Interview: Brazilian Director Luiz Bolognesi discusses Netflix Documentary ‘The Last Forest’
This month, Brazilian filmmaker Luiz Bolognesi latest documentary The Last Forest, was released on Netflix. It is a documentary of the Yanomami people, capturing their way of life, culture, and myths for all to see. The documentary is a stunning portrayal of how different, and yet human, these indigenous people are. I had the opportunity to speak with the director about the film, and how it was made. Luiz’s passion for stories and storytelling was on display throughout the entire interview, in which we discussed the process for making this documentary, how Luiz got the Yanomami people involved in the decision process, and how the rest of the world can get involved in the fight for the rights of indigenous peoples in Brazil. The entire interview is transcribed below.
Benjamin: Hello Luiz, How are you today
Luiz: Hello, good to meet you.
Benjamin: You worked on the last forest, your latest documentary, and like many of your projects, it covers a tribe indigenous to South America. What draws you to these stories?
Luiz: I am very interested, and I aim to know the way of life of these civilizations, that have been here for thousands and thousands of years before we European people had arrived here. And they have different ways to understand life; different ways to lead an economy. They are much more holistic, they are much more sustainable, and they are much more linked to the moment of living now and not so engaged with the project of controlling the future. And that means they are less anxious and the stress in the lives of indigenous people is much lower. So I love to make the cinema to become a kind of window where white people and indigenous people can change better than in general happen. So I have been working on some films with them, and I love to work with them. As I do doc-fictions, they tend to be very good actors and actresses, because the level of stress is so low, they are very tapped into the moment, which is good for cinema.
Benjamin: Definitely! Speaking of performances, how did you get these very naturalistic performances? What is the process like getting them involved in that?
Luiz: I think the main point was the inclusion of the main Shaman, Davi Kopenawa, not only as the main character but also having him write the film with me. I think that was the turning point in this equation. He was the one who would lead the stories; deciding which stories we would tell in the movie. And because of that, they feel very comfortable. And in order to shoot the film, I had been living with them for five weeks, three of which were prior to shooting. So we had to get confident and comfortable about one another. We did this because they are very worried about the lies that white people tell them all the time. People arrive, saying they are friends when they just want to take the women and the gold from the lands, so they are very used to that. So they need some time to know who you are and then they can trust you. And as I invited Davi to writing, and as I really lived with them for 3 weeks, we made meetings to discuss the script with other people from the community as they usually do. They don’t decide things by themselves, they are very communitive in making decisions. As things continued like that, they were every day becoming more confident and they started to feel I belonged with them. And because of that, it was possible to turn on the camera, something they didn’t know in this place. They had never seen a film before. Davi, who wrote with me, he knew what film was, because he has been to cinemas and speaks Portuguese. But to all the other people there, they haven’t ever seen a film and they haven’t ever gone to a cinema, and they don’t speak Portuguese.
So for them, they understood what camera it was, they understood the way we were going to do, and they understood that sometimes they were going to make things that had happened before, so they are playing as actors, and they took that very well. Originally, we weren’t allowed to shoot the Shaman rituals. But after 5 weeks, when we were leaving in 3 days, they made a very great ritual and invited us to be with them and to shoot everything we want. But, when we asked them for subtitles because I translated it after we had shot everything. Only in the editing room did I know what I had shot. They speak all the time, and sometimes I would be shooting for twenty-five minutes, and when I asked my translator what they had said would say “They said they are going to hunt tomorrow.” But they had been speaking for 25 minutes! So in the editing room, I made subtitles and translated the film, and I found out what film I had done. But, when I asked them if I could translate the words of the shamans during the ritual, they said no, because white civilization is not prepared for that. You are not prepared, you haven’t been preparing yourself to listen to the shabiri spirits. So as you see in the film, we don’t have a translation for the words of the shamans during the ritual, because they didn’t allow us. Not even I know what they are saying. What I do know is that for them, it’s not the shaman that is speaking. At that moment, the spirits of animals talk in their mouth, but what they are saying, I don’t know.
Benjamin: Yeah, that’s absolutely fascinating. When did you start this project? In the final moments of the film, it discusses the impact of the pandemic on the Yanomami culture. So when did you start shooting, and how did pandemic protocols affect this film as a whole?
Luiz: When I started shooting this film, it was four months before the pandemic begins. So for shooting, it was no problem. Then, I edited the film during the pandemic. So, I told them, when the film was complete, I was coming back to show them the finished film. It was very important to me and them. But, during the pandemic, I would not do that. So, we had to wait a long time to go back when they had all gotten two vaccines. During the pandemic, they had cases of Coronavirus in their community, and everyone got the disease, but nobody died. So it wasn’t until after this that I got to show the film to them. The impact wasn’t on the shooting for the film. But interestingly, before the pandemic arrived, the shaman told me it was coming. They said that there is a great disease coming because you are going to the forest and moving the land where we couldn’t, and shouldn’t move it, in order to take gold and metals, because they are there and have to stay there. And as we remove these metals, an unnormal disease is coming. Which then happened! And now, as I speak to them presently, they are saying that another disease is coming, stronger and worse than this one. The great problem they had when I was there was not the pandemic, but the invasion of gold miners. And I went there because I wanted to make a movie about that invasion. But Davi told me they didn’t want to make a movie about gold miners. Their desire was to make a film about them, to show to the world how beautiful they are, how strong they are, and along the way, we would also talk about gold miners. He told me, “I don’t want to show our people as poor people that need help all the time. You are the ones who need help, you are sick, you are destroying the land, but we need help. So we will talk about gold miners, we will show in the film that they are near and destroying everything, but it is not going to be about them.” For me, the film was going to be about that. But they decided that it would be an important issue raised by the film, but not the main course of the film.
