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The Caste of the Invisibles

Author: debblyst from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
30 May 2006

Sylvio Back's documentaries are always sure to raise controversy (it's his trademark) and "Yndio do Brasil" is no different. This one opens with the quote by British documaker Richard Leacock ("A good Indian is a filmed Indian"), paraphrasing General Custer's genocidal boutade ("A good Indian is a dead Indian"). The 70 minutes of "Yndio do Brasil" are exclusively made of archive footage of documentaries, newsreels and fiction films about native Brazilian Indians, made by Brazilian and foreign filmmakers from the 1910s to the 1990s. The patronizing, deprecating tone of the original voicer-over commentaries is shocking: Back shows us that, since the first images made in 1912, Brazilian Indians have been consistently regarded and treated as half- witted, clownish, violent, untrustworthy, lazy, unproductive, mystifying, stupid rabble.

Historians tell us that the estimated 6 to 10 million native Indians who inhabited Brazil by the time the Portuguese arrived in 1500 have been reduced to the present 315,000 survivors in 206 different tribes or nations; they were systematically, uninterruptedly killed by white man's violence and contagious diseases over the centuries. But this persistent genocide (like most genocides) is not mentioned in school textbooks, and only reluctantly admitted by recent Brazilian governments. Very much like the whole Amerindian population (North+Central+South America), native Brazilians are still treated as outcasts of "modern society" and remain either isolated in government-ruled reserves (regularly invaded by drug traffickers, gunrunners and gold hunters, the "garimpeiros"); or, if they try to "mingle", they face under-employment/unemployment, slave-like conditions, lack of social assistance or formal education, racism, social prejudice and poverty, often leading them to heavy drinking, prostitution, diseases and an unusually high rate of suicides. In fact, there are so few of them left (less than 0.2% of Brazil's population!) and their votes mean so little to politicians that they are still deprived of efficient, autonomous representation and have zero economic power or political influence.

The images of "Yndio..." range from ludicrous (U.S. explorer Lewis Cotlow's fake "domestication" of "savage" Brazilian Indians with sign-language!!) to offensive (a German adventure film made in the Amazon region by Franz Eichhorn, in which an Indian trades rubber for a pair of high-heeled shoes he fancies!!) to chauvinistic (Brazilian military regime newsreel with commentaries stating that the "integration of the Indians" was to finally begin -- really meaning what can only be called anthropological rape, having Indians cover their natural nakedness, wear uniforms, perform their sacred rituals for the mocking "appreciation" of bored presidents, colonels and generals). But undoubtedly the most shocking footage is from a b&w documentary showing a devastated, famished tribe, its whole population plagued by tuberculosis and reduced to Holocaust-like walking skeletons. Appalling and unforgettable.

Sylvio Back's research is thorough, his choice of footage is great, but he's biased as hell: he includes footage about the 1970s Araguaia left-wing guerrilla, as well as military regime TV propaganda, neither of which are really relevant to the subject. By the end of "Yndio...", you may feel that the military should be judged and punished for the mistreatment of Brazilian Indians; but then WHAT Brazilian government -- military or civilian, democratic or autocratic -- treated Indians right? We're talking 500 years of methodical genocide, segregation, mistreatment, abuse and racism. On the other hand, there have been isolated successful efforts by some great men (Rondon, the Villas-Boas brothers, etc) that aren't adequately valued in the film.

The inclusion of eight poems by Back himself (voice-over reading by José Mayer) is an arguable choice; they're not bad, but their sophisticated structure and erudite vernacular clash with the down-to-earth visual footage -- they don't really belong here. Anyhow, "Yndio do Brasil" is mandatory viewing for all interested in knowing a little bit more about how "white power" has been treating the native owners of our vast American continent, and how painfully contemporary it all looks and sounds, as most of us (including our elected governments) continue to treat Amerindian populations as downtrodden, hopeless, useless outcasts -- the lowest layer in the social stratus, the caste of the Invisibles who are systematically kept that way. Shame on us all.

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