‘The Buriti Flower’ Review: Fine Hybrid Doc Centers Indigenous Lives

In their 2018 film “The Dead and the Others,” directors João Salaviza et Renée Nader Messora turned their lens generously to the Krahô people of northeast Brazil, documenting a longstanding way of life under threat from developers and politicians, and giving their non-professional subjects ample leeway for improvisation in presenting themselves on screen. Their ambitious, formally limber follow-up “The Buriti Flower” resumes their study of the Krahô, but with an expanded scope, as it examines ideological and generational conflict within the tribe: protectively insular tradition on one side, outward-facing activism on the other. Blending candid vérité with extravagant flourishes of fiction, the film sees its helmers sharing screenwriting duties with a trio of Krahô locals, and feels more textured for their collaboration.

Like its predecessor, Salaviza and Nader Messora’s latest was handed a special jury award in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard section — an “ensemble” prize, but somewhat eccentrically designated for the film’s entire cast and crew. Nomenclature specifics aside, it’s a fitting reward for a work in which onscreen and offscreen roles appear to overlap as fluidly as the film’s passages of observational documentary and performed narrative. That intriguing transitional quality will garner “The Buriti Flower” further prime slots on the docfest circuit in particular, though it makes the film a harder sell to distributors than, say, “The Territory,” last year’s more straightforwardly rousing doc on Indigenous Brazilians battling deforestation.

For Salaviza and Nader Messora, however, a degree of poetic mystique appears to be the point, as the film’s destabilized sense of reality works in part to conjure the mythologies and oral storytelling traditions of the Krahô without othering or exoticizing them. Though the film was shot over 15 months in four different villages within the Krahôlandia reservation in Brazil’s Tocantins state, the overall impression given is of a consistent ancient culture chafed by the increasing political restlessness of its more forward-thinking members — who may recognize the threat posed to their community by modern Brazilian society, but also the social advances they could pick from it.

Most vocal among them is Ilda Patpro Krahô (also one of the film’s screenwriters), a mother and feminist fearful that, in the face of the aggressively business-oriented, anti-conservation policies of what was then the Bolsonaro administration, her people are merely burying their heads in the sand. Patpro advocates attending a national conference and protest march for Indigenous peoples in Brasilia, the capital city — not just for its symbolic value but to form potential alliances with other vulnerable tribes. While her uncle Francisco Hỳjnõ Krahô supports her in this regard, other elders dismiss the idea as futile, mindful of past failed attempts to stand their ground.

The most haunting of these memories is depicted in an especially stark break from documentary form: a brutal reenactment of a 1940 massacre that saw scores of Krahô people slain by white colonizers. Staged with skin-prickling sangfroid on the camera’s part — Nader Massero is the DP, working in tactile 16mm that equally captures in-the-moment, on-the-fly grit and the visual weathering of the past — this setpiece is inserted so abruptly amid the present-day action that we don’t at first register it as history, but as a danger the Krahô still face. It merges, too, with the nightmares described by Patpro’s young daughter, who fears the worst regarding her mother’s trip to the city. Indigenous anxiety proves hereditary, even if other traditions are lost: One elder bemoans the fact that nobody attends village celebrations nude anymore, as used to be the custom.

On a day-to-day basis, meanwhile, Hỳjnõ must defend his tribe and his environment from smaller violations and microaggressions. Together with other elders, he accosts one of many poachers stripping the region of its native wildlife, rescuing a magnificent turquoise macaw from his clutches; elsewhere, a group of Krahô schoolchildren must endure fascinated gawping and prodding from a class of city kids on a field trip. “Maybe they want to know if we’re also made of flesh,” observes Hỳjnõ, somewhat pointedly — since some might accuse ethnographic filmmaking like “The Burriti Flower” of doing something similar. But Salaviza and Nader Massero’s film is wise to largely cede its voice to the people under scrutiny, allowing them to contextualize unfamiliar rites and rituals — most vividly, a birthing ceremony that bookends the film — as entirely everyday, part of a rich social fabric.

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