“Only in our forest can you sleep in peace,” says Davi Kopenawa, a shaman and elder of the Yanomami community — the indigenous population of the rainforest terrain on the Brazilian-Venezuelan border. His words, enticing as they sound, aren’t an invitation to visitors, but a warning to his own. As the Yanomami’s unchanged, elemental way of life competes with the lure of the developed white world across the river, Kopenawa and his peers will say what they must to discourage younger generations from venturing away, and to keep their thousand-year-old culture intact. There’s more than fusty conservatism at play here, however. History has grimly proven that the white man isn’t merely a threat to the Yanomamis’ collective soul, but their individual bodies.
Luiz Bolognesi’s illuminating, enveloping documentary “The Last Forest” makes these stakes clear, and prizes Kopenawa’s point of view over that of the dazzled observer. Rather than taking a detached anthropological tour of the community, Bolognesi lets the Yanomami present themselves in their own words and on their own terms, thus enlivening everything from their mealtimes to their mythology.
At just 74 minutes, the film could afford to be more expansive, probing the personal perspectives and interior lives of more individuals than just Kopenawa — the tribe’s foremost public spokesperson, and also the doc’s co-writer. But this is still rewardingly conscientious filmmaking, visually and sonically rich without falling back on empty exoticist spectacle. Matching the profile of Bolognesi’s similarly themed 2018 doc “Ex-Shaman,” the new film debuted at Berlin, with healthy specialist distribution likely to follow.
At the outset of the film, we encounter Kopenawa as he prepares to journey to the city, to deliver an address in defense of his people and their environment — a realm repeatedly threatened over the years by encroaching gold prospectors. The Haximu massacre of 1993, which saw 16 Yanomami killed by prospectors, prompted increased governmental protections for the tribe, though we’re told many of those have fallen away under the administration of Jair Bolsanaro. Kopenawa, therefore, is in no mood to smile and compromise: “I don’t want to go there bringing festive food and traditional dancing,” he fumes ahead of his trip. “I must teach them our way of thinking.”
It’s a declaration that also proves instructive to the viewer. Bolognesi and cinematographer Pedro J. Marquez immerse us in the unfamiliar sights, sounds and rituals of the Yanomami, but with an emphasis on both practical routine and spiritual belief. One scene of alligator butchery is no less forensic for being shot in gorgeous, flickering firelight. That it’s followed up with an explanation of the rubble found in the beast’s stomach points to the tribe’s place in a larger ecosystem — a model again endangered by invading prospectors, whose mining results in poisonous mercury exposure, “releasing the smoke of disease.”
“The Last Forest” is most compelling when it’s patiently centered on such practicalities, though they’re countered by a degree of more constructed fiction and whimsy. Using the tribespeople as actors, Bolognesi dramatizes their key creation narrative, a colorful slab of mythology involving mermaid romance, fraternal betrayal and male impregnation. This parallel device doesn’t blend all that fluidly with the film’s more observational footage, as the wild details of the tale emerge a little more clearly than its wider meaning in the tribe’s belief system. Yet the filmmakers’ engagement of their subjects as active storytellers in their own right is bracing nonetheless; the folklore here feels first-hand, not filtered through multiple interpreters.
In Kopenawa, meanwhile, “The Last Forest” has both a grave, sturdy protagonist and a steadfast moral compass: So emphatically does he tilt the film to his way of seeing that, by the time he makes his climactic trip across the river, it’s the urban world that feels disorientingly “other.” Bolognesi and Marquez permit themselves an exquisitely staged shot of Kopenawa in his regular full tribal dress — not, it should be stressed, a “costume” — in his plushly appointed, shades-of-gray hotel room as he waits to be picked up. It’s a culture-clash composition as powerful as it is unsubtle: The pristine hotel bed, for one thing, doesn’t appear to have been peacefully slept in at all.