Luiz Bolognesi on Finding the True Heart of the Jungle in “The Last Forest”

Described north of Brazil and south of Venezuela in “The Last Forest,” the Yanomami occupy a space in the Amazon, yet director Luis Bolognesi was careful to keep their location abstract, not so much to hide the specific territory they have inhabited for centuries, but because their hold on the land goes beyond geographical constructs. An indigenous tribe that has subsisted on what the river brings them and what their ancestral spirits tell them, they are a proud people led by the shaman Davi Kopenawa, who is their ambassador to the outside world, leaving their community largely unbothered by incursion from the modern world that sits outside, though that wall has started to crumble in recent years.

After the Bolsonaro administration began lowering environmental regulations and turned a blind eye for prospecting, the Yanomami have increasingly seen miners poking about for gold, a threat they have ably countered by enforcing their claim to the territory with the resources they have available to them, but they also permitted one outsider to come in in the São Paulo-based filmmaker Bolognesi, who once worked as a teacher for the indigenous Pataxó community in Bahia and has devoted a large portion of his filmmaking career to explore the impact Brazil’s collective history has had on its native people, last directing the 2018 doc “Ex-Shaman” about the transformation of the Paiter Suruí. However, while he was given access to film with the Yanomami people, he hands over any authorship to them to tell their own story in “The Last Forest,” yielding a transfixing hybrid of nonfiction technique and dramatic narrative as members of the tribe take turns in front of the camera to present scenes from their lives that give a practical sense of the society they’ve built up such as hunting and milling tapioca while also engaging in reinterpretations of folk tales that have been equally foundational when beliefs hold as much power as any tangible action.

With the transitions between what exists primarily in the mind versus the physical activities of the Yanomami virtually seamless in “The Last Forest,” the potential for outsiders to upend their lives becomes akin to breaking a spell and Bolognesi’s sensitivity to what unfolds before him allows for the Yanomami to expose their vulnerability as well as their considerable collective strength. An prizewinner at Berlinale earlier this year and more recently the Guadalajara Film Festival, where Bolognesi picked up a best director award, the film is premiering on Netflix this week and the filmmaker took the time to talk about embedding with the Yanomami and earning their trust, finding a way to conscientiously collaborate and the revelations in the editing room that came with a proper translation.

How did this come about?

When I was shooting “Ex-Shaman,” I was working in a community where the shaman was being destroyed by the evangelical priests and at the same time I knew that there are lot of communities in Brazil where they are fighting to resist — they don’t allow the Evangelical Christians to come in and they try hard to [preserve] the way of life from their ancestors. So I said, I have to make also a film that show a community where the shamans are really strong and where they are fighting to continue being who they are. I decided I would shoot with the Yanomami because they are a very strong resistance. They don’t want guns and weapons from white people. They are hunters that work with arrows. And also they don’t allow Evangelical and Catholic priests to go in there. So I invited Davi, this great shaman, not only to be the main protagonist, but to be the screenwriter, and that was the most crazy thing that I did and the best decision that I made.

What was it like working with Davi to figure out how the Yanomami would be involved in telling their own story?

It happened as the director was day by day, losing the control. This is the opposite of what a good director would do [where there is] control and [I’d] know everything that [is happening]. This film was just the opposite. Every night, I didn’t know exactly what we’d be doing and Davi said to me, “Luiz, because they haven’t ever been to a cinema and they don’t speak Portuguese, they don’t see films. They haven’t ever seen a film before this one.” Davi has because he travels a lot [to speak on Yanomami issues]. He goes to Washington, London, and Paris. He knows cinema. And when I invited him, he said to me, “Cinema, Luiz, is a kind of dream where everyone has the same dream at the same time, so if I’m going to write a film, you have to come to my community, you have to sleep there all the night for some nights, and you will have your dreams, I will have my dreams, and we’ll talk about dreams and then we’ll find a film.”

I went to his community and we did that. I was living with them for two weeks, and every day, when the day finishes, they turn on the fire and he invites some other old shamans and hunters to talk about what would the film be. For example, one day I said, “What story do you want to tell?” One of them said, “The story of Obama and Yoasi is very important, the brother gods that created the forest and the Yanomami,” and I thought, how can I do that?” That’s a Marvel picture. And then I realized [because] it was what they want to tell, I ask them how to tell that and the answer was we had here two [real] brothers and you go to them and ask them how to do it. The next day, they came with the birds [you see in the film] and they all painted and sing — Yanomamis are like that. And [they told me] you shoot in this place and that place, they show me how we would do the things and this would build the narrative.

