For her second feature documentary, after the highly personal “Cloudy Times” (2014), Paraguayan director Arami Ullón looked to her homeland’s vast and largely unpopulated Chaco region for inspiration. What she found there surprised her: she encountered a race of people known as the Ayoreo, who had been taken from their native idyll and left in the middle of nowhere, with next to no amenities, by well-meaning white Christians. You might think this kind of thing died out in the 19th century but far from it. “It started to happen systematically from the late 50s on,” says Ullón. “The last known episode happened at the end of the 90s and there was one particular episode at the beginning of 2000, but this is continuously happening, so to speak.”
To tell the Ayoreo’s story, Ullón found Mateo Sobode Chiqueno, who was taken by the people referred to in the film as “the whites” when he was 11 or 12. Mateo uses a decrepit tape recorder to question his friends and family about the “before times,” painting a fascinating portrait of an all but obliterated culture. Pertinently for the opening night film at a festival operating under the cloud of a pandemic, Ullón’s film reveals that many of the Ayoreo people died of common illnesses, mostly measles, after being exposed to Western society. The irony was not lost on the director. “When I got to know about the Ayoreo, and I found out that most of them died because of a virus that they couldn’t fight against, of course, I could understand that theoretically. But I couldn’t completely grasp what that really meant. And so [the pandemic] was helpful for me to be able to understand that. I mean, look at what’s happened to us, even though we have taken all these hygienic measures. What will happen to those people that have no idea what is happening to them and no way of protecting themselves?”
Variety spoke to Ullón a few days before the festival started.
What inspired you to make this movie, and how did you come to meet Mateo?
Well, I’ll tell you a little story. It was 2013, I guess, and my boyfriend came home with a newspaper. It was probably one of those free newspapers that they give out on the streets, and there was a news story about the existence of the Ayoreo people, who lived in complete isolation, without contact with civilization, in the forests of Paraguay. I was quite shocked, because I didn’t know anything about it. At first I didn’t trust the newspaper—I thought it was just cheap, free journalism—so I started researching, and I got in contact with a friend of mine who works for human rights. And she said, “No, actually, it’s true.” She put me in contact with a Swiss anthropologist that happens to live in Paraguay, Benno Glauser, and that was my first approach to the whole situation. He took me to the Chaco for the first time, and, during my first trip to the Chaco, he took me to where Mateo lives. And that is how I got to know Mateo.
When did you decide to make him the focus?
At the beginning, the film was going to be about the work that Benno and Mateo were doing together in order to understand the circumstances of the Ayoreo people, in order to save, somehow, elements of their culture. And also they were collaborating to find traces of Ayoreo people that were still living in the forest. So, at first, I thought that was the story, but the more I got to know Mateo, the more interested I became in him. I was especially interested in the audio archive that he had been creating since the 70s. I just found it so touching, because, even though these tapes were probably not the best way to present this story, it was what he’d learned in the 70s—what he saw that the whites were doing. And so he took this white approach, because this is not something that comes with [the Ayoreos’] natural way of life. They were nomads, they don’t accumulate things. Everything is oral, nothing is written, they don’t have belongings. So with Mateo, the idea of collecting and archiving is already a sign of how civilized Mateo was already. So I decided that the film was about the loss of home and the impossibility of recovering that home.
So it was a complete coincidence that you found somebody that was archiving their own roots, so to speak?
Yes. I was really lucky. When I entered this whole universe, it was so complex and I needed to understand so many different things, on so many levels, that sometimes it was so overwhelming. It was difficult to find the right way. What was the right narrative for this?
Mateo seems very open. Was it easy to gain his trust?
Probably it was not automatic, but then I arrived to this community with a person that Mateo trusted. You also have to [bear in mind] that I waited about three years before I started to shoot anything, and during those three years of preparation it was a lot of research. A lot of theoretical research, but also research that I did in situ—going into the communities and being with them. So only after these three years did I think we had their trust. It took a very long time.
How long did it take to shoot?
Well, in total I think we shot 12 weeks, but they were divided into three periods: 2016, 2018 and 2019. The first [section] that I did was much more … How to say? It was less natural. If you watch the film again, you will find some sequences that are … very static. That is what I did mostly in 2016. And then I realized that this was not the right way to construct the whole film—that the film could have these little spaces that were more like essay spaces, and that the rest should be really more narrative and should be really very close to the people. So from that first shoot, I learned a lot, and then I decided to try, for the next two shoots, a very simple [shot-reverse-shot] style, and just do it like that.
How did you know what they were saying?
The interesting thing is that it was completely intuitive, because we did not understand what was happening. I would be next to the cameraman. I would look at their faces, and I would nudge him a little—that was the procedure we were doing. And then when I would cut the scene, I would go to where our translator was sitting—we had an Ayoreo translator who was listening to the conversations and who was making, with a time code, very general notes. He would give me an idea of where we were, and, according to that, I would talk to Mateo and the other person and ask them how they would like to continue the conversation. But it was amazing, because I never realized that there was so much detail and depth in these conversations. I was not aware of it until we did the whole translation of the whole footage, which was about 40 hours. That’s when we started to discover what we actually had.
They are incredibly eloquent…
Yes. Exactly. But this is also what we think of, of native people. It’s also a prejudice that we have, which is interesting to break, because, why does it surprise us when they are very eloquent, and very political and very aware of this whole thing? Most people just think that we were educated with these beliefs. No. This is part of the colonialism that happened, and which happened in most of the world. And it has never gone away. It’s instilled in each of us, and that was also very tricky to deal with, because sometimes I was catching myself having these kind of thoughts.
It’s a very emotive film for the viewer—it made me very angry at times. When you’re making a film like this, is it difficult to stop your own emotions getting in the way?
I was very angry too. At the beginning I was angry at myself, then I was angry at the situation. I got angry with the government. I got angry with the religious missionaries, although I think that started much earlier, my anger towards religion. But it has been a very painful process. It took me years not to cry when working with them, because, also, the thing about crying when you are there is that it can also be very offensive to them. It’s like saying, “How you live makes me so sad,” and this is such a privileged point of view. One of our sound engineers gave me a rule that if I was going to cry during the shooting, that I should go very far away from microphones. But sometimes I couldn’t help it.
What would you like people to take away from your film?
That’s a very difficult question. I don’t think there is only one answer, but what I would say is that I just want us to reflect about how we approach otherness, how we approach other cultures. Are we really approaching other cultures, other ways of thinking, other ways of life with openness, or are we just trying to impose how we want them to think, how we want them to be?
One last question: are you still in touch with Mateo?
Yeah. Oh, constantly. Constantly. We talk. [Laughs] Finally, he got to learn how to use the smartphone that someone gave him as a present, and we are WhatsApping now.