Yopi: Chez les Indiens du Brésil [Yopi : With the Indians of Brazil] (1945) – Felix Speiser/ Georges Lobsiger*

Daily life in the Apalai-Wayana village of Tucano – Yopi : chez les Indiens de Brésil (1945) – Felix Speiser/ Georges Lobsiger

75 mins., b&w, sound, with voice-over commentary in French and extradiegetic music. Titles and intertitles in French, with German subtitles available in some versions.

Production: uncertain, though possibly Les Films Indépendents S.A., the company of the Swiss producer Max Linder.

Source:  Archival copies are held by the Cinémathèque suisse. Video copies may consulted at the Musée d’ethnographie, Geneva and the Museum der Kulturen, Basle. In addition, the Museum der Kulturen holds around 500m (approx. 30 mins) of fragmentary material that appears to have been part of one or more earlier versions.


Note: it was not possible to view this film for The Silent Time Machine project. This entry is based primarily on an article by the Swiss film historian, Roland Cosandey (see ‘Texts’ below).

This film was cut from material originally shot in 1924 by the leading Swiss anthropologist, Felix Speiser, and his travel companion, Arnold Deuber, in Tucano, an Apalai-Wayana village at the headwaters of Paru River, a tributary of the lower Amazon, in Pará state, northern Brazil.

Speiser was already established as the Professor of Ethnology at the University of Basle while Deuber was a dentist by profession, and also from Basle. Up until this point, Speiser had carried out all his research in Melanesia but it seems that he decided to do some comparative work and turned to Theodor Koch-Grünberg, the leading German Americanist, for advice.

Koch-Grünberg presumably encouraged him to work in Amazonia since they travelled to Brazil together,  on a ship departing from Liverpool in June 1924. While Speiser and Deuber stopped off at Belém, at the mouth of the Amazon river, Koch-Grünberg continued to Manaus in order to join the Branco-Uraricoera expedition being prepared by the American amateur geographer, A. Hamilton Rice. (Three months later, shortly after the Rice expedition began, Koch-Grünberg contracted malaria and died).

Due the political unrest then affecting the region, Speiser and Deuber were obliged to remain in Belém for longer than they expected. During this time, they met up with Yopi, the headman of Tucano and five Apalai companions, and agreed to go with them on their return to their village. They appear to have remained in Tucano for a period of around six weeks and to have shot at least two hours of silent footage.

What Speiser did with this footage once he returned to Basle is unclear, though he certainly developed it and organised it into various categories. He may have used it in his teaching and may even have shown it around the local Kulturfilm circuit in Basle (i.e. to non-academic but educated audiences).

At some point during the Second World War, when the importation of films about exotic places was highly restricted in Switzerland, Speiser appears to have been approached by Georges Lobsiger (1903-1988), a civil servant with an active accademic interest in Americanist matters, and a film producer, Max Linder, with a view to producing a film from his material aimed at popular audiences.

With a commentary scripted and performed in French by Lobsiger himself, and a music track composed by the Swiss musician, Alexander Krannhais (1908-1961), this film was released in 1945.

It is not clear what role, if any, Speiser himself played in the editing. However, in his correspondence with Koch-Grünberg prior to going to Brazil, Speiser had encouraged his German colleague to propose the making of a film to Hamilton Rice, aimed at popular audiences, as a means of raising funds to support his research (Fuhrmann 2013, p.53n17).

In the event, the film of the Rice expedition was made by the Brazilian documentarist, Silvino Santos. But given that he made such a proposal to Koch-Grünberg, it seems very likely that Speiser would have approved of the plan by Lobsiger and Linder to use his footage for a similar purpose.

Film content

As described by Roland Cosandey, Yopi conforms to the conventional expedition film format of the period. By using the name of the headman of the Apalai village as the principal title of the film, the producers may have been trying to suggest that Yopi was a film of the same kind as Nanook of the North, which had enjoyed great commercial success.

But, in fact, Yopi the headman does not play a particularly prominent role in the film. Meanwhile, the photographs and productions stills of the film reproduced by Cosandey suggest that the cinematographic skills of Speiser and Deuber were very much more modest than those of Robert Flaherty.

The film begins by documenting various stages of the journey upstream through the rapids of the Paru river. The film-makers eventually reachTucano, which proves to be a small village of less than twenty people.

The film then documents their day-to-day life, including subsistence and craft activities, the daily bathing of the women in the river, the collective meal of the men and a healing session in which a shaman deals with a gum abscess.

Children are shown learning various life skills, such as shooting with bow and arrow, avoiding snakes, climbing trees. The making of a ceremonial mask is followed by a masked dance.

The film  concludes with scenes of the return downstream, ending at the last set of rapids before the Amazon river itself.

TextsCosandey 2002-03, Fuhrmann 2013.




Speiser, Felix (1880-1949)*

Felix Speiser on Ambrym island, Vanuatu, New Hebrides, 1911.

Felix Speiser is a foundational figure in the history of Swiss ethnology. Having studied under Felix von Luschan in Berlin in 1907-08, he was appointed Professor of Ethnology at the University of Basle in 1917, the first such post in the country.

Although he is probably best known for his work in the New Hebrides (1910-12) and, later, in Melanesia (1929-31), he also carried out a brief period of fieldwork in 1924 among the Aparaï of the Paru river, in northern Brazil, close to the border with French Guiana (now Guyane).

During his Brazilian expedition, Speiser made a film, though this was not edited and released until 1945. A further restoration took place long after his death, in 1994. The title of this film is Yopi: Chez les Indiens du BrésilEven today, it remains very difficult to see.

Speiser is reported to have made a second film, Mystères du Pacifique, dated to 1930. However, this does not feature in the UNESCO catalogue of ethnographic film in the Pacific region (Rouch and Salzman 1970) and whether it has survived is not clear.

Text : Cosandey 2002-03

© 2018 Paul Henley