Förthmann, Heinz (1915-1978)*

Heinz Förthmann with the principal subjects of Os Índios “Urubus” (1950), the Kaapor family, Xiyra and her son Beren, and her husband Kosó. Photograph by Darcy Ribeiro, Acervo Heinz Förthmann.

Heinz Förthmann (sometimes referred to as Henrique Forthmann or Foerthmann) was probably the most accomplished of all early ethnographic film-makers in Brazil, but his best films exist only in degraded or fragmentary form, or have been lost entirely, and he has therefore not received the recognition that he deserves, even within Brazil.

Förthmann was born in Hanover, in Germany, but as a teenager, he moved to Brazil with his family and settled in Porto Alegre in southern Brazil. Here his older sister married the brother of Harald Schultz, the head of the Seção de Estudos of the Serviço de Proteção aos Índios (SPI). After a period working in a photographic and design studio, it was through his connection with Schultz that Förthmann was recruited into the Seção de Estudos in 1942.

Schultz encouraged him to take a basic course in cinematography, but initially Förthmann worked for the SPI as a photographer and later as sound-recordist before eventually beginning to direct his own films around 1946.

Förthmann’s  first films were mostly informational works about SPI posts, though they sometimes also included ethnographic passages, as in Os Carajá. Notwithstanding the informational subject matter, these films showed that Förthmann was a highly talented cinematographer and as a director, of a generally more artistic inclination than his mentor, Harald Schultz.

In his later works for the SPI, Förthmann collaborated with the eminent Brazilian anthropologist, Darcy Ribeiro, who had also by then joined the Seçao de Estudos. With Förthmann contributing his cinematographic skills and Ribeiro his anthropological expertise, they shared the direction of two substantial ethnographic films: Os Índios “Urubus”, released in 1950,  and then, in 1953, a film about a Bororo funeral.

Sadly, the original negative of the first of these films was destroyed in a fire in the Cinemateca Brasileira in 1982, and the film now appears to exist only in a degraded form without the original soundtrack, while the Bororo funeral film was never completed and now exists only as an incomplete rough cut.

In the later 1950s, with the SPI facing severe budgetary cuts, Förthmann reluctantly went to work in the US with an American producer on some 16mm colour films that he had shot in the Xingu Park, but these too were not finished for budgetary reasons and now appear to be lost. While he was away in the US, his contract with the SPI was terminated on the grounds that he had neglected his duties in Brazil.

Heinz Förthmann in later life

In 1959, Förthmann returned to Brazil and spent the last fifteen years of his life at the Universidade de Brasilia, where along with informational films about architecture, he also shot some short films in the Xingu Park, including the charming Jornada Kamayurá (1966).

Förthmann’s last film, Rito Krahô, concerned the sweet potato festival of the Kraho of Central Brazil, the indigenous group with whom his mentor, Harald Schultz,  had made many films. This film was shot in 1971-1973 but it was not until some fifteen years after Förthmann’s death in 1978, aged only 63, that the editing was undertaken by his former student, Marcos de Souza Mendes. It was finally released in 2015 on the centenary of Förthmann’s birth.

A filmed interview about the shooting of this film with the anthropologist Júlio Cézar Melatti, who acted as an adviser, and which includes a numer of clips, is available here.

Texts : Mendes 2006, Mendes 2011, Arruda 2013, Labaki 2015. An extensive filmography of Heinz Förthmann can be found on website of the Cinemateca Brasileira.

On the Life of the Taulipang in Guiana – Film Documents from 1911 {Aus dem Leben der Taulipang in Guayana – Filmdokumente aus dem Jahre 1911} (1911/1962) – Theodor Koch-Grünberg *

Two boys show off their skills with string figures – On the Life of the Taulipang in Guiana (1911/1962) – dir. Theodor Koch-Grünberg.

10 mins. , b&w,  silent, German titles and intertitles.

Production: Institut für den Wissenschaftlichen Film

Source : IWF/TIB collection, viewable here


This film is of particular historical interest since it is based on what is probably the first footage ever shot in an indigenous Amazonian community.

It consists of a  compilation of short sequences shot in September 1911 in the indigenous village of Koimélemon, located in the Surumu river valley in the state of Roraima, in the north of Brazil, very close to the Venezuelan border. The first half of the film mostly shows young women engaged in various domestic subsistence tasks. These are then followed by two sequences about boys’ games and a concluding sequence showing the parishara, a collective dance.

The original material was shot by the pioneer Amazonist anthropologist, Theodor Koch-Grünberg and his field assistant, Hermann Schmidt, towards the end of a six-week stay in Koimélemon. This visit is described at some length in the first volume of Koch-Grünberg’s classic work, Vom Roraima zum Orinoco, first published in German in 1917, and republished in Spanish in 1979 (see ‘Texts’ below).

Koimélemon (‘village of honey’) was unusually large. Photograph by Theodor Koch-Grünberg, Plate 4, Vom Roraima zum Orinoco (1917).

Koch-Grünberg relates that at the time of his visit, Koimélemon  (meaning literally, ‘village of honey’) had only recently been established and that it was unusually large for indigenous villages of the region, numbering around 400 people when all the houses were occupied. (Most indigenous villages of this region would probably have numbered 50 people or less).

Taulipang girls at Koimélemon. Photograph  by Theodor Koch-Grümberg. Plate 6, Vom Roraima zum Orinoco (1917).

Koch-Grünberg attributes this large population in part to the presence of a nearby Catholic mission and in part to the prestige of its headman, both of which had attracted people from villages further afield. However,  the natural resources in the vicinity of Koimélemon were not sufficient to sustain such a large population all year round, and many families would return to their own villages for part of the year.

Young Wapishana women.  Plate 5, Vom Roraima zum Orinoco (1917).

The title of the film refers only to the Taulipang, who are a subgroup of the Pemon,  a Carib-speaking people distributed widely throughout the region. But many of the inhabitants of the village, including the headman, were Makushi, another Pemon subgroup, whose dialect and culture are very similar to those of the Taulipang. There were also a number of Wapishana, members of an Arawak-speaking group who had moved south from what was then British Guiana. Many of them were women married to Taulipang or Makushi men.

Although the original material was shot in 1911, it was not until 1962 that it was organised into this compilation by Werner Rutz, then a young producer working with the IWF in Göttingen (and later a distinguished professor of geography at the University of Bochum).

Rutz was advised by Otto Zerries (1914-1999), a leading German Amazonist of the period, though one whose principal research concerned the Yanomamï, a group whose territory lies some distance to the west of the region where Koch-Grünberg was working, and who, culturally-speaking, are very different to the Taulipang. In 1964, Zerries published a study guide to accompany the compilation (see ‘Texts’ below).

Rutz made the compilation on the basis of footage that the Swiss anthropologist and photographer, René Fürst, had come across in the Museum für Völkerkunde (now the Five Continents Museum) in Munich. This material was contained in a number of dusty old film cans bearing Koch-Grünberg’s name, which had probably been deposited with the museum by his widow Else, at some point after his premature death in 1924.

Being an Amazonia specialist, Fürst recognised the potential value of the material and made the necessary contacts for it to be sent to Göttingen, where due to the fire-risk associated with the original nitrate film-stock, it was transferred to safety film.

In Vom Roraima, Koch-Grünberg reports that he also made some phonograph sound recordings whilst he was in Koimélemon, though what happened to these is not clear.

The material sent to Göttingen consisted of some 500m of 35mm film, which at 16 fps, would have had a total running time of around 25 minutes. But due to the general deterioration the material, only ten minutes were in a sufficiently sound state to be included in the compilation.

Interestingly, it was not raw footage:  it had clearly been edited and included both titles and intertitles. This suggests that it had originally formed part of the footage that Koch-Grünberg shot for Express-Film, a Freiburg-based production company that  had provided him with a camera and 3000m of film-stock, sufficient to shoot almost three hours of material.

The material on the Taulipang was originally supposed to have formed part of a series of travelogues shot by the professional cameraman and also founder of Express-Film, Bernhard Gotthart (1871-1950). These covered such topics as local fauna, life along the Amazon river, the hustle and bustle of Manaus, even the Brazilian military. But having shot the material for these films, Gotthart was suddenly obliged to return to Germany, leaving Koch-Grünberg, with Schmidt’s assistance, to shoot the material on the Taulipang himself.

