A vivid, intimate fusion of ethnography and poetic narrative, The Buriti Flower (Crow) explores memories specific to the Krahô people of Brazil. And yet the story it tells, steeped in cultural tradition, political resistance and profound connection to the land, is, in many ways, the story of the Americas. It’s a story of trauma and resilience: native people slaughtered, the survivors pushed off their ancestral habitat. And, as the recent documentary The Territory made clear, it’s the story of an ongoing, urgent struggle to protect entire ecosystems from devastation and extinction.
This is the second feature from directing duo João Salaviza and Renée Nader Messora, who looked at Indigenous culture and mythology in Brazil. The Dead and the Others (2018), which received the Jury Prize in Un Certain Regard. Returning to that Cannes sidebar — and receiving its Ensemble Prize — they’ve crafted another portrait of colonized Brazil, and one that strives toward something other than through-Western-eyes documentation and interpretation. For The Buriti Flowerwhich they shot over 15 months in four villages within the Kraholândia reservation — the area in the state of Tocantins that’s been allotted to the Krahô — they share the screenwriting with three locals, two of them central onscreen figures as well.
The Buriti Flower
The Bottom Line
Charged and vibrant.
The movie, which combines nonfiction and fiction in ways that are sometimes seamless, sometimes clearly delineated, and always riveting, centers on three related villagers: preadolescent Jotàt (Solane Tehtikwỳj Krahô); her mother, Patpro (Ilda Patpro Krahô); and Patpro’s uncle Hỳjnõ (Francisco Hỳjnõ Krahô), a shaman.
Patpro is the feminist heart of the film, eager to attend a major Indigenous demonstration in the capital city to protest the Bolsonaro administration’s pro-agribusiness, anti-conservation policies. In her even-keeled way, she’s fired up by female Indigenous leaders, key among them the activist politician Sônia Guajajara, from nearby Maranhão state, whose speeches she watches on her phone. But Jotàt, who’s experiencing frightening visions in her dreams — suggesting potential shamanistic powers — is worried about her mother going to Brasilia, where she’ll be vastly outnumbered by the Cup. Whether that term, repeated throughout the film, specifically means “white,” “European,” “gun-toting exploiter” or some combination of these is never made clear, but the word’s impact is felt every time it’s spoken.
At the reservation’s gatehouse, Hỳjnõ stands vigil against poachers who are emboldened by a long history of wealthy ranchers claiming (ie, stealing) land in order to raise cattle. The cameras are there when he and a few others, including a fearless female elder, rescue one of the area’s gorgeous macaws from the backpack of an interloper; the birds fetch high prices in the big city.
By a sparkling stream of Edenic beauty, Hỳjnõ and his pregnant wife discuss the need to be vigilant against those who rob the nests and those who cut down trees, put up wire fences and set up their cattle ranches. Villagers meet to discuss whether they should attend the upcoming gathering in Brasilia. On one side of the debate, led by Patpro and her uncle, is a hopeful forward-facing long view; on the other, the accumulated pain of experience.
A crucial chapter of that brutal history, a 1940 massacre, is reenacted in a sequence around the midpoint of the film. There are no titles to set the date; Salaviza and Messora thrust the viewer into the awful chaos of deception, invasion and betrayal, guided by voiceover narration. The lingering effects of the bloodbath reverberate years later, when mothers plead with their sons not to attend military training in the distant city, fearing a duplicitous plot to attack the village once its young men are gone.
But the film is infused with celebratory energy too. In the present day, the villagers prepare for a major feast, Ketuwajê, and The Buriti Flower is alive with kids’ play as well as coming-of-age rituals. Messora is the cinematographer, working in expressive 16mm, and the collaborative storytelling is brought to full blossom in the visuals, whether those visuals reveal iridescent nighttime imagery, wandering spirits or, thanks to the notable access the directors were granted, an unusually powerful — as opposed to simply graphic — scene of a woman in labor.
Salaviza and Messora’s film offers an intense capsule version of nearly a century of encroachment and genocide, and a vibrant depiction of the ways the struggle for justice persists. What the moneymakers see as wasted land, ripe for commercial exploitation, the Krahô see as sacred. It’s hard to imagine the former ever taking anything more than profit into consideration, or truly listening to people who choose to live in sync with the land rather than conquer it. But, then again, barriers break down in unexpected ways. At one point in the movie, Hỳjnõ recalls a visit to the village from city schoolchildren, and how baffled he was when they asked to touch him and the other Krahô children. “Maybe,” he muses, “they wanted to know if we were made of flesh, like them.”
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