Indigenous communities have faced violence since Brazil’s colonial period. But in that long history of oppression, specific periods stand out as moments in which non-western cultures faced new and particularly intense threats. Some are shockingly contemporary: in the period of 1964-1985, the Brazilian military dictatorship established indigenous reeducation camps – a program of forced whitening – and forcibly removed indigenous people from their land. And, in the current moment, Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro not only celebrates the past genocide of indigenous groups, but he also calls to get rid of all demarcated indigenous lands and intentionally emboldens land grabbers to commit acts of violence against indigenous peoples, as The Intercept reports.
At the heart of these acts of violence, historically and in the present moment, is a general disregard for the non-western cultural views that continue to exist within Brazil. In order to end the continued violence against indigenous groups, there needs to be an educational effort to discuss and celebrate the diverse cultural beliefs in Brazil. Filmmaker Alberto Alvares, who is ethnically Guarani, assumes that task: he makes films that depict and preserve his culture for indigenous and non-indigenous viewers. Here, Alvares created a short film from his feature length documentary Guardiões da Memória, or Guardians of Memory, which seeks to communicate the “living memory” of the Guarani people. After watching, continue on for a conversation on indigenous audiovisual production and the politics of land in Brazil today.
Guardiões de Memória (Guardians of Memory) in its short film form. Directed by Alberto Alvares.
Artememoria: In this short film, your narration includes the statement, “for us Guarani, memory is what constitutes life.” How did you come to understand the role of memory for Guarani communities and why did you chose to make a film on that topic?
Alberto Alvares: We Guarani have many stories, many things that need to be filmed, that should be told to a camera and then safeguarded. I’ve made films in various different contexts. My focus in documentary filmmaking is on spirituality, and all of my films bring in that question in some way. Guardiões de memoria (Guardians of Memory) is a film that I had already been thinking about for some time. I wanted to tell these stories, these memories. For us, the Guarani, memory is not what happens after death. We live this memory in our everyday lives. Our elders are the guardians of knowledge, of the memories that we carry with us. It is not a dead memory, that isn’t what remembering is. I wanted to represent that kind of memory through film. That’s why the film is called Guardiões de memória. The elders are the guardians because they carry wisdom with them and then pass it down to the new generation. That new generation grows up with that memory, carrying it with them. When the elders die, the young person takes their place.
The idea of the film was to safeguard memory and to really to show what knowledge the elders in our villages are protecting. There are very few elders left in the world of the Guarani. Many of our spiritual leaders have already died or left. Film is a tool, another way of telling the memory that is present here.
Artememoria: Why is film your medium for safeguarding memory?
Alvares: I always say that we, the Guarani, are above all a people of orality. We are not a people of the written word. So we need to find a way to preserve that, to communicate the dreams of the Guarani and to narrate the life of the Guarani through images. I always think that when you write, you make mistakes, you erase things, you throw things away until your writing is correct. Not in film. When you produce it, it remains. You are able to see something and then come back and revisit it. You can take these films into schools and talk to communities about them. Film is the medium for communicating the presence of invisible beings and the wisdom of our elders. With each part of each film I produce, year after year, I continuing seeing what is most important, what I should record, what my main focus should be.
Artememoria: The question of what to record and what to focus on is interesting. Various visual moments in Guardiões de memória are very powerful. When the elder is talking about Nhanderu, there is a moment in which the camera focuses only on her hands as she tells that story, and at the end of the scene, the camera zooms out to show another elder sitting silently by her side. How do you make these choices? What grounds your visual choices as a director?
Alvares: Today, the Guarani people know about my work. I am known mostly among my own people as a reference for those who want to safeguard knowledge through film. People seek me out to record interviews, to record dances. Whenever they want to document something, they come to me. They say, we need you, and I go whenever I can. They trust me because I’m Guarani. It’s as though I am the person who will bring these beautiful words to society so that the world can see who we really are.
I learned how to make films by making them. I never studied film, I never studied how to frame something. I frame a scene however I want to. I never think about framing something in a specific way, getting a close-up shot because I think about how people will watch it. No, I think, I want this to be the way I want it to be. Now, I do know the kinds of shots I am using, but I didn’t before. Because I produced so much material, I learned through doing. And I always take real risks when I make films. When you direct a documentary, especially with the Guarani people, you don’t ask an elder to repeat a scene twice. That would never happen. You have to take risks, to already have in mind how you want to frame those shots. That is what I do.
Artememoria: What is the broader political significance of living memory for the Guarani?
Alvares: I’ve never intentionally made a political film. It’s important to make films that show how the Guarani people think and what our elders say about the world. At the same time, through these films, society can learn how the Guarani people think about the world, how we see the issue of land and caring for the spaces we live in. All of this is a way for us to also show that our land is a part of our people. That this is our sacred territory. That is what I want to show to the world when I make films through the wisdom that elders bring to a new language through the tool of the camera.
With that, we will slowly reach a few people who are trying to understand why the Guarani struggle for a piece of land. In most cases, Guarani communities have small territories, tiny pieces of land. Take Jaraguá, which is 1.3 hectares in the São Paulo metro area. People there think, why is the Indian here? But people do not know our history, they do not know our land. Society doesn’t manage to see how that place has spirits. Trees have spirits, water has spirits, rocks have spirits there, and when people sing, when they dance, the spirits sing with them. This land has its spirits and the wise ones speak to that invisible world through song. That’s why the land is sacred for the Guarani. Our communities can’t see themselves leaving that territory and moving to another place, because that would mean leaving sacred land. That is what I want to express to society.
Artememoria: Who are other Guarani artists or directors that you would like to suggest to readers interested in broadening their view of the world?
Alvares: There is a woman named Patrícia Ferreira. She’s a Guarani filmmaker who lives in Rio Grande do Sul; she and her husband do a lot of good work. Patricia focuses a lot on this question of spirituality, and what it means to be a Guarani woman.
Artememoria: What are the upcoming projects you are working on?
Alvares: I’m finishing a full-length documentary called O Último Sonho (The Last Dream). It’s an homage to a wise Guarani elder who died in 2016 and who was a great leader, very respected in Southern and Southeastern Brazil.
I also have a finished script for a film called Coração na Terra (Heart of the Earth), which will show the Guarani world without borders, in Brazil, Paraguay, and Argentina. Why do the Guarani called that place the heart of the earth? How do the Guarani live there? How do the Guarani people see the border? For the non-indigenous society, there is a border, but from the Guarani perspective there isn’t any border at all. Instead, there are only territories. We so often see the suffering of the Guarani-Kaiowá on the border, but I thought that there was another, more positive side of the story to tell.