Express-Film later released three films based on Koch-Grünberg’s footage: two short films, Leben in einem Indianerdorf (Life in an Indian Village) and Der Parischerátanz der Taulipang (The Parishara Dance of the Taulipang), and a longer film to accompany Koch-Grünberg’s lectures, Sitten und Gebräuche der Taulipang (Habits and Customs of the Taulipang).

All these films appear in an international catalogue of films for sale published in 1913, the same year as Koch-Grünberg returned to Germany. It seems very probable that the material discovered in Munich and used to cut this compilation film consisted of fragments of one or more of these earlier films.

Koch-Grünberg had received some introductory training in practical film-making from Express-Film prior to his departure for Brazil. He was, moreover, an experienced and highly accomplished still photographer. Even so, he found the experience of using a moving image camera highly exasperating.

As he describes in Vom Roraima, even though he followed the instructions to the letter, the film kept jamming and in order to unload and then reload the camera, he had to huddle inside a tent that served as his darkroom in temperatures of up to 35°C.  It was hard, all-consuming work – he even found himself dreaming about cranking the handle of the camera in the middle of the night.

Young women hold boards studded with stones as they prepare to grate manioc roots into a trough. In some shots, as here, the subjects almost disappear out of the left of frame.

Although the final results were reasonably good in a straightforwardly technical sense, they are distinctly limited in a more cinematographic sense. Much of the material is shot at a considerable distance from the subjects and all from a single position. The framing is often poor, with the action so far over to one side that it almost disappears, as in the shot above.

The modest quality of the cinematography would no doubt have contributed to the lack of commercial success of the films produced by Express-Film. Although in Vom Roraima Koch-Grünberg expresses some satisfaction with the quality of his work, more generally he was not convinced of the value of film as medium for ethnographic research. In later correspondence with a colleague, he would describe his films as a mere “embellishment” for his lectures.

Nevertheless, as Zerries observes in the study guide, although Koch-Grünberg’s material may suffer from  various  technical deficiencies, it remains important from an historical point of view.

Film Content

Theodor Koch-Grünberg in Koimélemong village with this hosts. On his right is Pita, the headman of the village. They are sitting on carved wooden stools, a sign of their prestige, while the younger men are squatting or standing. In Vom Roraima, Koch-Grünberg reports that Pita had dressed up for the occasion of the film, donning a cyclist’s cap incongruously bearing the logo ‘Tiptop’.

The film begins with at a shot of Koch-Grünberg himself surrounded by his indigenous hosts as he waits to be served with some food by a young woman. At one point, he signals to the camera with a beckoning gesture, presumably intending to indicate to Schmidt that he should begin shooting.

There is then a series of sequences showing young women engaged in domestic subsistence activities: grinding maize in a hole in the ground with a long pole, grating manioc roots (see image above) and extracting the juice of the resulting manioc mash by means of the long cylindrical basket known as a tipití. A woman is then shown setting up a loom to weave a hammock. In a photograph that appears in Vom Roraima, obviously taken at the same time, she is identified as Wapishana.

A Wapishana woman prepares a framework for weaving a cotton hammock.

With the possible exception of this last sequence, all these sequences were clearly performed for the camera and they are generally very wooden. The subjects keep looking up at the camera to make sure that they are doing what is required. At one point in the first sequence, a clothed arm momentarily appears from the left, pointing. Presumably this was either Koch-Grünberg or Schmidt telling the subjects what to do.

The absence of any sequences of men’s subsistence tasks or crafts in the compilation is striking and highly unusual for films of this period.  Basket-weaving, the making of bows and arrows, house-building etc., all primarily male tasks, predominate in most early ethnographic films about the region.  It seems entirely probable that sequences dealing with these topics would have been among the material that has been lost or was too deteriorated to use.

The women’s subsistence sequences are followed by two sequences showing boys’ games. The first of these (see the image at the head of this entry) shows two boys making string figures, a topic of inexplicably great interest to many early ethnographers. This sequence is closer and more intimate, and generally more lively, than any of the other sequences in the film. The boys are clearly enjoying showing off their skills.

The other sequence is of a game involving maize shuttlecocks, but this is very brief and shot from very far away. Since the shuttlecocks themselves are barely visible, Zerries helpfully provides a drawing of them in the study guide.

The final sequence concerns a large collective performance of the parishara dance in the centre of the village. This was arranged at Koch-Grünberg’s request specifically for the purpose of filming and visitors came from far and wide to take part, swelling village numbers to over 500. Some 200 people actually joined in the dancing , a much greater number than would normally participate in a dance, and many had taken great trouble to dress up in their finest feather crowns and ceremonial palm-leaf skirts.

The parishara dance in the centre of Koimélemong as performed for the film. Some 200 people participated, much greater than the usual number.

Köch-Grünberg found this sequence particularly frustrating to shoot as the film-stock kept jamming and he was constantly having to reload and ask the dancers to start again, which completely undermined their spontaneity. As a result, rather than dancing in a lively manner, as is usually the case with the parishara, the dancers appear to be simply walking round and round in some sort of leaden-footed carnival pageant.

Texts : Rutz 1963, Zerries 1964, Koch-Grünberg 1979, pp.47-78, 90, 93;  Hempel 2009, p.205n18; Fuhrmann 2013, pp. 45-50.

Cinemateca Brasileira, São Paulo

This is the Brazilian national film archive, dedicated to the conservation of master copies of films of all kinds. It holds copies on DVD or videotape of a number of early films of ethnographic interest by Luiz Thomas Reis, Silvino Santos, Heinz Forthmann, Darcy Ribeiro and others, but the original materials of at least some of these appear to have been destroyed in a large fire in 1982.

In addition to an on-line data base of its current holdings, the Cinemateca also offers a comprehensive on-line data base of Brazilian films generally, including early ethnographic films that appear to have been definitively lost. This may be accessed here.

Museu de Arqueologia e Etnologia (MAE), Universidade de São Paulo (USP)

Visitors to the MAE can be provided with on-line access to the  large collection of short films made by the German-Brazilian anthropologist Harald Schultz across Brazilian Amazonia in the period 1944-1965. Details of these can be accessed via the search engine of the MAE’s research collection catalogue here.

With the exception of his first two films, which he made whilst he was working with the Serviço de Proteção aos Índios (SPI), Schultz shot his films after he became a member of the research staff of the Museu Paulista in 1947. All his films, even the first two, were later ‘published’, i.e. produced and released, by the Encyclopaedia Cinematographica, of the Institut für den Wissenschaftlichen Film (IWF) in Göttingen, Germany. However, copies of these films were retained in São Paulo and when the Museu Paulista transferred its ethnographic collection to the MAE, these copies of Schultz’s films were transferred too. 

When the IWF closed down in 2015, the master copies of the Encyclopaedia Cinematographica were transferred to the TIB, the German National Library. Details of Schultz’s films held by the TIB are available here.

Museu do ĺndio, Rio de Janeiro

A dependency of the Fundação Nacional do ĺndio (FUNAI), the principal federal government agency responsible for indigenous affairs, the Museu do Índio holds a significant collection of films of ethnographic interest, most of which were made during the 1940s and 1950s, but going as far back as 1912. The majority of these films were made under the auspices of either the Comissão Rondon, a government agency charged with opening of the interior of Brazil between the 1890s and the 1930s, or the Serviço da Protecçao aos ĺndios (SPI), the predecessor institution of FUNAI, originally set up in 1910 in association with the Comissão Rondon.

These films are available as DVDs that may be consulted in the library of the Museu do Índio, but recently a number have also been made available in the form of a YouTube playlist which can be accessed here.

A general catalogue of the Museu’s audiovisual holdings is available here

Funeral Bororo, fragmentos (1953) – Heinz Förthmann and Darcy Ribeiro*

The Elder chants during the decoration of the bones – Funeral Bororo (1953), dir. Heinz Förthmann and Darcy Ribeiro.

41 mins., b&w, silent.

Production: Serviço de Proteção aos Índios (SPI).

Source: Museu do Índio, Rio de Janeiro. Viewable on the web here.


