O Acervo Imagético da Comissão Rondon: no Museu do Indio 1890-1938, 2nd edn. Rio de Janeiro : Museu do Índio – FUNAI
Major Luiz Thomaz Reis: o cinegrafista de Rondon. Embrafilme.
This pamphlet is available here
9 mins., b&w, silent
Production : Rondon Commission/ Inspetoria de Fronteiras
This series of fragments consist primarily, though probably not exclusively, of sequences shot by Luiz Thomaz Reis. A number appear to be from Os Sertões de Matto-Grosso (1915), one of Reis’s earliest films. This now seems to be otherwise definitively lost, making these fragments particularly valuable. Other fragments are from films of his that are still readily available. The place of all these films within overall trajectory of Reis’s work is indicated in the tentative filmography offered here.
(1) first 2 mins. : this shows a sequence of indigenous people in canoes, followed by a series of portraits taken in a village in the rainforest. These were shot at the same time as Parima, fronteiras do Brasil (i.e. in 1928 or 1929), the second film that Reis made for the Inspetoria de Fronteiras and which follows General Cândido Rondon as he inspects the frontiers between Brazil and first French Guiana, then Dutch Guiana. Some of these fragments appear in that film, others would appear to be outtakes. All of them appear to relate to the same indigenous community living at the headwaters of the Oiapoque river, on the French Guiana border. They are not specifically named in the intertitles, but given the location of the encounter they are probably Wayampi (see image at the head of this entry). The full film can be viewed here.
(2) 2:00-3:00 mins.: this is a sequence showing two or three men gathering Brazil nuts. They are dressed in the caboclo rather than the indigenous manner. One man cuts open a shell directly in front of the camera, shows the nuts inside and eats one. However, there is no direct evidence that the film-maker in this case was Reis. Nor is it is clear where this sequence was shot, or when. However, as it comes between two fragments that were shot while Reis was working for the Inspetoria de Fronteiras in Roraima in 1927-1929, it is possible that he shot it around the same general time. Certainly, Brazil nuts do grow abundantly in the region.
(3) 3:00-4:25 mins.: this is a sequence showing the exploration of an indigenous burial place located in a cave beneath a large rock. Since many of the shots in the sequence are common to both, it was clearly shot at the same time (August-October 1927) as Reis’ film, Viagem ao Roroimã. This follows an expedition travelling north through the State of Roraima to demarcate Brazil’s borders with the then British Guiana and Venezuela. The intertitles of Reel One of this film identify the site as ‘Monte Maruai’ and explains that a four-man team from New York Museum, headed by a Mr. Tate, also participated in the expedition [Lasmar 2011: 258-259]. One of the men reconstructing the skeletons brought from the cave does indeed appear to be an American.
(4) 4:25-5:25 mins.: this sequence shows some gifts being handed out to a group of young Paresí (Halíti, Aríti) women, followed by a sequence of three of them pounding vigorously with a large pestle and mortar. These appear to be the shots that are referred to in intertitles nos. 13 and 3 of Reel 3 of the lost Reis film, Os Sertões de Matto-Grosso [Lasmar 2011: 261] .
They were probably therefore taken at Utiariti, a Paresí village on the upper reaches of the Papagaio river, where there was a Rondon Commission telegraph post and which Reis visited in January 1914. However, there is a complication in that a European appears in shot distributing the gifts in the first of the shots and this seems to be Reis himself. If so, this fragment must have been shot by an assistant.
At this stage of the production of Os Sertões, Reis seems to have been travelling alongside the expedition headed by the former US President, Theodore Roosevelt and guided by Reis’ patron, Colonel Rondon. This would explain the intertitle that appears midway through the fragment, in English and in reverse, which reads “The Roosevelt party gave the women some calico dresses — and they thought it was Christmas”. The fact that this title is in English suggests that the fragment may have been used in a compilation film, Wilderness (1918) which Reis later took to the US in an (unsuccesful) attempt to find a commercial distributor there for his films.
