be viewed on-line here.

This appears to be lightly edited footage that was shot while Vincenzo Petrullo was carrying out fieldwork among the Yaruro (today often referred to in academic literature as Pumé) living along the Capanaparo river in Apure state. Who shot the material is not entirely clear as Petrullo himself appears in shot at one point. However, whoever it was, it is clear that they had little camera expertise.

After some initial shots of llanero cowboys, most of the film consists of sequences of the Pumé engaged in craft activities, or fishing from canoes. As Dr. Russell Greaves points out on the Penn Museum website, the pristine nature of the loincloths that many younger people are wearing, as well as the sun tan lines on the upper bodies of the women suggest that Petrullo had asked his subjects to take off the clothing that they would normally have been wearing and dress in traditional loincloths only.

Similarly,  the teenagers shooting fish with bow and arrow while standing up in their narrow canoes appear to be performing for the camera in that they look up to get a cue, and then having dispatched their arrow take no interest in whether they might have shot a fish. It is still possible, however, to admire the feat of doing so.

Towards the end of the footage there are some engaging portraits of individual Pumé. One of these is particularly interesting as it is of a woman with series of bone pins beneath her lower lip. She also appears to have some face painting (though this may be no more than scratches on the film!) (see above). According to Greaves, Petrullo claims that this woman is Otomaco, a once  numerous ethnic group in the middle Orinoco region and one that featured frequently in the Jesuit chronicles of the eighteenth century,  but long extinct as a viable social group.

Carajá, Os [The Karajá] (1947) – dir. Heinz Förthmann *

Os Carajá begins with a series of heroic portraits. Here the subject carries the circular tatto on his cheek that is a distinguishing marker of the Karajá.

13:34, b&w, sound – extradiegetic music, Portuguese voice-over commentary and titles.

Production : Serviço de Proteção aos Índios (SPI)

Source : Museu do Índio. A poor copy is viewable here.

This film mainly concerns the inspection of the SPI posts on the Araguaia and Río das Mortes rivers, and as is usual with SPI productions of the 1940s, it is covered with what now seems quite absurd extra-diegetic music and an extravagant voice-over commentary.

However, in the first four minutes, there are some more ethnographic sequences that have been very beautifully shot by Heinz Förthmann. First, he offers a series of magnificent views of the Araguaia river followed by heroic head-and-shoulder portraits of individual Karajá (highly reminiscent of the indigenous portraits in Sergei Eisenstein’s classic film, ¡Que Viva México!).

There is then a brief sequence of men engaged in ceremonial dancing (the Aruanã festival filmed at greater length by Harald Schultz) and another slightly more extended sequence of men wrestling. This is then followed by sequences of two women, one of whom is making a ritual adornment, the other working with pestle and mortar.

But at this point a map appears, and the film thereafter is dedicated to informational matters and an SPI medical expedition to the Karajá.




Excursão às nascentes do Xingu [Expedition to the Xingu River Headwaters] (1944) – Nilo de Oliveira Velloso

52 mins., b&w, sound – voice-over commentary in Portuguese, extradiegetic classical European music

Source : Museo do Índio, can also be viewed on-line in a poor copy here

Expedition film covered with absurd classical music (e.g the Blue Danube waltz music), and uneven cinematography by Nilo de Oliveira Velloso (Heinz Förthmann was the sound-recordist on this occasion), but there are some interesting sequences nevertheless.

This post is a stub and will be developed later.

© 2018 Paul Henley