If this film had been finished, it would undoubtedly now be regarded as one of the high points of ethnographic film history, not only within Brazil, but more generally, across the world.

Even as it stands, this work is far from being the mere ‘fragments’ that its conventional title suggests. In fact, it would be more accurate to describe it as an almost-final rough cut. It may lack titles and intertitles, and have no soundtrack, but the image track has clearly been very carefully edited and possesses a clearly identifiable narrative thread.

There are certain redundancies and inconsistencies, but otherwise it seems very close to completion from a visual point of view – apart, that is, from the very obvious absence of the last phase of the funeral that is its principal subject matter. It is not clear whether this absence is because the original footage has been lost or because it was never filmed in the first place.

The original material was shot during visits to two different Bororo communities in Mato Grosso state, Central Brazil. The first of these took place in November and early December 1952, when Heinz Förthmann travelled to Pobore, on the middle reaches of the São Lourenço river. The other took place towards the middle of 1953 and involved a visit by both Förthmann and Darcy Ribeiro to Córrego Grande, a village located to the southwest of Pobore, on the lower reaches of the São Lourenço.

Förthmann and Ribeiro had previously collaborated on making Os Índios “Urubus” (shot and released in 1950) among the Kaapor, who live on the boundary of Maranhão and Para states in the northeast of Brazil. At the time, both men were members of the Seção de Estudos of the Serviço de Proteção aos Índios (SPI). While sharing the directorial role, Förthmann had contributed his cinematographic skills and Ribeiro his anthropological expertise. It seems that they envisaged a similar division of labour when filming with the Bororo.

In 1952, Ribeiro had been appointed head of the Seção de Estudos and had received a large grant from UNESCO to study ‘racial democracy’ in Brazil. Ribeiro proposed to use this grant to examine the process of assimilation of the indigenous population into Brazilian society. It was initially in this context that he commissioned Förthmann to film in Pobore.

In a letter to Ribeiro reporting on his visit to Pobore, seemingly written in early 1953, Förthmann states that he had shot some 2000m of film (around 70 minutes) on a variety of subjects, mentioning particularly various fishing activities. Although he had also filmed certain ritual events, including a symbolic mourning ceremony, he does not mention the filming of a funeral as such (see Souza Mendes 2006, pp. 279-280).

Moreover, at this point, Förthmann clearly did not envisage any further filming with the Bororo since he ends the letter by commenting on the film stock that will be needed for a forthcoming project to be shot among the indigenous groups of the upper Xingu river.

Cadete and Rondon, Cörrego Grande, probably in 1943.  Photograph by Heinz Förthmann. Acervo Heinz Förthmann. Reproduced in Souza Mendes 2006, p.311.

However, shortly afterwards, General Cândido Rondon, the original founder of the SPI in 1910, and still the chairman of the body overseeing the organisation, received a telegram from Córrego Grande inviting him to attend the funeral of Cadete, a senior Bororo headman.

Rondon, who was of part-Bororo inheritance himself, had known Cadete for many years. But as he was by then in his late 80s, he asked Ribeiro to attend the funeral on his behalf. He also recorded a message, in Bororo, on an early audio recorder, telling the people of Córrego Grande that they should consider Ribeiro to be his eyes, ears and mouth, and asking them to allow him and Förthmann to make a film so that he could see the funeral, even though he was not able to attend in person.

However, when Ribeiro and Förthmann arrived at Córrego Grande, they discovered that an epidemic of smallpox had broken out and that several other people had died as well as Cadete. Ribeiro therefore returned to Rio to seek further medical supplies, urging the Bororo to minimize the risk of further contagion  by postponing any major ceremonial events connected with the funeral.

Förthmann was left to administer the medecines that he and Ribeiro had brought with them and to film whatever might happen in Ribeiro’s absence. In the event, as Ribeiro was away for some time, Förthmann filmed almost everything by himself, as well as recording some eight hours of funeral chanting.

During much of the shoot, Förthmann was not able to control the action through a careful mise-en-scène, as was his usual practice. Instead, he found himself obliged to shoot hand-held, simply following events as they unfolded.

After the filming was completed, a preliminary assembly of the material appears to have been made. A ten-minute sequence of this assembly was even screened at the 31st International Congress of Americanists which was held in São Paulo in August 1954 under the aegis of Ribeiro’s academic mentor, Herbert Baldus.

But due to the chronic underfunding of the Seçao de Estudos, before the editing of the material was completed, Förthmann was obliged to move on to the Xingu project when the opportunity arose to collaborate with a US producer, James W. Marshall.

Neither Förthmann nor Ribeiro ever had the opportunity to finalize the edit. Ribeiro left the SPI in 1957 while Förthmann’s Xingu project dragged on for a number of years, eventually requiring him to move to the US for a period. But all this effort proved to be in vain since this project was also never finished. In his absence, in 1958, Förthmann was released by the SPI on the grounds that he was neglecting his responsibilities in Brazil.

The original negatives of all the material shot by Förthmann among the Bororo in 1952-53 appear to be definitively lost. What happened to the eight hours of audio recordings that he made in Córrego Grande is not clear.

The rough cut of the funeral that is available today on-line is based on four rolls of printing negative discovered by chance in a deteriorated condition in the 1970s in a warehouse of the Brazilian state film company, Embrafilme (now no longer in existence). These were first sent to the Cinemateca Brasileira and then to the Museu do Índio. The museum is to be warmly congratulated for having recently put this material up on the web.

Film Content

On the basis of content, the rough cut available on the web can be divided into four parts of not dissimilar lengths:

  • an introduction to the world of the Bororo and to certain personae of the film (8½ mins.)
  • the initial burial of the corpse and the subsequent dancing  and chanting in the central plaza of the village (14 mins.)
  • the exhumation of the cadaver after the flesh has rotted and the washing of the bones in a marshy savanna outside the village (10 mins.)
  • the decoration of the skull and other bones in the men’s house (8½ mins.)

In reality, the funeral would have concluded with an expedition by canoe, involving men only, to a nearby lagoon, during which a basket containing the bones of the deceased would have been lowered to its final resting place at the bottom of the lagoon.

Although this scene is described very graphically by Darcy Ribeiro in his novel, Maíra, (cited at length in Souza Mendes 2006, pp.307-08), there is no firm evidence that he witnessed this phase of the funeral himself, nor that it was filmed by Förthmann.

This is not the only part of the traditional Bororo funeral that is ‘missing’ from this account. Comparison with earlier films by Luiz Thomaz Reis and by Dina and Claude Lévi-Strauss, as well as the many textual accounts, suggests that there is much that is also missing from the coverage in second part of the cut, i.e. the material concerning the dancing and chanting that typically take place between the first burial and the exhumation of the cadaver once the flesh has rotted.

However, particularly when used in conjunction with these other accounts, the material presented in this cut is nevertheless of inestimable value as ethnographic reportage, particularly given the remarkably high standard of the cinematography.

Part One – Introduction (8½ mins.)

In terms both of content and of style, this part is very different to the rest of the cut. There is not only no direct reference to the principal theme, i.e. the funeral, but also, in contrast to the largely observational style in the remainder of the cut, it is structured around a very skilfully constructed mise-en-scène, with apparent references to well-known cinematic works. These differences suggest that this part may have been shot in Pobore, during Förthmann’s first visit.

The part begins with a dramatic shot, set on a wide river, of a young boy being ferried to school in a canoe paddled by an elderly man. This boy is apparently being set up as a character who will guide the audience through the film as a sort of proxy witness, in the manner of Alexander, the young boy in Robert Flaherty’s Louisiana Story (1948).

‘Racial democracy’ in action: indigenous, white and black children sit side-by-side at school.

We then see the Bororo Boy sitting at his school desk surrounded by other pupils. Close-ups establish that they represent the three principal groups that make up the ‘racial democracy’ of Brazil. While most of the children are clearly indigenous, with some even wearing face paint, one shot shows two boys, one Black, one white European, sharing a desk. This shot appears to be a reference to the agenda of the UNESCO research project that Darcy Ribeiro had sought to develop through commissioning Förthmann’s shoot in Pobore.