(5) 4:27-6:55 mins.: this sequence consists mostly of series of strikingly intimate portraits of Nambikwara people, mostly of women and children, but also one or two men, mostly just sitting on the ground and/or posing for the camera, These portaits include those of the two boys above. Towards the end of the sequence, a woman is shown mashing up some small pineapples with a pestle and mortar.
Many of these same shots (including the one featuring the two boys) appear in Ao Redor do Brasil, a compilation film released in 1933, in a scene in which General Rondon meets with a group of Nambikwara at Porto Amarante on the Cabixis river. This occurs about 70 minutes into the film and was probably shot in early 1930.
(6) 6:57-7:33 mins.: this shows a group of men, some in ragged European clothes, dancing in a small circle around a smouldering log and some sticks set upright in the middle. This appears to be the dance of reconciliation between the Nambikwara and Paresí referred to in intertitle no. 12 in Reel Six of Os Sertões de Matto-Grosso [Lasmar 2011: 263]. It was probably therefore shot at some poin tin 1914 or 1915.
(7) 7:35-8:07 mins.: this shows a group of Paresí men playing their characteristic ball game, using a rubber ball, which they head back and forth to one another. This appears to be the sequence referred to in intertitle no. 3 in Reel Four of Os Sertões de Matto-Grosso [Lasmar 2011: 262]. It was therefore shot in Utiariti, probably in January or February 1914.
(8) 8:09-8:31 mins.: this shows some men or boys diving into the water, swimming around and then clambering into a dug-out canoe. This seems to be the shot referred to in intertitle no. 2 in Reel Four of Os Sertões de Matto-Grosso [Lasmar 2011: 262]. Again, probably shot at Utiariti in January or February 1914.
(9) 8:33-8:53 mins.: this sequence begins with a group of people, both men and women, walking across a village plaza and then posing in a line for the camera. The head-dresses worn by two of the men indicate that they are Bororo. This is then followed by a ‘team photograph’ of two lines of women, with five standing up and three sitting down in front of them with two children.
The latter shot is identical to one that appears in Reis’ film Rituais e festas borôro, shot in 1916 in the now disappeared village of São Lourenço, located on the banks of the river of the same name. But the material earlier in this sequence seems to have been taken elsewhere since the village in the background does not look at all like São Lourenço as shown in Reis’s film. There is also something about the quality of the film stock that suggests that this material was shot much later, possibly as late as the 1940s or even the 1950s. If so, this part of the Bororo sequence certainly would not have been shot by Reis since he died in 1940.
The principal contribution of Luiz Thomaz Reis to ethnographic film history is the film Rituais e festas borôro, which was shot in 1916 and released in 1917, and which Reis shot, directed and probably also edited.
This film constitutes possibly the very first ethnographic documentary in the modern sense in that it was based on a comparatively extended shoot of three months, and presents a narrativised account of the Bororo funeral that is its central subject matter, without any of the fictional elements that characterised the work of Robert Flaherty and other early ‘documentary’ makers in his mould.
However, this film, which was made relatively early in Reis’s career as a film-maker, was not typical of his work as a whole. Most of his works were expedition films, shot in the course of Brazilian government expeditions through remote parts of the interior of the country or around the frontiers. These offered very literal, chronologically-structured accounts of the logistics of the journey undertaken by the expedition as well as of the places and people whom the expedition encountered along the way.
Many of these expeditions were led by Colonel and then later General Cândido Mariano da Silva Rondon, a leading figure in Brazilian public life on account of his role in ‘opening up’ the interior of the country. In accordance with Rondon’s personal interests, many of these expeditions involved contact with indigenous groups, and this is reflected in the films that Reis made about them. But never again did Reis remain long enough in any one indigenous community to produce a film with anything like the ethnographic complexity of Rituais e festas borôro.
