I spoke with Ana Vaz at the International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR) in 2020. I had not seen Ana since watching her first film Sacris Pulso in Australia (2007), which re-configures the film Brasiliários (1985) and uses found home movie footage, with music by her father Guilherme Vaz. Since then she has established a strong international reputation as an innovative film artist. Her works include Occidente (2014), A Idade da Pedra (The Age of Stone, 2012), Há Terra! (There Is Land!, 2016) and Olhe Bem As Montanhas (Look Closely at the Mountains, 2018). Vaz presented her new film Apiyemiyekî? (2020) as part of the Tiger Competition at IFFR.
Apiyemiyekî? reconfigures and frames Brazilian educator and Indigenous rights militant Egydio Schwade’s archive at Casa da Cultura do Urubuí, containing 3,000 drawings, the material collective visual memory of the Amazonian Waimiri-Atroari tribe’s genocide at the hands of the Brazilian military. What is striking in Apiyemiyekî? is not only the intrinsic political archaeology of past atrocities uncovered but how the technical mobilities of Vaz’s camera movement, unstable imagery and their layering unearth and document these hidden events. Through Vaz’s evolving visual language, her body-centred practice re-enlivens Paolo Freire’s bottom-up political approach and its grounded steps into empowerment. Apiyemiyekî? is part of a contemporary international movement often documented at IFFR that mobilises the formalisms of previous generations and extends the feminist filmmaking practice predicted by Laura Mulvey in 1979: “women cannot be satisfied with an aesthetic that restricts counter-cinema to work on form alone. Feminism is bound to its politics; its experimentation cannot exclude work on content.”1
Apiyemiyekî? also extends Federico Windhausen’s program El Pueblo (the Public) on Latin American Cinema presented at Oberhausen in 2016, which mapped the trajectory from a dissident public present in films like Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino’s Hour of the Furnaces (1968) to the fragmented niche situations documenting contemporary Indigenous and colonising concerns in Vincent Carelli and Dominique Gallois’ Meeting Ancestors / A arca dos Zo’é (Brazil, 1993), Vicente Cueto’s Raccaya Umasi (Peru, 2015) and Ximena Garrido-Lecca’s Contornos (Peru, 2014).
The camera movement in Apiyemiyekî? reminded me of your earlier work.
I had never thought about it in this way, but it is interesting because in many ways Apiyemiyekî? is a return to the most essential elements in cinema for me: multi-dimensional time-spaces, rhythm, collage, layered movement. It is also a return to the place where I was born, Brasília, a spectral presence in many of my films. Yet, Apiyemiyekî? is a film of another moment, a film that began with a highly intuitive invitation made by Brazilian researcher and curator Ana Pato, who had been working towards a very significant survey exhibition in São Paulo, Brazil, called “Meta Archive 1964-1985: Space for Reading and Hearing on the Histories of the Military Dictatorship in Brazil” for which Apiyemiyekî? was commissioned.
You’ve become involved in Brazil’s political situation.
It’s unavoidable to be affected by the political situation in Brazil in its current or historical form. In Brazil, and perhaps similarly in Australia, the historical violence foundational to these countries is in a lot of ways inherited through the body.
Unspoken ways. Yes.
Unspoken, yet socially felt and deeply corporeal. Ever since I moved to Australia, my films seem to have been searching for ways to re-member – in the sense of bringing the body members back together – my relationship to the centre-west of Brazil and my native Brasília. That’s where I was born and grew up, and as a modernist city, it is a place marked by what I would call a re-enactment of a colonial gesture: drawing a cross in the middle of the country signifying a kind of Terra Nullius in order to erect a modernist symbol of forward progress and detachment from the past. A lot of my films have been, since that time when we first met in Australia, about excavating the layers underneath that place.
You talked about that in terms of your first film, the heritage of your parents. That was on your mind when you were working in Australia.
My first film, Sacris Pulso, was an intense purge or an intensification of my relationships with them through cinema. My parents introduced me to cinema in a most primal way, as they met on the film set of Brasiliários in 1985 in Brasília. The film is a pure psycho-geographic portrait of the city. My mother, at that time was a committed film and cultural producer as well as graduate of anthropology and sociology. My father, an expressive composer and thinker of sound and music working in the centre-west of Brazil at that time. He was one of the founders of the conceptual art movement in the 1970s in Rio de Janeiro and later broke away and began a long and significant path towards the hinterlands of Brazil until reaching the Amazon region, where he spent the most significant years of his life, living and working with Indigenous societies as a musician, thinker and student of their world-forms.