The Boy opens a book and looks out of the window at the side of the classroom. A line of peasants are shown walking past, with their digging tools over their shoulders, as if they were soldiers. This must surely be a reference to an almost identical scene in All Quiet on the Western Front, the classic 1930 anti-war film directed by Lewis Milestone, with which Förthman would surely have been familiar, in which German school boys are encouraged to fulfill their duty to the fatherland and join the army. The message here seems analogous:  the children are apparently being encouraged to join the noble ranks of the Brazilian peasantry.

However, the film-makers apparently have other ideas for this scene gives way to  one in which the children head off in a large canoe and are shown in an idyllic bathing place upriver, entirely naked in the case of the boys, and only lightly clothed in the case of the girls.

This scene is quickly followed by another in which The Boy is ferried downstream by the same elderly canoeist as we saw earlier in the film in order to take part in a fish poisoning. Though this is very brief, it seems quite likely that this would have been one of the fishing scenes that Förthmann spoke of in his letter to Ribeiro about his visit to Pobore.

An intriguing moment in this sequence is when The Boy swims across a stream on his way to join the fishing expedition. As he does so, he holds a bow out of the water. This is no ordinary bow, however: it is a boeiga, a ritual bow, as indicated by the feathers dangling down from it. The boiega anticipates the theme of the film as a whole since its presence is a sign that the fishing expedition is taking place in preparation for a funeral.

After the fishing sequence, the film acccompanies The Boy as he walks into a village with a line of men carrying large fishing nets over their shoulders. This arrival is reinforced by a somewhat brusque pan across the village. This village is not identified but it seems likely that it is Pobore, particularly as it looks somewhat different to the village seen later in the film, which is certainly Córrego Grande.

The Elder explains the village layout to The Boy –

– men’s house in the centre, matrilineal clan houses on the periphery.

The Boy is now seated beside a very craggy Elder who will also appear at various points in the film acting as a linking thread between the various parts. The Elder draws out the celebrated circular plan of the typical Bororo village in the sand, with the large men’s house in the middle and the matrilineally-defined clan houses around the periphery. After further shots of the houses themselves, The Elder is then shown pointing them out one-by-one and talking about them.

The introductory part of the cut concludes with two shots of young men in traditional Bororo dress, before finally ending with a relatively lengthy sequence of a group of domesticated macaws in the branches of a tree in the centre of the village. This may well have been intended as a segue into the funeral theme since the Bororo believe that the aroe, the spirits of the dead can take up residence in these birds.

Part Two – Initial burial and subsequent events in the villlage plaza (14 mins.)

This part begins with a sequence of a corpse being wrapped in a woven mat in the centre of the bororo, i.e. the plaza of the village, by a group of men. The camera is unforgiving in a manner that some viewers may find ethically disturbing since, judging by the many photographs taken of him in life, the corpse appears to be that of Cadete himself.

The mat containing Cadete’s corpse is then lowered into a shallow grave and as in the Reis film, a woman pours water over the corpse to speed the process of decomposition. This is the first stage in the process of turning the deceased into an aroe, a spirit.  Other women then use hoes to fill the grave with earth.

Shortly afterwards, we see what is apparently a second corpse wrapped in its mat and a young man chanting beside it.

We also see many other ritual and ceremonial events that typically follow a first burial.

A very old woman with her head shaven as a sign of mourning is shown grieving in a private manner: we might surmise that she is Cadete’s widow.

Two men dressed in fine pariko headdresses mourn in a more public manner, striking jaguar hides on the ground (as also shown in the Reis film) while periodically throwing their heads back in grief.

There is also a very well-executed sequence of dancing with the marid’do, the large rings made of palm leaves and branches, 1.5m in diameter and weighing at least 60kgs, that at a certain point men hoist onto their heads.

Further fine shots, taken from interesting low angles, show the dancing and chanting, as the men move in a circular fashion around a grave. In the foreground are bows or staves decorated with feather headdresses and other ritual paraphenalia that have been planted in the grave.

There are many perceptive shots of detail too, such as the close-up of a young man playing a powari-aroe, the small gourd that functions as a musical instrument evoking the voice of a particular deceased relative. Another close-up shows a four-chambered pana, a sort of trumpet made from gourds glued together with resin. This is thought to reproduce the voice of Itubore, the ancestral spirit that rules over the eastern part of the Bororo village.

The ritual activities following the initial burial are complex and varied, and impossible to cover exhaustively in a brief passage of film

But the interlude between first burial and exhumation can last in reality for several weeks, and during this time, many ritual events can take place. Inevitably therefore, in a part lasting only 14 minutes, there are many absences. In the case of the particular funeral represented in this rough cut, it is also quite possible that the extent of the ritual activities was much reduced on account of the threat posed by the smallpox epidemic.

These absences relate particularly to the supposed attendance of the aroe, the spirits of the dead. According to Bororo belief, the aroe attend a funeral ceremony by taking over the bodies of living dancers. Their presence is revealed by particular forms of body decoration, modes of dancing or musical instruments. In effect, living men become aroe. The voices of aroe are said to be contained in the whirring of bull-roarers around the plaza while women and children are safely enclosed within the houses.

The aroe-maiwu typically wears a visor of yellow feathers, as here, but his face is usually also covered by a veil of women’s hair.

Even the spirit of the recently deceased person is said to attend their own funeral in the form of the aroe-maiwu, a dancer who dresses and dances in a very particular way. The aroe-maiwu is supposed to bring the period of mourning to an end by killing a jaguar and presenting its hide to the relatives of the deceased.

But apart from a brief moment where two men in wasp-like costumes dance together, and the even briefer shots of the powari-aroe and the pana, any direct allusion to the attendance of the aroe, while present to a limited extent in the Reis and Lévi-Strauss films, is almost entirely absent here.

Also absent is the initiation of young boys, an event which normally accompanies a Bororo funeral and as shown by Reis, also involves men embodying the spirits of the dead. Nor is there any reference to the burning of the possessions of the deceased person whose funeral it is, though this is a feature that is missing in the other films also.

A particularly important missing element in this part of the film are the women of the village, who in the Reis film, are shown playing a much more active role in the dancing than they do here. In this film, they are only to be glimpsed in the background.

The Boy appears only briefly in this part, and is not seen again in the cut.

Another, more editorial, absence is that of The Boy, who is seen only briefly in this part. The role of providing narrative continuity is in effect assigned in this part to The Elder, who appears at various points. Moreover, in contrast to The Boy, who disappears completely from the film after this part, the Elder will re-appear later.

This part of the film is eventually rounded off with a fine scene of the dancers refreshing themselves, drinking from large gourds. This refreshment typically takes place immediately after the male initiation ceremony. What the men are drinking is noa kuru, which is water mixed with tabatinga clay and sweetened with honey or grated palm heart –  the preferred drink of the aroe.

The final shot of this part is the first in which there is a direct shot of the women, sitting on the sidelines, observing the proceedings with interest. This is indeed the normal order of events at a Bororo funeral since it is only after the initiation ceremony is completed and the men have begun to refresh themselves with noa kuru that the women appear.

Part Three – Exhumation and Washing of Bones (10 mins.)

Although the subject matter is certainly striking, from an editorial point of view this part of the film is very straightforward.

In effect, it is structured around a simple linear process narrative, beginning with the exhumation of the palm mat containing what is now only the skeleton of the deceased and continuing with its transportation, slung from a pole, to a marshy savanna outside the village. Here it is opened and the skull and all the other bones are carefully washed and placed in a basket.

A young man in a straw headdress sits by the skull (bottom right) as it dries out

There is then a scene in which a young man, wearing a remarkable headdress, is shown sitting by the skull. This has been placed next to a smouldering fire, presumably to dry it out. Other men stand around, looking solemn, but they do not include The Elder, nor The Boy.

In this part too, the cinematography is excellent: Förthmann follows the process itself very effectively and makes good use of the long reeds of the marsh to show human figures evanescently appearing and disappearing.

However, editorially, there is a relatively high redundancy of shots in this part, suggesting that it is rather less finished than the other parts.

The part ends in a very classical fashion with the action returning to where it began, i.e. with men returning to the village, shot from a low angle, where they deposit the baskets of bones in the centre of the plaza.

Part Four – Decoration of the Bones (8½ mins.)