At the same time, [there were] women that used to come to me and ask lots of questions because they are very curious about us, the same we are curious about them — [they’d] say, “Where is your wife? How many wives do you have? How many sons and daughters? Are they married?” And I went to the [meeting with] Davi, [saying] “I would like to invite some women to come to the decision of stories.” And he said, “No, Luiz, this is a place where [men make] decisions, and by tradition, women don’t participate.” And I was not comfortable about that, so I said, “I think it would not be good for Yanomami to make a film where women don’t have voice or they don’t tell their stories,” and he was not very happy and left, but half-an-hour after he came back to me and told me, “I know you have been talking to Ehuana a lot, she’s a very strong Yanomami, and you are allowed to tell this story she wants. You don’t have to come back to me.” So that was the way we created things and so they became very confident of the camera, with my small team. We were only five people shooting, and for them, myths and dreams are not fiction, they are real, so when you ask them to act [scenes out], they are comfortable.

I understand that filming babies was off-limits because of the Yanomamis’ belief in what the camera takes from them, so what it’s like introducing technology into a community like this?

Yes, exactly, the baby we have in the film I shot in another indigenous community where it’s allowed. They think that the camera takes their image and it’s very spiritual, so when they are strong, they are fine for that, but children and the very old and sick are not strong so we can’t make pictures of them. We had lots of situations that we had to understand and because of that, they [originally] didn’t allow us to shoot the ritual of the shamans. But as you see, they invited us to shoot, but they didn’t allow us to translate because they said that the words that the shaman says are the words that come from the spirits, and we are not prepared to listen to that. So that’s what we did.

When it’s a language that’s not your own, is it actually helpful to be able to concentrate on what’s going on in front of you?

Yes, it was part of the situation where [I, as the] director, didn’t control anything. I only could understand if things were going well by how much they were engaged, but I didn’t understand what they’re saying, and sometimes I have been shooting for 25 minutes, and when I finish, I go to the young guy that speaks a little Portuguese and [ask], “What did they say?” And he translated, “They said tomorrow, they’re going to hunt,” but [I head they] had been talking for 25 minutes, so so only in the editing room, I would find out what film I have shot because then I understood the dialogue and how I would balance these three lines of stories that we had: dreams, myths and what we call real.

[And it was hard when we were filming to] understand that we have to shoot dreams and dreams are real. For example, when they explained that someone has appeared [in a] dream and I [should] shoot the dream, I’d say, “How can I shoot the dream?” “Oh, we’ll tell you the dream and you shoot the dream.” This was something that changed a lot my mind [as I had a greater] comprehension of what’s real and what’s not real because these things get a lot mixed [in Yanomami culture]. Also, dreams for me became completely different and stronger — [just recently] I had a dream that I was in the forest and there’s a small river [with] a deer walking over the water, and some small animals come near to me to watch that. And I woke up and said, “What a incredible dream. I’m dreaming like Yanomami now.” So I think they changed me a lot, their relationship with magic.

What’s it been like traveling with the film? Have you actually been able to show it to the Yanomami yet?

Yeah, when we were shooting, I told them that we would come back to show the film to them, but then pandemic arrived and I would not go there because of COVID. But one month ago I went, and it was really incredible to show the film to them and and the surprise was they laughed a lot. My cinematographer, who was with me, told me, “I didn’t know we made a comedy.”

It was a great surprise because sometimes in the editing, I was afraid that it was too indigenous and incomprehensible for [outsiders], and I was [thinking], “Ah, maybe it’s not going to work.” And then I decided that it would to be better make a film for them when we have lots of people in indigenous communities in Brazil, so I said, “If this film is only for them, it’s okay. Maybe I’m not capable to make something that’s for both, but when I made this choice, I didn’t know that was the best choice for [others] also because it became so indigenous that it was like fresh air for the festivals. We had been invited to Berlin, it was the first sign for me that the film works for [everyone] when and we won the [audience] award of best film. Then the film went to other very important documentary festivals as Visions du Réel, HotDocs in Canada, BarcelonaDocs, and then Guadalajara and Seoul and was awarded in several different continents.

I understood that the film would bring the message that Davi wants all over the world – he said to me, “This film is going to be an arrow that’s going to show our real image to the world, and because of that, people will be interested in help us against the gold miners that are invading in our land.” And I thought I was going to make a film that was going to show the invasion of gold miners. But when I asked Davi, he said, “I don’t want to make a thing about gold miners. I want to make a film that shows my people, and how beautiful and strong we are.” So I’m very happy that the film [is having these] important repercussions all over the world and what we need [now] is for people to get engaged and help them to put pressure on the Brazilian government to control this illegal invasion of the forest. The only way that it’ll happen is if other countries say, “We are not going to buy your products until you protect indigenous people, until you protect the forest” because the Brazilian government now is burning everything and doesn’t care about indigenous people. During the pandemic, I understand that people all over the world have so many problems [locally] so nobody has time to pay attention to other places, but as things calm down, I hope people pay attention what’s happening now in the Amazon forest, because it’s about our future, not only the Yanomami future.

“The Last Forest” opens on November 5th in Los Angeles at the Monica Film Center and will be available on Netflix beginning November 7th.