That trajectory is reflected in Egydio Schwade, the activist recorded in Apiyemiyekî?.
Differently, Egydio Schwade is an educator, ecologist and indigenous rights militant who conducted the first literacy experience with the Waimiri-Atroari, a people native to the Brazilian Amazon. He is also one of the main coordinators of the “1st Report of the State Committee of Truth: The Genocide of the Waimiri-Atroari peoples” (1º Relatório do Comitê Estadual da Verdade: O Genocídio do Povo Waimiri-Atroari), where I first saw the drawings that feature in Apiyemiyekî?. The report provides a thorough documentation of the crimes documented in the film.
Committed in the ‘70s?
Mostly between 1972 and 1975, during the construction of the BR-174 highway that you see repeatedly in Apiyemiyekî?. These were the harshest years of the military dictatorship in Brazil, years marked by infrastructural projects of extraction and capital expansion emblematic of the dictatorship period in its “civilisatory march” towards the Amazon region. The BR-174 highway traversed the lands of the Waimiri-Atroari from north to south restricting their autonomy and relationship to their land and environment. They resisted and retaliated until the military government began taking drastic violent measures such as what you witness in the film.
What is the connection between the resistance that was happening then and now, in relation to the Meta-Archive exhibition?
When filming with Egydio Schwade, he said to me: “Ana, people often forget that the first people to have fought the military dictatorship in a really pertinent way were the Indigenous.” They have been fighting for land rights and self-determination in their affirmation of other forms of living and being forever, but were leading the way in the resistance against military oppression in the ‘60-‘70s.
Taking this historical perspective as a motto, Meta-Archive searched to expand our understanding of the dictatorship years through a collective gesture seeking to expand what we understand and know about resistance movements throughout the country. I also think the exhibition itself was a gesture of resistance in its effort to look into the past in order to situate the present.
So, the Meta-Archive exhibition reflects the networks of resistance available for you to work with, when you go to São Paulo?
The exhibition gathered a wonderful constellation of researchers, collectives, archivists and militant groups. Yet, I would not say they are “available to work with”, but rather that we gathered as a result of an ongoing collective effort to fabricate alternate historical imaginaries. And this is significant in a country that suffers from the effects of severe amnesia due to a violent erasure of histories, memories and traumas inherent to its progress-driven nation-building war machine.
You seem to be more articulate about that than those I hear talking about about such oppressive systems in Australia. Although, this program that you are going to see after this about the Karrabing Film Collective in the Northern Territory might be an example of how to break that down in Australia.
The Karrabing Film Collective seems also to be driven by a necessity to fabricate alternate narratives, forms and imaginaries that defy and address the violence of settler mentality. And, strangely enough, this radical imaginary that lays underneath the surface of settler Australia is something that I felt deeply when I was living there and still accompanies me today. I am very grateful to have had this experience there when I did.
Maybe it allowed you to look at Brazil in a clearer way.
It allowed me to have perspective. When I left Brazil at 17, I was very troubled by the educational system there. Only later did I realise that the educational system I experienced had been designed under military rule, designing a system made for numbing imaginaries.
So, when you went back to Brazil with that, and you had that way of working, did you see the difference between the way you were now thinking and some people back in Brazil? How did that divergence help you to make a difference, in terms of that resistance?
Well, it begged me to reconfigure my relationship with my roots. When I returned, I had to start again, almost as a foreigner. Once you leave, you never belong entirely again, never completely.
So, you have this ambiguous relationship with Brazil, but other places as well. I remember reading some comments by you about the way the Brazilian language is perceived in Portugal. There’s a difference there as well.
Well, if there really was a Brazilian language, they would rather be Tupi, Guarani, Kiña… So the fact that Brazilian is perceived as a bastard language to the Portuguese is significant of a kind of settler mentality. Brazilian is not language for us.
One of my favourite theorists is Vilém Flusser. And he talks about migration and the freedom of the migrant. You have experienced some of these migration mobilities that are directly registered in your body in often unspeakable ways. For Flusser these experiences make you more grounded and more prepared to be able to deal with the global now in play. You’re able to move inside them in a body-centred way not so easily available to others.