The final part of the rough cut follows the climax of the funeral ceremony, which takes place within the men’s house. While the men paint the skull red with urucu, decorate it with feathers and set it within a basketry tray filled with down, the women wail, chant and clap in grief, and feverishly lacerate their bodies, collecting their blood to scatter over the bones as if to restore to them some semblance of the flesh that has decayed.

Among the mourners is the elderly woman whom we saw at the beginning of the second part of the cut, whom we presumed to be Cadete’s widow. Her face is deeply scarred through self-laceration. Meanwhile a group of men, wearing headdresses and abundant face paint, each shaking two large maracas, are chanting.

Among the singers is The Elder whom we saw in earlier parts of the film. There is no sign of The Boy, but fulfilling a similar narrative function as proxy witnesses are a young woman and even a small child watching intently, observing the ancestral tradition.

The cinematography in this part is again magnificent, with the subjects’ faces obliquely lit, presumably by means of a hole cut in the roof of the normally entirely enclosed men’s house. (Something that the subjects of Reis’s 1916 film would not allow him to do).

The editing is similarly refined and appears to be approximating a fine cut. As it is roughly the same length, it seems very likely that this part is in fact the assembly that was prepared for the 1954 Congress of Americanists.

Although this is not evident from the cut, normally the decoration of the skull takes place behind a screen because, in effect, this process converts the deceased person into a spirit, an aroe, which is something that women and children are not meant to see.

However, at a certain point a basketwork bundle containing the now-decorated skull is brought out from behind the screen and presented to the women mourners. The wailing and self-laceration of the women intensifies, as does the chanting of the men. Cadete’s widow cradles the bundle in her arms as if it were a child ….

But at this point, most unfortunately, both this part and the rough cut as a whole comes to an abrupt end.

TextsCaiuby Novaes 2006a, Caiuby Novaes 2006b, Souza Mendes 2006, Souza Mendes 2011, Caiuby Novaes 2016, Caiuby Novaes, Cunha and Henley 2017,

See also the filmed interview with Darcy Ribeiro about the making of this film, directed by Maureen Bisilliat (1990).

Many thanks to Sylvia Caiuby Novaes for her comments on this entry.

Índios “Urubus”, Os : a vida diaria numa aldeia indígena da floresta tropical [The “Urubu” Indians : daily life in an indigenous village in the tropical forest] (1950) – dir. Heinz Förthmann and Darcy Ribeiro*

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Nightfall – the end of a day-in-the-life of a young Kaapor family –  Os “Urubus” (1950), dir. Heinz Förthmann and Darcy Ribeiro.

38 mins., b&w, sound; in the original version, there was a voice-over commentary in Portuguese, and also a classical music sound-track.

Production : Seçao de Estudos, Serviço de Protecão aos Índios (SPI).

Source : The Museu do Índio, Rio de Janeiro holds a copy that may also be viewed on YouTube here. However, this copy has no soundtrack and is in very poor condition. It has also been stretched and is offered in a widescreen format instead of the original 4:3 aspect ratio

A somewhat differently ordered and abbreviated version of around 18 minutes but with the correct aspect ratio, is also available on YouTube here. This features an informal voice-over commentary by Darcy Ribeiro, one of the original film-makers. This seems to have been recorded in the mid-1990s.


This film was both shot and released in 1950, and was directed by the film-maker Heinz Förthmann and the anthropologist Darcy Ribeiro. Its subject is a day in the life of the “Urubu”, more commonly referred to today as the Kaapor or Ka’apor, a Tupi-speaking indigenous group who live in the northeast of Brazil, on the border between Maranhão and Pará states. It was the first of two film collaborations between Förthmann and Ribeiro, the other being a joint film project about the Bororo, shot in 1953.

At the time that they were filming with the Kaapor, both Förthmann and Ribeiro were members of the Seçao de Estudos of the Serviço de Protecão aos Índios (SPI). Originally recruited to the SPI as a photographer in 1942, Förthmann had started making films in 1946. His previous films had taken the form of reports about the work of particular SPI posts, though they might sometimes have also included more ethnographic passages. Os Índios “Urubus” was Förthmann’s first film that was unambiguously ethnographic in intention.

Ribeiro had been recruited to the SPI in 1947 as part of a more general initiative to base the development of future plans for the integration of indigenous groups into national life on first-hand research by anthropologists. Since joining the SPI, Ribeiro had made relatively brief visits to various indigenous groups in Mato Grosso. The filming expedition to the Kaapor was but one of several extended visits that he made to this group between 1949 and 1951.

The principal publications arising from Ribeiro’s fieldwork with the Kaapor were a  short book about their feather art, written jointly with his wife Berta Gleizer, published in 1957, and a very much more substantial diaristic account published in 1996, shortly before his death the following year.

The film was shot in and around three small Kaapor villages on the middle reaches of the Gurupí river, Maranhão state. The actual production took place over about a month in February and March 1950, and the finished film was released before the end of the year.

Initially, Ribeiro had very ambitious plans. He envisaged that the film would culminate in a sequence showing all the different stages of a child naming ceremony, the most important public ritual occasion for the Kaapor, when they would dance and sing, and appear in all their most elaborate feather ornaments.

However, he also wanted to show all the labour that went into such events in the form of hunting, the gathering of wild fruits and the harvesting of agricultural produce and the lengthy process of preparing all the food and drink necessary to satisfy the participants.

Ribeiro further envisaged that the person who bestowed the name would be one of his principal informants, Anakampukú, a headman with a prodigious genealogical memory, whom he also imagined relating  his experiences of warfare with a neighbouring group to the assembled company. The handing out of cigars to senior visitors would be another touch … (see Ribeiro 1996b, pp. 181-182)

In actual practice, Ribeiro was obliged to scale down the project considerably. When he and Förthmann arrived, the Gurupí river valley had recently been struck by a measles epidemic and many indigenous people had died. Although the film-makers provided medical attention as best they could, the general social dislocation caused by the epidemic meant that the celebration of a naming ceremony was out of the question.

 An additional consideration was Förthmann’s preferred way of working, which was to shoot according to a carefully prepared script, covering any particular scene with multiple takes from various different angles and with various different framings. He even had a make-shift dolly constructed by a local carpenter and used this for travelling shots in the Kaapor village where he shot most of the material. Although this approach produced images of excellent visual quality, it would undoubtedly have been extremely time-consuming.

This way of working also required the indigenous subjects to perform the same actions for the camera over and over again. If anyone looked at the camera, the take would be abandoned and another one started. While some subjects showed exemplary patience, others soon tired of these requests and declined to take any further part in the filming.

The film-makers also had to struggle with frequent days of rain or low light that made filming impossible. In order to finish the film within the time frame available, Ribeiro concluded that they should structure the film around a fictive day-in-the-life of a young couple, Kosó and Xiyra, and their two-year-old son, Beren. This small family became what Ribeiro referred to as the ‘cast’ of the film.

Heinz Förthmann with the ‘cast’ – Xiyra and Beren, Kosó. Photograph by Darcy Ribeiro, Acervo Heinz Förthmann.

Although Ribeiro makes no reference to Flaherty, this was the device that had been used to structure Nanook of the North (though in that case, the film actually covers two days in the life of Nanook and his family). It was also a device that Förthmann’s mentor, and the former head of the Seção de Estudos, Harald Schultz, had recommended as being suitable for SPI films aimed at the general public. Förthmann would use this device again later in his career in making a film about the Kamayura of the Xingu Park.

The day-in-the-life device had the great advantage of enabling the film-makers to yoke together various different aspects of Kaapor life within a single narrative story line. But it also had the downside that it could make the subjects’ daily life  seem unrealistically full.

There was also the problem that in confining the film to a very young couple, barely more than teenagers, it offered only a limited perspective on Kaapor society. The older and more experienced people who feature in Ribeiro’s writing about the Kaapor, a number of whom impressed him deeply, were by definition almost entirely excluded from the film.

In its final edited form, the original version of the film carried a soundtrack that featured both an informative, ethnological voice-over commentary and some extra-diegetic music. The commentary is reported to have been written by Ribeiro, though it is not indicated in the film credits who actually performed it. The music track is reported to be  La Mer, a symphonic sketch by Claude Debussy, though again there is no indication as to who performed it for the film.