Benjamin: That’s super cool to me because I can’t imagine watching this film without seeing how much of this culture is being preserved in it. And to know that came directly from them is magical. You mentioned that you had Davi writing the film with you. What was the writing process like with Davi?
Luiz: When I went to him, inviting him to be the screenwriter, he told me Cinema is a dream, where everybody has the dream at the same time. So if I am going to write with you, you have to come to my land, stay with me some nights, you have to dream, I have to dream, and then the next day we talk about that and we decide what film we are going to do. Because for them, dreams are real. They believe that what happens at night happened. For us, it’s a kind of fictional narrative. For them, no, the dreams are true. For example, one day I was walking with a hunter, and he said to me he was very tired. And I said he had just woken up, how are you tired? And he replied that all night, he had been running, escaping from the jaguar. And for him, that had really happened. So, I went to the community alone and stayed there two weeks. Every day they invited me to make things, to watch things happen with them, and at night, they turn on the fire and Davi invited the elders and some important hunters to talk to me. And then I explained to them that Film is a kind of myth that you create and talk about whatever we want. So I asked what they wanted to talk about, and they decided. One of the things they decided was to talk about Yomama and Yuasi, which are the Gods that created the forest and even the Yanomami. And I was unsure how we were going to do it, it’s a marvel picture, not a small documentary! And I used to go to sleep not knowing how to do that, and I had a lot of anguish about that. And I found that I had to go to them and ask what to do, and how to do. So I asked them how they wanted to tell that story, so they told me how to do it. I was told to go to two brothers, who aren’t gems as in the story, but they are very similar to one another, and they would tell me how to do it.
So I went there, talked to them, and the next day they came with the costumes and art for the Yomama and Yuasi, and they showed me where we would shoot the story. And that’s how things happened. But one moment during the day, women would come to me and talk to me, a lot. And they would have lots of questions for me, like how is your life, how is your wife, how many daughters you have, are they married, why aren’t they married, how many wives do you have, lots of talk with them. But at night when we are going to make the decisions, the women were not invited. And I asked Davi if we could invite some women to talk with us about the story, and he said no, this is a space traditionally for men. Women usually in our stories and traditions don’t come to the decision table, this is your place. And that wasn’t very comfortable to me, so I told him that in the white world, things are changing a lot and women don’t accept anymore this situation. I think it would not be good if we make a film about the Yanomami and don’t listen to women. And he left, and I thought I went too far from what I should be doing because they are a traditional people, and how can I bring this kind of us to their tradition. But, half an hour after, he came back and told me he understood what I meant. He knew I spent a lot of time talking to Ehuana, one of the women of the film. And he said “I know you talk too much to her. She is a very strong Yanomami woman. You are allowed to talk to her and to tell the stories that women want to, and you don’t have to come back to me. You do it the way they want to do it because I understand the way you are working, and that’s fine for me.” And that really showed me how open-minded they are, which is so different from us. We are so difficult to change, and they are so open-minded. So the script was like that, where they made decisions and together we found a way of how to tell that story. And in the editing house, it was my mission to mix and to balance the dreams, myths, and what we call reality, and to balance it in a way that allows us to understand this culture that can be difficult to understand.
Benjamin: The Last Forest is an absolute Marvel of a film. The last question I have for you is how can we get involved and help the Yanomami people secure their rights to the land and to their rights as a people?
Luiz: Yeah, it’s very important and something Davi said was one of the most important things of the film. “To get people,” he said, “from the world engaged in our fight to preserve the forest and our culture. We are not only fighting for the future of our children but for the future of every child of the planet because if we destroy the forests as we are doing, climate change will make too many pandemics and we will not have water anymore. And people are going to die and suffer a lot. So our fight is the fight of everybody on the planet.” I think that’s what makes the film important, that through the emotional connection, people get engaged with the fight of indigenous people of the Amazon forest to protect the forest. It’s important that people in countries make pressure against president Bolsonaro, and the only way is to say we won’t buy Brazilian products until you respect Indigenous people, until you show you are capable to protect and not burn the forest. This kind of movement is very important to help them.
Benjamin: Thank you very much for your time, this has been fantastic.
Luiz: Great, I thank you very much for giving me the opportunity to talk to you. Thank you so much.
The Last Forest is available to stream on Netflix.