How the Project Went in Brazil

Update from project producer Emilienne Ireland

Together with the young Wauja filmmakers, we shot a wide array of material, far greater in scope than we had expected. We had originally planned to focus on documenting the conversation between generations as the elders commented on the historical films we brought. The Wauja enthusiastically cooperated in this project, but they took it in new directions, as well.

People recorded messages describing their concerns about climate change and the new problem of outbreaks of wildfires in the rainforest understory each dry season. They recorded scenes of an unnaturally dried-out forest during the wet season, and dangerously violent windstorms, which the elders say are unlike the storms of years ago. They made short videos about proposed hydroelectric projects in their region that threaten their river systems and way of life. They made videos of elders talking about about declining fish stocks and recalling recent instances of massive fish die-offs, in which thousands of dead fish were seen floating downriver. In other videos, elders in full ceremonial regalia formally addressed museum directors in faraway Brazilian cities, asking to see digital copies of all historic films and photographs of their ancestors.

They made videos of elders describing how, as the area around the protected Xingu National Park is deforested by ranchers, large fauna (particularly jaguars and anacondas) lose their territories and crowd into areas near the Wauja. For the first time in living memory, one of the Wauja villages recently had a problem with a jaguar that prowled the village itself by night and picked off their dogs, one by one, until the Wauja set a trap and killed it, fearing it eventually might attack a human being.

In the village of a neighboring ethnic group, a woman was safely inside her own home at night, when she happened to squat briefly against the house wall. Suddenly a jaguar thrust its arms right through the foot-thick thatch wall and tried to catch her. She was was clawed across her stomach, but otherwise was unhurt. However, the incident is utterly bizarre and unnatural. No one can recall ever hearing of such a thing in times past.

In two of the Wauja villages I visited, very large anacondas have been seen near the bathing area used by the community, and in one of the villages, a man lost two hunting dogs to anacondas. In each case, the dog was walking along the riverbank, when the anaconda suddenly lifted its head and neck out of the water and snatched the dog in the presence of its owner. As the Wauja note, how can small children be safe if alert hunting dogs are defenseless? These stories are as frightening to the Wauja as they are to us. The Wauja say that as a result of widespread deforestation, animals have been pushed out of their old territories and forced to occupy inhabited areas they would have avoided in times past.

Documenting not only Problems, but also Aspirations
In addition to documenting their concerns, the Wauja also documented their successes and their hopes for the future. They proudly made videos of their ceremonial dances, and of their parents telling stories at home. They made astonishing videos of groups of men calling birds and monkeys in the forest by imitating the calls of the various species. The videos show the animals approaching the men in response. They took their cameras to community meetings, recording comments by parents and children regarding their expectations for the new bi-lingual school curriculum.

They made video messages for kinsmen and sweethearts living in other villages, which I carried with me as I traveled from one village to the next. None of the messages were private. Whenever they were played, whether inside a house or in the public plaza, a small crowd would gather to peer intently at the camera’s display screen.

Some of the video messages were formal, such as the elderly father giving sage advice to his newly married son residing in another village. Some messages were pure stand-up comedy, such as the outrageous video from an amorous young man, who lavishly described his many excellent qualities to his would-be sweetheart, provoking general hilarity everywhere I went, along with endless requests to “play it again!”

Focusing on What’s Essential
One female elder, after hearing a recording of sacred music made by her late father 30 years ago, asked me to set up the equipment so that she could make a recording herself. As I held the microphone, she began to intone in formal cadence “I am Pere, your grandmother, your great-grandmother. I am a song master.” A song master is a ritual leader who is expert in sacred songs. I was stunned as I realized she was speaking directly to her descendants, and to posterity. She exhorted her listeners to never abandon the old songs, and she sang several passages spontaneously, closing with, “Sing! Keeping singing, always sing, and do nothing but sing! Sing these songs, all of you who hear my voice!”

When it was time for me to say goodbye and start my journey back to the States, she approached me. “I would like you to bring me something when you return,” she said softly. I smiled inwardly, because she had treated me with utmost generosity and kindness throughout my stay in her home. We have known each other for thirty years, since the days when I lived alongside her in her late father’s home. Her son, who was an infant then, is a talented young videographer now, as well as the village health worker. “What would you like from my country?” I asked, thinking she might ask for fine glass beads in a special color, as she had in the past. “I want you to bring me a tape recorder like the one you are using,” she replied. “A good one. I want to record all the songs I know.”

That is how I measure the success of this project. My sincerest thanks to all of you who made personal contributions to make it happen. In these times, most of us cannot afford non-essential expenditures. Thank you for demonstrating that you consider the Wauja project — essential.