Why this music was chosen is unclear. It seems a rather strange choice,  particularly since Förthmann is reported to have taken a Pierce Wire recorder to the field and to have recorded flute music and other sound effects. The reason may simply have been that the sound-editing process would inevitably have been lengthy and therefore too costly for the Seção de Estudos budget. The films that Förthmann had previously made for the SPI had featured European classical music on the soundtrack, probably because clearing the rights of these works would have been easy and relatively cheap.

Tragically, the master copy of the sound version of the film was lost in a fire at the Cinemateca Brasileira in 1982. The only versions that seemingly now exist are the stretched and silent version at the Museu do Índio, which is in extremely poor condition, and the abbreviated version with an informal commentary by Darcy Ribeiro. (Both these versions are viewable on YouTube via the links given above. The transcript of Ribeiro’s original, more formal, voice-over text is reproduced in Souza Mendes 2006, pp. 199-218).

Very much more tragic than the fate of the film was that of the ‘cast’. Ribeiro reported in his field diary that not long after he left, first the baby Beren died, then shortly afterwards, both Kosó and Xiyra, devastated by their loss, seemingly lost the will to live and died also.

Film Content

Tupinamba women return from the fields with manioc roots (taken from Hans Staden, 1557)

The film begins with a series of woodcut prints that form the background to the opening titles. Although this is not indicated in the film, these come from the well-known account by Hans Staden, a German mercenary, first published in 1557, in which he described his period of captivity among the Tupinamba. They were one of a number Tupi-speaking indigenous groups who inhabited the Atlantic coast of Brazil in the early sixteenth century, when the Europeans first arrived.

These images are an allusion to the proposition that Ribeiro makes in his diary concerning the cultural continuity between these groups and the Tupi-speaking people of modern Brazil, including the Kaapor, particularly in relation to the way in which they have adapted to the local natural environment (Ribeiro 2006b, pp.18-19).

The main body of the film then opens with various shots of this natural environment, before, first some feet, and then some human bodies emerge from within the foliage. This is the young couple, Kosó and Xiyra, on their way back to their village.

Kosó is carrying a recently killed deer on his back, while Xiyra is carrying a large backpack of the precisely the kind carried by the Tupinamba women in the woocut print of the opening shot. Beren, their baby son, hangs from a sling around her neck.

This heavily directed sequence sets the tone for the film as a whole. The camera is everywhere: beside, in front and behind the protagonists. As they enter the village, there is a travelling shot, executed no doubt with the aid of the make-shift dolly: this is taken from behind the large collective house, with hanging baskets, hammocks, and other people in the foreground and the young couple beyond.

In his handwritten draft of the script, Förthmann had envisaged the opening sequence in precisely this way (see Souza Mendes 2006, p.262). For his part, Ribeiro reports that for some days, they had had a backpack full of fruit ready for Xiyra to carry, while they waited for someone to kill a deer.  When a yellow deer finally fell into a trap set by one of the film-makers’ assistants, they gave it to Xosó and shot the sequence immediately, taking advantage of one of the few days of full sunlight.

A complication was that the deer was of a species that it was normally taboo to bring into the village without butchering it first. But they managed to overcome their hosts’ scruples by offering to give the deer to the person who unloaded it from Xosó’s back. They were then able to film the smoking of the deer on a barbecue rack (Ribeiro 1996b, p.236).

An older man makes a sieve, one of the few shots of an older person.

This opening sequence is followed by various shots around the collective house showing a range of people engaged in everyday craft activities: a young man sharpens an arrow head while an older man weaves a sieve. A young woman weaves a cloth on a vertical loom, while another shows a child how to weave a hammock. The voice-over commentary maintains the fiction of the day-in-the-life device by suggesting that these activities are all taking place in the same early morning.

A rare moment of reflexivity as Kosó acknowledges Förthmann behind the camera.

This domestic sequence concludes with an intimate scene of Xosó and Xiyra painting one another with urucu. Xosó briefly acknowledges the camera, rupturing the ‘fourth wall’. Presumably Förthmann kept the shot because it was simply too good to lose.

At this point, about a quarter of the way into the film, the young couple set out for their gardens to harvest manioc. This is where the day-in-the-life device has produced a particularly unrealistic situation since it is very unlikely that having been hunting and gathering first thing in the morning that they would then set out again so soon for their gardens.

At six minutes, this is the longest sequence in the film and it is beautifully executed. The voice-over stresses the importance and labour-intensive nature of this horticultural work, explaining that it is equally divided, albeit in a complementary fashion, between men and women.

The sequence ends with a particularly engaging moment when the family stops at a stream on their return. While Xiyra bathes Beren, Xosó uses a leaf to improvise a beaker and, in close-up, takes a drink. The couple then proceeds, but before arriving at the village, they stop again to soak the manioc roots in another stream.

In the long version of the film, there is then a fade to black and in what the voice-over commentary unconvincingly claims is the heat of midday, Xosó is seen with another man making arrows. They exercise great skill as they straighten the shafts in a fire, attach the points and prepare the feathered flights. Two boys are then seen practising their archery skills.

This sequence, as reported by the leading French ethnographic film-maker Jean Rouch, particularly excited André Leroi-Gourhan, noted archaeologist and then director of the Musée de l’Homme in Paris (cited in Souza Mendes 2006, pp.190-191).

At the end of the scene of the boys practising their archery,  there is another fade to black before Xosó is again seen returning to the house with Xiyra, this time carrying backpacks of manioc pulp. The make-shift dolly again comes into operation as the camera withdraws in front of them as they arrive.

Manioc flour is dried out on a ceramic griddle.

This is the opening shot in another lengthy sequence showing the process whereby this pulp is turned into manioc flour, first by extracting the water through pressing it in a telescoping basketry device known as a tipití, then by sieving it, and finally by toasting it on an impressively large ceramic griddle.

This is supposedly ‘the afternoon’ according to the voice-over, though this does not make much sense according to the fictive chronology of the day-in-the-life diegesis. Not only has the lengthy and laborious process of peeling and grating the manioc been omitted, but three days are supposed to have elapsed since the manioc was shown being soaked in the stream in the ‘morning’.

In the abbreviated version of the film, the manioc processing sequence follows on directly from the soaking and the arrow-making is  then placed afterwards. Although this is in some ways more satisfactory, it still involves an editorial sleight of hand insofar as the manioc grating stage is concerned.

Kosó smokes a cigar in late afternoon sunlight.

The final quarter of the film, supposedly set in the late afternoon, shows the young family back at home. They eat and drink food prepared from the manioc flour by Xiyra. Beren plays with some pet birds and a young woman, possibly Xiyra, is shown feeding a bird by mouth. Kosó, exquisitely shot contre-jour in late afternoon sunlight is shown smoking a cigar.

The approaching night is then signalled by a series of classical cinematic tropes. In what is perhaps a reference to the conclusion of Nanook of the North, there are two shots of dogs asleep at dusk – though here they are settled snugly around a fire while in Nanook, the unfortunate creatures are shown hunkering down in a snowstorm outside, as Nanook settles down to sleep in his igloo.

Next, in a shot reminiscent of Dina and Claude Lévi-Strauss’s film about the Bororo village, a macaw is shown on the spur of a roof, silhouetted against the darkening sky. 

Finally, there is a long shot of Xiyra slowly swinging in her hammock in the half light, with a contemplative expression on her face and Beren asleep on her chest (see the image at the top of this entry). The very last shot shows her foot dangling over the edge of the hammock.


At the end of the filming, Ribeiro confided to his diary that the film would be able to offer no more than a poor caricature of Kaapor culture. Yet for all its shortcomings, it was still the richest and most detailed ethnographic documentary that he knew (Ribeiro 1996b, p.255).

This was  a sound judgement on both counts, even if rather harsh. While it is undoubtedly true that in the early 1950s, there were very few ethnographic films of any great depth or sophistication, the value of this film as an ethnographic account of Kaapor life at the time that it was made is questionable.  Although its cinematic qualities are remarkable, in being confined to a single young couple, it is ethnographically very limited. 

One should also recognize that it presents Kaapor life in a highly romantic light, as if they were living in a timeless idyll – no allusion is made to the epidemic then raging through the community which had made the filming itself so difficult, nor to the many challenges that developing contacts with the national society represented for them. In this sense also, Os “Urubus” is a very Flahertian film.