In addition to Rituais e festas borôro, this website includes entries for one of his earliest and most commercially successful films, Os Sertões de Matto-Grosso (1915) and for Ao Redor do Brasil (1933), a compilation of some of his later work. There is also an entry concerning a number of film fragments of ethnographic interest held by the Museu do Índio in Rio de Janeiro, most of which were shot by Reis, here. His other films are discussed more briefly in the tentative outline of his complete filmography offered here.
Reis’s film-making career began in 1912, when he was appointed to run the Photography and Cinematography Section of the ‘Rondon Commission’. The official name of this body was Commissão de Linhas Telegráficas e Estratégicas do Matto Grosso ao Amazonas, but on account of Rondon’s high personal profile, as well as for brevity, it was, and is, almost invariably referred to in this shorthand form.
The Rondon Commission was originally set up in order to build telegraph lines connecting the western frontier of Brazil to Rio de Janeiro and other important cities in the east. But right from the time of its establishment in 1900, Rondon went out of his way to involve scientists of various kinds in the activities of the Commission, including the anthropologist Edgard Roquette-Pinto, so that they could study both the natural and social environments that were being opened up by these new lines of communication.
Rondon also had a very modern sense of the need to use visual media to bring his Commission’s work to the attention, not only of the politicians, but also to the Brazilian public at large. From early on, he had employed photographers for this purpose but by about 1907, he began to feel that the Commission should be making films as well. After some unsatisfactory results using private studios, he decided that the Commission should set up its own film-making unit.
When he was appointed to run the new section of the Commission, Reis seems to have had no previous training or professional experience even as a photographer, let alone as a film-maker. At the time, he was a 2nd lieutenant in the Brazilian army and had been appointed to the Commission in 1910 to work in the Design Section, which was primarily concerned with producing, distributing and archiving documentation associated with the Commission’s activities, including photographs as well as such things as maps, scientific reports and budget statements. Even so, within a short period of time, Reis proved himself to be both a highly accomplished film-maker as well as photographer.
Reis was clearly highly competent in a technical sense, managing to maintain his equipment and develop his films under the most adverse conditions in the field. But he thought of himself not merely as a technical operator, as many cinematographers of his era did, but rather as an artist and he often identifies himself as such in his reports.
Shortly after he was appointed, Reis was sent by Rondon to Europe to buy the equipment necessary to set up the new section. This consisted primarily of two cameras, a Williamson bought in London, and a Debrie Studio, purchased in Paris. Of the two, Reis preferred the Debrie, probably because it could hold a much larger roll of stock, offering around six minutes of shooting, then considered a great deal.
In Ao Redor do Brasil, released in 1933, the opening shot is of Reis himself operating a Debrie Studio, certainly of the same model and perhaps even the same camera that he had purchased in Paris two decades earlier (see the image at the top of his entry). Shortly afterwards, he appears to have upgraded to the Debrie Parvo L (launched in 1928) since it is this model of camera that appears in the equipment list of the Inspetoria Especial de Fronteiras, for whom Reis shot his last film in 1938. The Williamson, however, is still listed as one of the back-up cameras [Lasmar 2011: 312].
Reis’s first major success as a film-maker was Os Sertões de Matto-Grosso, released in 1915 to great popular acclaim. This film follows a number of expeditions led by Rondon in the far west of the country, close to the Bolivian border, through the Serra dos Parecis, which acts as the watershed between the upper Paraguay River and the Amazon Basin.
In the course of the film, the expeditionaries encounter various groups of Paresí and Nambikwara, though these contacts are mostly relatively brief and superficial, so the ethnographic interest of the material is therefore limited. A prominent feature of all these encounters is Rondon giving away gifts of industrially manufactured goods, often clothes. This would become the pattern for most of Reis’s films thereafter, though none of his later expedition films would have quite the popular impact that this one did.
