Visual Anthropology Review

“Since You Are Filming, I Will Tell the Truth”: A Reflection on the Cultural Activism and Collaborative Filmmaking of Video Nas Aldeias


A village elder pauses to catch his thoughts, looking straight into the camera lens: “since you are filming, I will tell the truth.” This humorous and profound moment in Tava: A Stone House (Carelli et al. 2013), one of the recent works by filmmaking collective Video Nas Aldeias (Video in the Villages [VIV]), captures the unique collaborative ethos and cultural activism of a groundbreaking group that, for the past three decades, has forcefully asserted the indigenous presence in the Brazilian film and sociocultural landscape. The documentary—by Patricia Ferreira (Mbya-Guarani), Ariel Duarte Ortega (Mbya-Guarani), Vincent Carelli, and Ernesto de Carvalho—tells the story of 17th-century Jesuit missions in Brazil from a Mbya-Guarani perspective. Although the ancestors of today's Mbya-Guarani indigenous peoples were forcibly recruited to build these missions on what were once their lands, their descendants now find themselves excluded from this heritage; the ruins are today popular tourist sites that have been appropriated by dominant national discourses. The film premiered to a New York audience on the first night of a three-day retrospective, “Video in the Villages: Celebrating Three Decades of Filmmaking in the Amazon,” organized by the Center for Media, Culture and History—part of the Department of Anthropology at New York University, the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies, and the National Museum of the American Indian from October 3–5, 2013. Indigenous filmmakers, scholars, and supporters gathered at New York University's (NYU) King Juan Carlos I Centre and Tisch School of the Arts for film screenings, panel discussions, and informal events in honor of the collective's trailblazing work. This timely retrospective took place in the same week that indigenous activists staged protests across Brazil against constitutional reforms that would prevent the rightful recognition of indigenous territories.

VIV was founded in 1986 by filmmaker and indigenous activist Vincent Carelli, initially as part of the indigenous advocacy organization Centro de Trabalho Indigenista. Its inaugural goal was to build a collaborative video practice with indigenous peoples in the Amazon, allowing them to take control of images of their communities and make themselves heard at a national level. VIV eventually became an independent entity in 1997. Its vision of using filmmaking and communication to empower indigenous communities has, since then, gained the group wide acclaim, from humanitarian organizations, film critics, and scholars alike (Aufderheide 2008; Bernardet 2004; Caxeita de Queiroz 2006; Fausto 2006; Ginsburg 1998; Stam 1997). The recent New York retrospective was testament to the extraordinary impact of VIV—today an international reference point for indigenous and collaborative media making, as well as a model for intercultural communication and indigenous pedagogy.

Alongside screenings of the group's canonical films such as Video Nas Aldeias (Carelli 1989), The Spirit of TV (Carelli 1990), and Meeting Ancestors (Carelli 1992)—works that originally drew international attention and funding to the project—the retrospective placed a more pronounced focus on the collective's recent work, made by a new generation of indigenous filmmakers, including VIV's first female indigenous director. Over three days, audiences had the opportunity to engage with this younger generation, represented by Patricia Ferreira (Mbya-Guarani) and Ariel Duarte Ortega (Mbya-Guarani) as well as veteran filmmaker Divino Tserewahú (Xavante), Brazilian filmmaker, NYU doctoral student in anthropology, and VIV teacher Ernesto de Carvalho, and founder Vincent Carelli. Long-standing advocates of the project introduced the sessions, with presentations by Patricia Aufderheide, Amalia Cordova, Faye Ginsburg, Robert Stam, and Pegi Vail. Both filmmakers and scholars alike emphasized the collaborative ethos of VIV, Carelli describing its teaching methodology as an “openness to the other.”

Indeed, VIV's history has been one of reciprocal discovery and exchange. Many of its early films were made in collaboration with anthropologists who had intimate relationships with the communities being filmed (The Spirit of TV [Carelli 1990] was made possible by Dominique Gallois' long-term involvement with the Waiapi Indians in Amapa, and Carlos Fausto facilitated exchanges with the Kuikuro community). The development of the training workshops, which came later in 1997, was influenced by Mari Correa, a teacher with the Ateliers Varan, a transnational documentary training school that was conceived by French anthropologist and filmmaker Jean Rouch in Mozambique in 1978. Carelli and Correa adapted some of the Ateliers Varan pedagogical methods that placed greater emphasis on filming spontaneous everyday realities. The lasting impact of this training was to encourage filmmakers to focus on the everyday lives of people in their communities, building a level of trust and complicity between filmmaker and subject. As with all these influences, however, VIV has “indigenized” the techniques so that this collective creation incorporates the whole village in the filmmaking process, broadening the ethical dimension of the films and the accountability of the filmmaker.

