The story of colonialism is the story of what’s been lost, of what’s been taken, of what’s been forgotten. Land. Languages. Entire cosmologies. The process of reclaiming these losses, of doing the work of not undoing but outright naming this kind of violence is hard, not least because the story colonialism tells of itself is about what’s been gained, of what’s been learned, of what’s been earned. God’s love, for one. Western ideals, obviously. And material wealth, or its prospect at least.
For Mateo Sobode Chiqueno, who carries with him a tape recorder at the ready, capturing the stories of his fellow Ayoreo peoples in the Paraguayan Chaco region is his own way of trying to tell a different kind of story than the one often told about his indigenous brethren. The testimonials that make up the bulk of Arami Ullón’s documentary “Nothing but the Sun” don’t — can’t really — tell a linear nor unified history of the Ayoreo people.
To some, their move in the 20th century from a nomad people living in “the forest” to the sedentary world in “white people’s land” was a welcome change of pace, embraced with wide-eyed wonder. (The problems came later when, as one man puts it, he realized his wish to own white people’s things meant he had to work to earn money to be able to afford them.) For others, it was a tragic life event, marked by illness and death (Mateo himself was orphaned when he lost both his parents to diseases like measles the Ayoreo had never been exposed to until they came in contact with Salesian and then Mennonite missionaries). Some crave and find solace still in the shamanic knowledge passed down for generations. Others explicitly rebuke it in the name of Jesus Christ, whom they believe will grant them eternal life.
To Mateo (and, in turn, to Ullón) these conflicting narratives are precisely the point. For Mateo, his need to capture songs and stories and testimonials, is a chance to piece together what’s been happening to his community over the last few decades. What we witness throughout “Nothing but the Sun” is the very process of archiving, not as a dispassionate endeavor but as an empathetic, if knotted, enterprise that demands as much of Mateo as it does of those he interviews. With the help of Gabriel Lobos’ cinematography, the film captures plenty of moments when Mateo has to stop recording. He’s not just listening; he’s constantly digesting and processing and even grieving what he’s being told. Songs move him to tears. Stories force him into silence. Memories plunge him back into himself. This is not a portrait of the archivist as storyteller but as a rapt listener.
“Nothing but the Sun” doesn’t concern itself with written history. Thrusting audiences into Mateo’s world, it only offers a few contextual bits of information that help frame what would, in lesser hands, be an invasive ethnographic endeavor. Ullón lets Mateo serve as both host and interlocutor throughout, allowing his words — “White missionaries took us out of our paradise, What was our sin?” he asks at the start of the film — to set the tone for what unfolds in front of us.
That’s not to say Ullón’s aesthetic takes a back seat. In fact, the choice to showcase establishing shots of the arid, inhospitable landscapes that make up the Chaco region where the Ayoreo have been displaced makes that reference to “paradise” all the more suggestive. Later, when Ullón gives us images of the lush greenery that’s since been privatized (“Prohibida la entrada a personas extrañas,” reads a sign by a gate: “Forbidden entry to strangers”), it makes the dust-filled shots we’ve been watching nonstop feel all the more alienating.
Similarly, Ullón’s focus on the materiality of Mateo’s records, of those tapes kept in old shoeboxes, many of which are now tangled and in need of repair, make memory feel tangible. Away from the world they once knew but wholly rooted now in the one imposed on them, many of those interviewed by Mateo exemplify what the Ayoreo people lost — and what many of them would never dream of getting back. “Would you go back to the forest?” he asks, only to be met with equally dispiriting and inspiring answers.
As a meditation on the banality of colonialism, “Nothing but the Sun” is remarkable. Never unbearably heavy-handed nor oppressively didactic, Ullón’s graceful documentary is an opening salve, even if its final fiery images also feel like an urgent call to arms. These men and women, whose clothing bear corporate logos from a world far removed from where they live yet who cannot escape the capitalist ethos they represent, emerge as living, breathing memory of a destructive colonial enterprise that continues to this day. As Mateo puts it, “We really do resemble a cut tree.”