These Hunter-Gatherer Tribes Have Mad Video Skills

Brazil's indigenous people have found an unusual tool for preserving culture and protecting land.

Filmmaker Vincent Carelli with the Panará people in Brazil's Upper Xingu territory. (Photo: Courtesy

Nov 3, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Jill Langlois is a Canadian freelance journalist based in São Paulo, Brazil. She has written for publications including The New York Times, Foreign Policy, Fortune and USA Today.

“White men make movies about their cultures,” says Peranko, an indigenous man sitting in his home in the center-west Brazilian state of Mato Grosso. “They tell their stories of wars and parties. Then we thought, ‘We also have stories to make movies about.’ ”

Sitting in front of the camera as he talks, Peranko, a teacher from the Panará tribe, uses his hands as he explains the importance of the documentary film he was a part of in 2005. The movie, he tells fellow tribe member and filmmaker Komoi Panará, helps preserve his people’s culture. It is important, he says, to remember how they used to cultivate the land they still struggle to keep as their own.

The Panará are one of 23 indigenous groups from 31 villages across Brazil that work with Vídeo nas Aldeias, Portuguese for "video in the villages." Filmmaker and indigenous studies expert Vincent Carelli created the project in 1986 to train indigenous people in the art and craft of making documentaries. VNA has conducted workshops for 38 indigenous Brazilians who now preserve their culture photographically, with the potential to also save the land that fostered it.

Since the Portuguese discovered Brazil in 1500, the country’s indigenous population has fallen to 0.26 percent of the total population, according to the 2010 census released by the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics. The roughly 800,000 people, mostly concentrated in the north and northeast of the country, currently represent 305 ethnicities and speak 274 languages. The federal government has set aside nearly a million square kilometers of territory, spread throughout the country, for the indigenous—11.6 percent of Brazil. Brazil’s National Indian Foundation intends the allotment to help guarantee the physical and cultural survival of indigenous communities. Yet despite official protections, many indigenous groups struggle to maintain their territorial integrity: The areas are large, discontinuous, and wild, all of which makes enforcement a challenge. Many are exploited, as a result, for large-scale farming (primarily beef and soy), resource extraction, and the construction of highways and hydroelectric dams.

Carelli and a handful of anthropologists and indigenous specialists had founded, in 1979, the NGO Center for Indigenous Work to help indigenous communities with land management and cultural preservation. VNA began as an experiment intended to film the indigenous groups—the first was the Nambiquara tribe in Mato Grosso, the tribe made famous by French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss—and let them see the videos. Some of the tribespeople showed great interest in the creation of the videos, and in 1997 VNA decided to train them in how to tell their stories themselves. Its first workshop was held in the Xavante de Sangradouro village. Video cameras were distributed in the community, and with locals trained in use of the equipment, a significant shift in control over the narratives ensued.

“I think the importance of the films made by native Brazilians is that they show them as people and how their daily lives truly are in the villages,” says Carelli. “It is mainly about humanizing them.”

Educating outsiders about indigenous cultures is one benefit of the program; generating interest in and understanding of the indigenous can lead those with control over their fate to take measures to protect them. Some of the movies have helped in fights over territorial rights. When prospectors invaded Nambiquara land in 1991, the indigenous people picked up their cameras and filmed the occupation. The video was sent to the World Bank, which was negotiating a loan for the government of Mato Grosso at the time; it released funds only when the government returned the land to the indigenous and removed the prospectors, according to VNA. When another film proved the existence of an indigenous tribe in the northern state of Rondônia that even FUNAI had insisted wasn’t there, the federal justice system ordered the group protected.

The experience has altered many indigenous Brazilians’ relationship with technology. Previously either out of their reach or harmful to their survival or both, the documentary video program has given them the means to capture and potentially preserve what is theirs while—and by—sharing it among themselves and with the rest of the world.

“I was very embarrassed when I saw my own image,” an indigenous woman, her face painted red, told Komoi Panará about her participation in the Panará film as she sat outside her home. Nevertheless, she knew she had to take part. “I said, ‘Let me explain to you why I did this. It was for my daughter and my grandchildren to watch. What if I die suddenly? You never know when you’ll get sick.’ So I made the movie for them.”