It’s uncanny because Vilém Flusser is a philosopher who was very important to me when I first started making films and who taught me a lot about dislocation. He helped me begin to understand how dislocation could engender new forms of thinking. With him, I began understanding that each language engenders a specific form of writing, a world-form. He would often alter the language in which his books were authored according to what they were dreaming, describing, imagining. You know he lived and settled in Brazil…
Yes. Well, he wrote in many languages, so which language do you relate to him in?
Well I started reading him in English. Later, I read him in Portuguese in a beautiful book called Língua e Realidade, aka Language and Reality. In this, I felt his words more emotionally.
What a privilege. We’re all in these different languages, and each language has ideas in it which seem to be almost in opposition to each other. I find that very much a concept for our present situation. You’ve been able to move between these spaces. I felt the film had this Latin sensibility, but when you spoke and presented the film, it was in English. You were so articulate and spoke to your audience directly.
It’s interesting you notice that. Cinema came to me as an impulse that allowed me to not be circumscribed by reason only. It came from somewhere else, and allowed me to express complex ideas that cannot be contained by words, language. It is another language made of movement, rhythm, time, duration, spaces, murmurs, noise, sound. Alongside Jean Epstein, I see cinema as an animistic apparatus capable of transforming our consciousness, our understanding of time and space in an embodied way, in a visceral way.
I love to use that word “visceral” a lot myself. One of the things that really impressed me, in terms of the aesthetics of the film, was this mobility of the image. For me, it started with the shots of the statues and the way the camera moved through that, which is almost like stroking the statues’ contours and animating it. You have now got to the point where there’s a fluidity to the way your images relate to each other. They don’t seem to be framed or anchored on the screen. The images felt like they were floating on top of each other, the superimposed drawings were drifting like flotsam on a river flow. The distance shot of the highway seemed like a frozen image of a wave. It had that dynamic, feeling of being at the beach, the dunes, in terms of the way that you deal with those contours, those waves. This mobility and identity across cultures comes through the camera moves. There’s a certain mobility, flux. I don’t think about the frame at all.
Interesting. This movement you are alluding to is something that I’ve been sensing increasingly when making my films. You know, initially, I started working with found footage, which didn’t allow me to escape the frame as they were pre-made images. Yet over the years, as I began making my own images, I began to sense the role of the body when filming.
Once, Jacques Cheuiche, who was the cinematographer for A Idade da Pedra, gave me some precious advice when we were filming together. He invited me to frame, to take the camera into my hands as he felt that what I was seeing could not be fully translated into words. So, as I decided to take the camera onto my shoulder, I began to feel the film as an awaking creature. The feeling of interacting with this machine and its proximity to my body allowed me to begin thinking with the film, so that filming itself became a way of thinking. Since then, the equation camera + body really is what guides my films. Perhaps there is a frustrated dancer in me (laughs). I danced for many years before I went on to study film. And, I sense that there is something of a free, savage and unwritten choreography that guides me through the making of the works.
You’ve learned to move through space with rhythms based on an acoustic sensibility, that are then embedded in the images.
It’s interesting you say acoustic as I really sense that they’re films to be heard as much as to be seen. Not just because of the sound work, but because sound becomes a kind of language in each film.
McLuhan said that image in the age of hyper-acceleration behaves according to the laws of music. I guess your father’s influence is in there.
Well, sounds are also images of a different kind. And if I take Brasiliários as a kind of pre-history of my relationship to cinema, then, yes, my father’s translation of Lispector into music, then into film, is certainly significant.
That was before you were born.
Yes, nine months after the film I was born.
Sound travels through your mother’s body to you, before you’re even born. Maybe that’s too mystical.
I’m very mystical. Actually, this takes me to how we met. You remember, I went to your house to interview you about your films and your experience in the Melbourne experimental film scene?
Oh, you did?
Yes, I did. Yet, as I arrived to interview you, you began interviewing me. I ended up telling you the story behind Brasiliários and you said to me: “You should be making a film”. A few months after that, Sacris Pulso, my first film was made. I am very thankful to you for that brief encounter.
Sure. Thank you. Good, I’m also glad you went back to Brazil too, I remember emotionally your potential and the way you were working with films, I thought that you could get a lot further by not being in Australia to do that.
Yes, I heard the calling. Yet, Australia was an important place for me.
Now back to Apiyemiyekî?, I liked that idea about Schwade asking a Paulo Freire question to the Indigenous people. “What do you want?”