Texts : Ribeiro and Ribeiro 1957, Ribeiro 1996b, pp. 161-263; Mendes 2006, pp. 129-264; Mattos 2011, Mendes 2011.

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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

No Paiz das Amazonas [In the Country of the Amazons] (1922) – dir. Silvino Santos.*

A tobacco leaf picker poses for the camera in No Paiz das Amazonas (1922)

129 mins., b&w, silent – Portuguese titles and intertitles

Production: J.G. de Araújo e Cia.

Source : see the Cinemateca Brasileira catalogue entry here.  A reconstruction with the addition of a musical soundtrack was released on DVD in 2014 by Versátil Home Video. This can also be viewed on-line here.

Background: The director, Silvino Santos was commissioned to make this film by J.G. de Araújo, a large business enterprise based in Manaus, for the specific purpose of screening at the exhibition celebrating the centenary of Brazilian independence in 1922. This exhibition opened in Rio de Janeiro in September of that year, though No Paiz das Amazonas was not actually screened there until March 1923, some three months after its première in Manaus.  In recognition of the epic account that it offered of a region then little known to most urban Brazilians, the film was awarded a Gold Medal.

The poster featured bare-breasted female warriors on horseback, the legendary Amazons after whom both the river and the film were named.

Despite this accolade, the producer of the film, Agesilau de Araújo initially had difficulty in persuading commercial cinemas  to take the film as it was ‘un film natural’, i.e. a documentary. He therefore used his connections to organise a screening with the President of Brazil, Dr. Artur Bernardes, who was seen to applaud enthusiastically at the end, thereby greatly improving the prospects for distribution.

In order to promote the film in the cinemas,  Araújo resorted to various publicity devices, including a poster that evoked the legendary warrior Amazons alluded to in the title, though of course they did not appear in any form in the film itself.  Other publicity devices included personal appearances at screenings by  Silvino Santos himself, appropriately dressed in his film-making gear, complete with jaguar skin hat (see the photograph at the head of the biographical entry for Silvino Santos) .

No Paiz das Amazonas is usually reported to have been shot over the two years prior to its first release in 1922. However, recent scholarship suggests that this is an oversimplification.  Over the period of almost a century since its first release, a number of different versions of No Paiz have been produced. Some parts of the footage in the most recent version, released in 2014, may have been shot as early as 1913 while at least one sequence could not have been shot before 1929.

Other parts again were reworked in the 1930s and released as separate films but were then later reintegrated with the original material with new intertitles. The latter included a series of pedagogical films about forest products distributed by the Instituto Nacional de Cinema Educativo (INCE).

The film as whole appears to have gone out of distribution in the 1930s and then to have been effectively lost for many years until reconstructed for the first time in analog form in 1986. But by then most of the original documentation had been lost, so it was not possible to determine exactly which sequences formed part of the original film and which were later additions. Nor was it possible to be entirely sure of the running order of the sequences.

A second, digital, reconstruction was released on DVD in 2014. This involved some re-ordering of the sequences on the basis of more recent research, but doubts about the precise form of the original 1922 film persist. What is certain is that the film as it has come down to us in the 2014 reconstruction does not exactly reproduce the film as it was when it was first screened.

The material introduced after 1922 includes some of the scenes shot around Manaus with which the film opens. In one such scene, a nanny is shown with some children who, it transpires, are the offspring of the Araújo family but some of whom had not been born by 1922.  In another sequence, dedicated to recreational water sports,  a power boat passes under a bridge that was not inaugurated until 1929.

The material added later also includes the sequence about the indigenous group, the Parintintin, a subgroup of the Tupi-speaking Kagwahiv,  who were then settled around the upper reaches of the Jiparaná (Machado) river, a right bank tributary of the Madeira. This comes about a third of the way into the 2014 version of the film.

A group of Parintintin pose for the camera in a production still associated with No Paiz das Amazonas. Although the release date of the film is commonly given as 1922, the Parintintin were engaged in violent confrontations with outsiders until 1923 and certainly could not have been filmed before that date.

Although in later life Santos recalled visiting the Parintintin in the years 1918-20, contemporary reports indicate that at that time, the Parintintin were in extremely violent confrontation with non-indigenous Brazilians. The Parintintin were not fully pacified until 1923 and it would have been quite impossible for Santos to film them at any time before then. There is some circumstantial evidence to suggest that this sequence may in fact have been shot in 1924.

Recent scholarship not only suggests that certain parts were added to No Paiz after 1922, but also that some parts of the original film may have been recycled from films that Santos had shot prior to 1920, even before he began working on the J.G. de Araújo commission.

This earlier material almost certainly includes the sequence on the Witoto indigenous group that appears in the latter part of the film and which was shot in the Putumayo region of what was then Peru (in a political settlement in the course of the 1920s, this region was transferred to Colombia).

This sequence may have been filmed as early as 1913, when Santos was commissioned to make a film by the notorious rubber-tapping company, Casa Arana (for further details on this stage of this career, see the biographical entry for Silvino Santos). Alternatively, it may have been shot in the course of the one or more visits that Santos made to that region later in the same decade when working for Amazônia Ciné-Film, a company set up in Manaus by a group of businessmen around 1917. Santos was  himself both a partner and the technical director.

The most significant project that Santos carried out with this company was a film entitled, Amazonas, O Maior Rio do Mundo [The Amazon, the Largest River in the World], which appears to have been similar in conception to No Paiz das Amazonas. In order to shoot this film, Santos travelled all over Amazonia in the years 1918-20. In doing so, he not only shot material in the Putumayo region, but also covered a number of the topics that turn up again in No Paiz, including rubber-tapping, Brazil nut collecting and fishing.

But after it was edited and before it entered distribution,  the master copy of Amazonas was stolen by a relative of one of the directors of Amazônia Cine-Film and sold to a French production company which then distributed it all across Europe under a different title. This theft drove Amazônia Cine-Film into liquidation which in turn led Santos to seek employment with J.G. de Araújo.

For a long time, it was thought that the film itself was lost. However, recent scholarship suggests that some parts at least may have survived and may even have been recycled in No Paiz. (For further details, see the biographical entry for Silvino Santos).

Film Content:

The primary purpose of No Paiz das Amazonas was to celebrate the natural resources and economic potential of the region. Throughout the film, the intertitles stress the region’s natural abundance and there are a large number of cutaways to the animals and plants of the region, as well as many striking shots of features of the landscape, particularly the rivers.

Silvino Santos at the Salto de Teotónio, Madeira River. Judging by the model of camera that he is using, this photograph was probably taken around 1921 or 1922, during the production of No Paiz das Amazonas.

At the same time, almost incidentally, there are many sequences of ethnographic interest. Most obviously, there are three sequences about indigenous groups, two living in traditional circumstances, the Parintintin of the Madeira River and the Witoto of the Putumayo River in Peru, but also a third group, the Sateré-Mawé, a group living downstream from Manaus who by the 1920s had undergone a great deal of social and cultural change, and who were then heavily engaged in the guaraná extractive industry.

However, none of these sequences featuring indigenous groups is particularly lengthy or complex, so notwithstanding their exotic character, they are generally less rich ethnographically than the many sequences that the film offers of the everyday working lives of the non-indigenous inhabitants of the region. Through the progressive accumulation of these sequences, one becomes aware of how labour-intensive the economic development of Amazonia has been.

No Paiz das Amazonas covers a great number of different topics and does so employing a variety of narrative modes. The overall structuring narrative is that of a journey, in effect a grand tour around the Amazon Basin. Although the component parts of this journey may have been shot in a different chronological order to that in which they appear in the film,  they have been edited together in such a way as to make geographical sense as a systematic journey – albeit with one notable exception, discussed below.

A paddle steamer sets off upstream from Manaus early in the film, metaphorically initiating the master journey narrative around which the film as whole is constructed.

Along the way, as it were, this master journey narrative is  supplemented by more localised narratives based on particular economic production processes.

The film begins with a lengthy sequence set in Manaus. This is mostly concerned with the modernity of the port and the grandeur of the public buildings, including, of course, the celebrated ‘opera house’, the Teatro Amazonas. But there are also some charming sequences of families at leisure by the waterside, with their children and their dogs, as well as of the surprisingly cosmopolitan water sports activities practised in the city.