VIV's films emphasize embedded aesthetics (Ginsburg 1994)—the social relations produced through the filmmaking process—as much as the final product itself. Ariel Duarte Ortega, who is today the cacique of his village, claims that before they started filming in the community, the village was divided. His work as a filmmaker has taught him to listen to others and has led the community to accept him as a leader, through an organic social process that clearly has its own impact. As Ortega explained, following the screening of Tava, it was important to the filmmakers that the community and subjects of the film understand the importance of the project. Unlike the photographic practices of tourists at the ruins, they actively seek permission and feedback. Throughout the documentary, we hear subjects from the community offering the filmmakers advice and often filming the filmmaking process itself on their own mobile phones in a reflexive and reciprocal act. This immersive collaboration and true intimacy between filmmakers and subjects could also be seen in Ortega and Ferreira's films Bicycles of Nhanderu (Ferreira and Ortega 2011) and Mbya Mirim (Ferreira and Ortega 2013). Bicycles of Nhanderu immerses the viewer in the spiritual dimension of daily life in the Mbya-Guarani village of Koenju in Rio Grande do Sul, as the whole village comes together to build a house of worship. Mbya Mirim treats similar issues of the community, this time as seen through the eyes of two Mbya-Guarani children, Neneco and Palermo. These youngsters continually dialogue with the camera, looking straight into the lens, like the village elder in Tava. Explaining the subjects' fluid engagement and comfort with the medium, Ortega explains that “the camera itself has become Guarani, not just some tool that has come from the white people.”

While VIV's collaborative model has evolved and continues to evolve, in a joint search for a methodology between indigenous and non-indigenous filmmakers, what has not changed is its “unsentimental political pragmatism” (Aufderheide 2008), effectively using expression to leverage political action. Vincent Carelli's activist engagement goes back as far as 1969, when he first arrived in the village of Xikrin as a teenager and describes being adopted by the village elders and entering into indigenism as a “son” rather than “father” of Indians (Carelli 2006). His most recent work in progress, Resistance, brings together his experience of over 30 years of filming with indigenous communities. Initiated by VIV after a succession of murders happened in the villages of Guarani-Kaiowá in late 2012, several clips from this shocking footage were screened at the retrospective. Following on from Carelli's award-winning investigative documentary Corumbiara (Carelli 2009), which brought together material accumulated over three decades, Resistance offers a powerful denunciation of impunity and national forgetting.

Discussing the impact of VIV, Vincent Carelli modestly claims: “perhaps the only vanguard of Video Nas Aldeias has been the politics of giving a voice to those that never had the tools for expression” (Caxeita de Queiroz 2009). Yet the dynamism, depth, and urgency of the films also place VIV at the vanguard of a new cinematic vision, one based on ethical commitments as well a powerful hybrid aesthetic, born from exchange and relationality. Xavante filmmaker Divino Tserewahú's impressive body of work bears these signs of hybridity: after a career of over two decades filming and teaching in the Xavante community, as well as receiving widespread recognition for his work on the international festival circuit, Divino is adept at code switching. From the late 1980s to the present day, Divino has been the official filmmaker in his village, partnering with VIV and more recently VIV teacher and filmmaker Tiago Campos Torres. While the Xavante have always been primarily interested in documenting the rituals that structure their society, Divino's film Sangradouro (Tserewahú and Torres 2009) breaks with this tradition to explore the contradictions generated in his community since contact with the Salesian missionaries in 1957. The film tells this history for the first time from the point of view of the Xavante community, presenting the challenges and changes the community is going through as well as its own reflection on its past. The film achieves this complexity in both the narrative and aesthetic sense, showing the tensions between the generations, between cultures, as well as between the different visual legacies that the communities have been subjects to. Sangradouro juxtaposes different layers of documentation, with missionary archival films alongside oral testimonies by the Xavante elders, visually enacting a process of re-signification, reclaiming this history from an indigenous point of view.

The closing night documentary, The Master and Divino (2013) by Tiago Campos Torres, is the latest in a long line of prize-winning works in the VIV archive, composed of over 80 films made with 37 indigenous communities in Brazil. The film won the prestigious awards for Best Documentary, Best Soundtrack, and Best Editing at the Brasilia Festival of Brazilian Cinema in October 2013. This time the lens is turned on filmmaker Divino Tserewahú and his relationship with an eccentric Salesian missionary Adalbert Heide, who has taught and filmed in the community since 1957. Divino's film archive is counterposed with Heide's, offering two different views of Xavante culture as well as two separate film aesthetics: one of a “heroic figure” stuck in the colonial past, the other a Xavante filmmaker in the present. Rather than rendering a stark distinction between them, however, the film focuses on the complex relationship between the two men, with Divino acknowledging the Salesian influences that, for better or worse, have shaped him and his community. This repurposing of archival material and subtle intertwining of narratives is evident in several films by this new generation of indigenous filmmakers who showcase the living and adaptive traditions of the indigenous present.

For three decades, VIV has contested the marginalization of indigenous communities in Brazil. Like the words uttered by the village elder in Tava, quoted in the opening sentence of this article, the recent New York retrospective emphasized the possibilities of another national truth that reflects an indigenous point of view, as well as the catalytic effect filmmaking has had in revealing these hidden stories. The profoundly collaborative and reflexive nature of the VIV films showcased continues to push the boundaries of ethnographic and documentary film's ethical and aesthetic reach.


Special thanks to Faye Ginsburg for her constructive comments on this review.