How a fiercely isolationist Brazilian tribe slowly opened themselves up to the outside world is the subject of Belisario Franca’s captivating “Xavante Strategy.” In the 1970s, a wise leader sent eight boys to live in Brazilian society so they could become advocates for their people; 34 years later, Franca tells their story. Terrific subject gets enthusiastic support from all involved, and while rosy summation perhaps treads too lightly on the painful but inevitable effects of this encounter, docu warrants widespread fest play as well as Discovery Channel-type showcasing.
Contact between the traditionally bellicose Xavante tribe and the Mato Grosso state was first established in the late 1940s (Franca includes fascinating footage from that early encounter). Forward-thinking members soon understood the necessity of having spokesmen capable of negotiating with the larger world, so they arranged for their sons to be raised and educated by families in the city of Ribeirao Preto.
Unsurprisingly, this “mission of understanding” proved a severe shock to kids who weren’t even used to wearing clothes, and yet had to assume the social niceties of contemporary Brazilian life. The speed with which they adapted is a testament not only to the overall flexibility and tenacity of children, but to the warmth and encouragement of the foster families, many of whom are interviewed here. Thrust into a completely alien culture, these boys felt schizophrenic allegiances that continue to shape their adulthood.
Docu includes intriguing glimpses into the Xavante’s elaborate coming-of-age rituals, but this isn’t an ethnographic pic, and deeper discussions of these practices await another helmer. Female voices, except for a few mothers who had their sons taken away without consultation, are absent, suggesting a strictly patriarchal society (the tribe is polygamous) and raising the question of whether these men, now straddling both societies, have contributed to any attitudinal cross-pollination.
Most of the men chose, after heartrending decisions, to return to their villages; today, many are tribal leaders with the know-how to promote their culture, fight deforestation and protect traditional foods and species. They appear to be uncorrupted by Western culture, incorporating certain benign elements of Brazilian society into their lives while rejecting others. Auds may question this apparently idyllic arrangement, and docu’s sole disappointment is Franca’s decision not to explore that tension.
Editing nicely weaves footage from early anthropological expeditions with life in today’s villages, conveying the extraordinary changes the Xavante have undergone in less than 50 years while still maintaining their integrity. Digital projection on the bigscreen is problem-free.