The famous landmarks of Manaus are shown, such as the Teatro Amazonas. But so too are more intimate aspects of private life.

The journey narrative then takes over as the action heads upriver, first on the Amazon itself, then on its right-bank tributary the Purus where it pauses for lengthy sequences of fishing, first of manatees, then of pirarucú (giant catfish) on the lake of Aiapuá. It then transfers to the Madeira River and heads upstream towards Porto Velho, making a stop at the vast Trȇs Casas rubber and tobacco estate.

Here, in an intertitle, the film offers an extended panegyric about the extraction of rubber and the “herois obscuros”, the unsung heroes, the workers who have turned this forest product “into gold”. Whereas the fishing sequences had been structured purely by a technical process narrative with little development of character, here Santos introduces an additional element, namely a ‘day-in-the-life’ device, showing a seringueiro (rubber tapper) going about his daily routine.

The seringueiro bids goodbye to his family as he begins his day’s work.

This starts with the seringueiro leaving his family in the morning, follows him throughout the day and ends with him smoking the material when he returns. This personal story is then finished off with a sequence of balls of rubber being cut up ready for sending downstream.

After a long day in the forest, the seringueiro still has to smoke his material.

The dayin-the-life of the seringueiro is followed by the sequence about the Parintintin. Although the cut from one sequence to the next is visually very abrupt, it makes sense in terms of the geography of the journey narrative in that the Parintintin also lived in the Madeira river valley and following pacification, one group settled close to the Trȇs Casas estate.

But although the Parintintin look very exotic, the ethnographic value of this sequence is  limited. The Parintintin are shown wearing traditional dress, which in the case of the women consists of little more than a necklace, and in the case of the men, feather crowns and remarkably long penis sheaths. But they are clearly not living in traditional circumstances in the forest.

The women are shown lying in their hammocks in an encampment but in the background, one can clearly discern a substantial building, possibly part of the Trȇs Casas estate. The men, meanwhile, are filmed lined up on a neatly tended lawn (see the image above in the ‘Background’ section of this entry). They turn sideways, in a manner reminiscent of anthropometric photography, before executing a clearly artificial small circular dance and then walking off through camera.

More interesting ethnographically is the next major sequence, which is set on the tobacco farm of the Trȇs Casas estate. This follows on from a brief shot of the exterior of the J.G. de Araújo office building in Porto Velho, a series of dramatic ‘phantom ride’ shots taken from the famous Madeira-Marmoré railway (one of the sequences now thought to have been originally shot for Amazonas, O Maior Rio do Mundo) and an equally dramatic sequence of the Teotónio rapids on the Madeira river itself (see the image of Santos filming the rapids above)

A ‘phantom ride’ on the Madeira-Marmoré railway.

The tobacco farm sequence is again structured around the process of production, from the picking of the leaves in the plantation through the sorting and wrapping of the leaves into long cylinders for onward distribution. In terms both of the variety of shots employed, the interaction between the workers themselves and their relaxed manner in front of the camera (see the image at the head of this entry), this sequence represents something of a  step up from the technical process sequences shown earlier in the film.

Women wrap tobacco leaves on the Trȇs Casas estate …

a Brazil nut collector empties a shell of nuts.

The Brazil nut gathering sequence that follows shortly afterwards is even more elaborate. As in the rubber gathering sequence, the technical process is supplemented by a day-in-the-life of the nut-gatherers, but in this case, the process is followed all the way downstream back to Manaus. Here the nuts are sorted, shelled in a factory by rows of manually dextrous women dressed in white, and loaded onto ships for export. In what is probably a chapeau to Santos’s training as a cinematographer at the Lumière establishment in Lyons, the sequence ends with a shot of the workers leaving the factory.

Using the latest machinery, a woman deftly shells Brazil nuts in the J.G. de Araújo factory in Manaus.

The workers leave the J.G. de Araújo factory in Manaus –  probably a ‘chapeau’ to the Lumières.

After Manaus, the action continues further downstream to Parintins, where there is yet another technical process sequence, this time involving guaraná, a plant from which a drink with medicinal qualities is made.  This was first developed by the Sateré-Mawé indigenous people of this part of Amazonia and in the film, they are shown engaged in the extractive industry that has grown up around it. Intentionally or otherwise, this sequence communicates very powerfully how intensively their labour is exploited in producing their traditional drink on an industrial scale.

The guaraná seeds are toasted ….

…  they are then reduced to a paste under the watchful eye of a white-suited supervisor.

From Parintins, the film returns to Manaus, but without lingering there, it immediately heads north into the valley of the Rio Branco and the state of Roraima. This region is construed in an intertitle as similar to the US ‘Far West’, in that it is populated by cowboys and endowed with vast natural resources. This will be where most of the remaining 40 minutes of the film will be spent, representing about a third of its total duration.

This part mostly consists of various further technical process sequences, including collecting turtle eggs on the exposed sandbanks of the river, balatá gathering and smoking (a process that is shown to be interestingly different to the rubber gathering process), brief sequences about the hunting of egrets and of deer, and more extended sequences about the herding and management of cattle and horses.

But, bizarrely, a short way into this part, after the balatá sequence, the action suddenly jumps to the Putumayo region in Peru, about a thousand kilometres to the west, completely rupturing the otherwise geographically coherent master journey narrative.

Judging by their physical appearance and dress, this sequence  in the Putumayo involves several different indigenous communities. But as with the Parintintins sequence, the treatment is very superficial.

Various groups appear in the Putumayo sequence, which begins with a line-up of types. The man above is probably an ‘Orejon’ (literally, Big Ears), while the man below is probably an ‘Encabellado’ (literally ‘Long Hair’).

Again Santos lines his indigenous subjects up in order to film them. In the first line-up, one man, with large ear plugs, appears to be from the  Orejón group, while another with long hair is apparently an Encabellado. Others again, wearing barkskin loincloths appear to be Witoto, probably of the Ocaina or Bora subgroups who at that time mostly still wore traditional dress. But in other shots within the Putumayo sequence, almost all the subjects, both men and women, are wearing European-style clothing.

This is not the case, however, with yet another line-up, this time of pubescent girls. An intertitle comes up beforehand to warn the  viewer that they are “highly decorated …”. Then, obviously by pre-arrangement, about twenty five girls, almost entirely naked apart from their elaborate body decorations and in some cases, girdles around their waists,  emerge in a line from a longhouse, walk round in a circle and then disappear into the house again.

An intertitle warns the the audience that the Putumayan women are ‘highly decorated ….’

They are then shown all in a line, with the camera panning slowly across them several times. This image is highly reminiscent of the photographs that Santos took in the Putumayo when commissioned to cover the consular visit around the installations of the Casa Arana in 1912. (See the ‘Biography’ section of the Silvino Santos entry: also the images that the Marquis de Wavrin shot in the late 1920s in the same region for his film Au Pays du Scalp).

Ostensibly, the girls in the line are waiting for a collective dance to begin, but when it does, it seems to be a performance by a completely different group, since the dancers are all entirely clothed.

Apparently in preparation for this dance, the Witoto are shown building a curious structure out of palm tree branches. This is then shown in a remarkable shot, apparently taken from the top of a palm tree, and we see that it is very long. But the purpose of this structure remains a mystery …

An intertitle explains that the Witoto put great effort into preparations for their dances, but the purpose of the large structure, shot from above, is not explained …

After this “spiritual digression”, as an intertitle puts it, the action switches back to the cowboys of the Rio Branco. There are no bare-breasted Amazons riding the horses here, but there are a few portraits of pretty girls, and some virtuoso shots of cattle being wrangled and branded.

The last sequence, shot from a hill above, shows a  group of cowboys herding large numbers of cattle across the limitless plains. Bringing the narrative of the film as whole to an end in a classical fashion, the very last shot features a group of about twenty cowboys galloping furiously down the slope of a vast rock, proclaiming the patriotic slogan, ‘Viva o Brasil!’

Texts: Nimuendajú 1924, Santos 1969, Martins 2013a, Stoco 2016, Stoco 2017, Paiva 2018.

© 2018 Paul Henley