Egydio’s way of working with Indigenous societies was informed by the progressive politics of the liberation theology which deeply influenced the Jesuits in the South America from the 1960s onwards. Paulo Freire’s pedagogy comes in as an instrument for critical thinking anchored in a belief that students and teachers learn together, outside the oppressive master-student logic.
Egydio believes, as do I, that it was because of Freire’s methodology that the students began communicating and questioning their recent history together in class. It was within this context that the students began asking: Apiyemiyekî?, meaning why?. A most dignified question that still silences us today.
The question “Why?” always lingers, with traces of the colonial gesture inside them. It’s a question that follows you through your practice as well, isn’t it?
There is no escaping. Only today, Egydio wrote me to say that in 1988, he was here in Rotterdam for the Russell Tribunal, an international war crimes tribunal mostly focused on the American military intervention in Vietnam. He came to present for the first time the crimes committed against the Waimiri-Atroari. So here I am almost 40 years later, in the same city, asking the same question: why?
This reminds me of those childhood drawings in Apiyemiyekî?, floating over moving water. Those children experienced and witnessed those military crimes. The drawing provided a material trace of real events.
Well, I take these drawings as forensic evidence of the crimes committed against the Kiña, even if in court they may not be. I think it is essential to re-think what constitutes a forensic evidence. If the law can only be governed by bureaucratic documents manipulated by bureaucrats, then the law really has nothing to do with justice. Nonetheless, it is important to take note that Egydio never intended for these drawings to be produced as evidence.
Because those children weren’t asked to draw anything, right? It was their decision what they drew.
At the Yawará school, drawings became the first method of knowledge exchange between them. The Kiña began by drawing fauna, flora, birds, the human body. After, they began taking a sheet of paper home and would bring back the drawings to comment on them. What stunned Egydio was that what begins to appear in the drawings are helicopters, military hats, roads and rifles accompanied by the question: “Why did the civilised (Kamña), kill our people (Kiña)? Apiyemiyekî? (why?).
I feel that such colonising operations have multiplied over the years. The invisibilities in that culture have become more sustainable by those who put them in place. Not many people have the skills to unpack that. You’re unpacking those things.
This is a grain of sand, a micro-gesture, a wake.
Your film partly is a document of strategies that trace what was dealt with before, how that was done? Yet, your film indicates a way forward, in dealing with these forces of globalisation?
I think the very process of looking at these drawings, of being in the presence of Egydio, in the presence of the forest where they were drawn; breathing, smelling, listening with someone, though me that seeing is not only an action of the eyes. Looking from afar is never like looking near. Hence, the problem of “the forces of globalisation” – only possible through a vast spread and circulation of images – is that the image often alienates the viewer from the territory in which the image was produced, granting the illusion that the image is a form of transport.
Well, that’s a great response to Flusser’s call, because he talks about this amnesic quality of the digital proliferation of the images, and how there’s a need to locate them to be able to ground ourselves.
In Apiyemiyekî?, I decided to try to take the drawings back to the landscapes in which they could have been drawn or those that they refer to: the BR-174 highway, the Urubuí river, etc. Hence, in the film, we would look at the river drawing upon the river, the highway drawing upon the highway, binding together memory and place, past and present. What I searched for through this was to enliven the archive, to animate it in an animistic sense.
Traumas get forgotten, denied, taken out of place. You are talking about making them visible and alive again on your own terms.
I believe there is an animistic potency in cinema. Derrida says that cinema is akin to a ghost dance. Indeed, I increasingly see filming as a spectral choreography reaching much further than the eye can see, but not always making things visible.
It seems to me that no matter which of those technologies you’re into, there’s a certain unstableness, a kind of emotive, gestural movement that goes through the film all the time. I noted that in your first film, located mostly in Brasilia. Now it moves more globally.
The global seems like such an abstract concept
The word “global” is kind of used to diffuse focus, isn’t it? It works in the service of those trying to disengage us from our own bodies.
The globe is an invention of cartographers and coincides with the scientific mapping of the human body through the medical sciences. Strangely, these geographical and medical cartographies seems to have separated ourselves from our bodies as well as from the ground. I like to think that the ground itself, or the earth itself, as claims Lewis Carrol in “The Hunting of the Snark“ is already a kind of map, an embodied map.
- Laura Mulvey, “Feminism, Film and the Avantgarde”, Framework, vol. 10, spring 1979, pp. 3-10; here p. 9. ↩