by Roderick Conway Morris

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Venice Film Festival
'Birdwatchers,' a story set against the background of the chronic problem
of suicide among the Guaraní-Kaiowá tribe,
has emerged as a front-runner in Venice.

Devastated cultures that refuse to surrender

By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 2 September 2008


The 'Birdwatchers' of the Chilean-born Marco Bechis's in-competition film are the well-heeled seekers after exotic flora and fauna, who come on visits to a comfortable ranch in Amazonia on the edge of a tract of 'virgin' forest, through which a river lazily meanders, the natives appearing picturesquely on the banks.

The tourists are themselves mere birds of passage, disinclined to look too closely at the havoc created in the region by the more sustained intrusion of outsiders. The members of the Guaraní-Kaiowá tribe glimpsed from the tourist motorboat are a handful of the few thousand of their people who survive, of the estimated 1.5 million that once inhabited this region.

Such is the relentless appropriation of their lands that the token remaining parcels of forest can no longer support their traditional way of life, which was once renewably sustained by hunting and fishing. Just about the only work available to the indigenous people here is the scandalously underpaid cutting of cane, increasingly used for Brazil's supposedly supergreen biofuels industry - and in this respect the film is as much about us as it is about them.

A brilliant and subtle example of filmmaking that paints a powerful, although not exactly optimistic, picture of human resilience and dignity, 'Birdwatchers' emerged as a front-runner for the Golden Lion midway through Venice's film festival (which ends on Saturday). Made mostly in the Guaraní language, it puts the Guaraní - all of them amateur actors - center stage, the white professional performers being always on the periphery, always the interlopers in this paradise lost.

Neither sanitizing nor romanticizing its subject, the story is set against the background of the chronic problem of suicide among the Guaraní - more than 500 have killed themselves in the last two decades. When two more young people hang themselves, the chief of the group, Nádio (Ambrósio Vilhalva), takes the decision to leave their squalid 'reservation' and reoccupy ancestral land on the nearby ranch. We follow them, gradually drawn into their lives and remarkable culture, and begin to understand what is being irrevocably lost.

A devastated culture and its refusal to be eradicated is also at the heart of 'Kabuli Kid,' by Barmak Akram (shown in the International Film Critics' Week section). Born in Kabul in 1966, Akram became a refugee in Paris in 1981. An artist, composer and filmmaker, this is his debut feature, made in his birthplace, a daunting challenge considering the continuing violence there.

Khaled (Hadji Gul) is a kindly taxi driver, who gives a woman enshrouded in the traditional Afghan chador a discounted ride. When she gets out he discovers she has left her baby boy (Messi Gul) on the back seat. Having failed to find anyone else to take responsibility for the child, he is eventually forced by the onset of the security curfew to drive the baby home with him to the outskirts of town, where he struggles to feed his wife, four daughters and father. The hunt resumes the next morning for the infant's mother, or an alternative home for the baby.

This low-budget film has an almost documentary feel, but with a telling comic edge. The talk on the 'Afghan street' is wry, forthright and irreverent, Pakistan now referred to as just the latest, after the Russians, of a disastrous succession of imperial invaders. U.S. forces have killed enough people by mistake not to be entirely popular, but when an earnest young French aid worker tips Khaled in euros, telling him patriotically 'they are much better than dollars,' Khaled is not so sure.

A baby is also the trigger of the maverick U.S. independent documentary filmmaker Ross McElwee's 'In Paraguay.' She is the 3-month-old girl that McElwee and his wife decide to adopt. The procedures for legal adoption there prove suitably tortuous, and the family ends up spending many weeks there.

The director compiles a sympathetic, sensitive and sometimes delicately droll film about the tragic history of the country and the travails of its overwhelmingly poor, touchingly cheerful inhabitants.

The falling out of the Mexican film director Alejandro González Iñárritu with his fellow-countryman Guillermo Arriaga, the novelist and screenwriter, was closely followed in film circles. Their productive collaboration ended with the triumph of 'Babel.'

Arriaga's in-competition 'The Burning Plain,' the first feature written and directed by Arriaga alone, was an early favorite for the top prize here, although the critics' responses were not uniform.

At the outset of the film, we see a blazing trailer-home on a wide plain of scrub surrounded by mountains. We subsequently learn that the bodies of a man and a woman have been found in the wreckage, both married, but not to each other. The woman, Gina (Kim Basinger) is Caucasian, the man, Nick (Joaquim De Almeida), Hispanic. Separate family funerals are held. At Nick's, Gina's husband turns up with his four children, and shouts abuse at Nick's sons. Yet in the coming days one of these two young men, Carlos (José María Yazpik), makes contact with Gina's teenage daughter (Jennifer Lawrence) and a relationship develops.

Meanwhile, a parallel story unfolds under the gray skies of Portland, Oregon. Here we encounter an enigmatic and promiscuous young woman, Sylvia (Charlize Theron), working as the manager of an up-market, cliff-top restaurant.

The film switches back and forth in time and location between these two story lines, slowly connecting them. It would be difficult to say more without revealing too much.

This is a compelling story with its nonlinear structure well realized in film terms. It dwells on a seemingly insoluble dilemma, the result of an immature act that has led to catastrophic consequences. The casting plays some tricks with the audience, but the acting is first class, especially that of Charlize Theron.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023