Akimi Ota, a doctoral candidate at Manchester University in ethnology, made this intimate film when he lived in the Ecuadorean rain forest with the Shuar, a group of native people with their own unique language whose indigenous territory covers a large land mass that extends over most of the Amazon countries. Ota lived in one village and recorded the footage himself, since he had no crew. The result is highly professional to the point where it not only transcends its ostensible purpose of documenting the daily lives of its subjects, but realizes a cinematic narrative structure and aesthetic that conveys its own sensibility apart from that of its subject. Strictly speaking, I’m not sure if that’s what ethnologists are supposed to do, but it also may explain why the movie has been shown at several international film festivals and is receiving a theatrical release in Japan.
In any case, Ota tried to stay out of the picture as much as possible, and though you hear his voice once or twice, there is no narration. The main subject is the Tsamarain family, whose patriarch, Sebastian, takes up most of the screen time, acting as a guide to the forest and a kind of professorial lecturer on Shuar culture. Though much of what he says will probably go over the viewer’s head, Sebastian is often a riveting presence: funny, articulate if not always coherent, and genuinely photogenic. The reason he seems out of reach most of the time is that he is a shaman, and while Ota, owing to his long-term contact with the village, seems to understand the spiritual world Sebastian expounds upon, I, for one, became fidgety with all the metaphors and vague descriptions that came with the lectures. The main focus is his use of two psychotropic plants that have a wide range of purposes in the village, though it’s not clear from the exposition if anyone on screen has partaken of the drug during filming. There’s also a lot of imbibing of something called “chicha,” a fermented drink that seems to accompany almost every activity, including those partaken for survival, such as building huts and searching for food. In fact, halfway through, I came to the conclusion that much of footage depicts people who are constantly stoned, which is a pointless observation, of course, since if they are always stoned then that is their “normal” state of being, which means I may never really be able to appreciate the mindset that seems essential to understanding Sebastian’s discursions about the universe.
Still, it isn’t all exotic ephemera. The family buys clothing from the outside world and there’s even a TV. At one point Sebastian’s wife (at least, I think she’s his wife) talks about running for office, so it’s not as if the people being observed are completely off the grid, so to speak, and in that regard, I wish Ota has pointed his camera farther afield to capture how the Shuar fit into the larger scheme of Amazon society, but that’s perhaps asking too much of an anthropologist. Nevertheless, I wonder what his doctoral advisor thought of the movie.
In Shuar. Now playing in Tokyo at Theater Image Forum Aoyama (03-5766-0114).
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photo (c) Akimi Ota