In the early 1920s, Reis accompanied Rondon on a number of different projects, including the relief of drought in the Northeast of Brazil and the suppression of a military revolt in the state of Paraná in the southwest of the country, but the films that he made on those occasions are lost. Later in the decade, he made several films with Rondon when the latter became the Inspector of Frontiers. Extracts from some of these were gathered together in Ao Redor do Brazil.
Thereafter Reis’s film-making activities diminished as the political star of his principal patron, Rondon, was temporarily eclipsed. Inspetoria Especial de Fronteiras, released in 1938, proved to be his last film. This followed Rondon’s successor as Inspector of Frontiers on his visits to the Colombian and Venezuelan borders around the headwaters of the Rio Negro. Whereas Rondon had had a deep suspicion of missionaries, his successor did not, and much of the film, which is very long at 99 minutes, consists of visits to mission stations. There is only a very brief visit to a traditional indigenous village right at the end of the film, seemingly after the main business of inspecting the region has been completed.
Not long afterwards, in 1940, having survived all manner of physical challenges during his many years in the interior of Brazil, Reis lost his life in the most tragically banal circumstances, when he was aged only 61. As he was filming the demolition of an army barracks in Rio de Janeiro, he was struck by falling masonry and died not long afterwards in hospital.
b&w, silent, 80 mins.
Source : this may be viewed on the web here
This is a compilation of extracts from films that Luiz Thomaz Reis had shot during various different expeditions around Brazil in the period 1924-1930. The film begins with a 1924 army expedition led by Captain Vasconcelos to the Ronuro, a tributary of the upper Xingu, but all the other expeditions were led by Reis’s principal patron, General Cândido Rondon, under the aegis of the Inspetoria de Fronteiras, with which Rondon was encharged in 1927. Details of the original films are available in the tentative filmography offered here.
Ao Redor do Brasil is a technically accomplished work and introduces the viewer to many different aspects of the interior of Brazil. However, the references to indigenous groups are all relatively brief and scattered through the film. None of this footage has the complexity of Reis’s earlier film, Rituais e festas Borôro (1917).
In the early section dealing with the Xingu headwaters expedition, there are some brief shots of various Xinguano groups, with the Bakairi, Kamayura and the ‘Ianahuquá’ (the Nahukwá, later decimated by epidemics) being mentioned by name. The sequence concludes with the Xinguanos being dressed in absurdly over-sized clothes.
Towards the middle of the film, there is an interesting sequence on the Karajá on the Araguaia river, shot during an Inspetoria de Fronteiras expedition in 1929. This shows the impressive ‘Aruan’ dance which features elaborately masked dancers performing to music from long paired flutes reminiscent of those played in the Xingu. (This is the same dance as is shown briefly in Heinz Förthmann’s 1947 film, Os Caraja).
Around 70 minutes into the film, there is a relatively extended sequence on the Nambikwara, whom the expedition meet at Porto Amarante (close to the modern town of Vilhena), on the Rio Cabixis, a tributary of the Guapore River. This appears to be a different group of Nambikwara to those who appear in Reis’s earlier and now-lost film Os Sertões de Matto-Grosso (1915). The footage is not very profound, consisting merely a of a series of portraits. However, these are particularly striking and engaging, and very reminiscent of the photographs of the Nambikwara that Claude Lévi-Strauss took when he visited them in 1938.
Judging by its position in the film, this material appears to have been shot in early 1930, as part of Rondon’s third year of duty as the Inspector of Frontiers. Some of this material also turns up in the fragments of footage in the Museo do Índio film archive, described here.
The last indigenous group referred to in this film, immediately following the Nambikwara sequence, at about 73 minutes, are the Pakaas Novas (now known as the Wari’). But this material was shot at a Posto Indigena, where the Wari’ are shown to be receiving instruction in the ways of ‘civilisation’. Women are shown pounding grain and sifting flour, while men hoe in a line, all dressed in the European manner. There is even a portrait of a Wari’ woman married to a local Brazilian functionary.
31 mins., b&w, silent. Portuguese titles and intertitles.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.