LCO: Isael, firstly congratulations on winning the PIPA online award and for your work – as an artist and an indigenous leader. What was it like to have this contact with film production – both documentary and fictional – within the Maxakali community?
I made a film – the first one was Yiax Ka’ax(1), – when we arrived at Aldeia Verde and wanted to show our true culture so that non-indigenous people could recognize our culture. Then Jupira, my daughter, got Ruan, and I asked Marivaldo, a teacher from Diamantinha, to go to our village – he lived in Teófilo Otoni – and then he returned to Diamantina. I said, “Oh, Marivaldo, when I turn thirty, I’m going to need your camcorder (which was tiny) because I want to make a film about the end of the postpartum confinement.” So I filmed Yiax Ka’ax. I chatted to Yayá(2) Mamey and all the shamans too, and said that Jupira was going to do the end of her postpartum confinement with Zezão, her husband. So we accompanied them, all the kutoks(3), the young ones, and the students who were too. Marivaldo lent me the camera. Then I filmed the things that happened. We spent a long time searching for the stone that cuts bamboo and jaborandi too. We searched for it there at the waterfall of Corvina(4). Then I made a film, the first film. Then I said, “But is our movie going to come out bay?(5)“. Then I spoke to Charles [Bicalho](6): “This here was me who filmed “The end of the postpartum confinement”; let’s do the subtitles. We worked hard. Then I said to all the tihik(7): “We’re going to film and record and document it”. But I did it. I followed the book of healing, of health(8), too. So I did this end of the postpartum confinement with Yayá Octavio, who taught me how the postpartum confinement ends. So, I learned about it and did it to show the kutok to be very careful because confinement is no joke, you have to be careful. Then I made this video for the indigenous and non-indigenous school as well. That movie that came out first.
LCO: For you, is artistic creation about preserving Maxakali cultural heritage or is it about initiating a potential dialogue with the Western gaze – now constructed from the indigenous perspective? Or is it both?
It’s about preserving our culture and learning about new, non-indigenous technologies as well. Because there are a lot of things, some things that are very important, that help us and that don’t belong to the Maxakali. That’s because there are things that don’t come from the Maxakali culture(9), but they also help the community. But there are things that we don’t like, that are non-indigenous, and that are destroying our culture. And we are strengthening our culture, the painting, singing, history and territory, preserving our singing, the breeding of animals too, because Topa(10) passed things on to all the different indigenous peoples and to the non-indigenous peoples too. Because there’s a lot of different languages in Brazil. But we will observe our right, the path of our true culture, because we are not going to become weak. We are getting stronger because we are now preparing to strengthen the shamans and the yãmưyxop(11).
LCO: What is the relationship between the practice of drawing and animation like for you? Do you think of drawing as being independent of animation?
When we make drawings to do animation, videos, then to me it seems that the drawing I’m doing only needs a heart to come to life. When I do drawings for animation, for film, for me the drawing is alive, koxuk(12), the image. I make drawings to move, so that the drawing can live and be true. When I take the crayons and the paper, and I’m preparing to draw, for me the drawing is alive. Because we draw and the spiritual element, [the spirit] enters the drawing to move as well.
LCO: According to the Maxakali, is there any salvation for Westerners? After 500 years of forced Westernization, is there an indigenous past to be restored or is everything now an invention of the difference?
Our concern throughout Brazil, the whole of Brazil, is that non-indigenous people only think about money, lots of money. They only think about getting rich, and buying cattle to put on the land, cutting down the forest, drying out the water, making hydroelectric power plants, polluting everything. Asphalt, buildings, it’s really destroying the environment and the land. It’s really ruining the land, polluting the rivers; the sewage too, it kills a lot of fish, and destroys the game. And today the air temperature is hot and the earth is sick; the earth is hot, and burns under the sun. The forest has no scent either, the flowers have no scent and there’s no fruit for the animals to feed on, there are no seeds for the animals to help us reforest, to plant … Then it ends up bringing this disease(13) that mixes with the hot air. When the heavy rains come, they’re going to hit hard, because there’s no forest to protect our homes, to protect the people. Then the wind comes with the rain and its going to destroy, it destroys everything, the city collapses, the earth on the hill falls away and erodes, and that will be the end of the ãyưhuk. And also today there is no animal food, from animals, monkeys, any animals, bats … Today the monkey stays in the city, eating garbage, drinking sewage and dirty water, and the bat is also drinking dirty water and getting sick, and it’s transmitting this to the ãyưhuk. And we eat sick fish too. The ãyưhuk are eating sick fish, and passing the on to the ãyưhuk, and passing it on to others, passing it on to other people. That’s how it is, because it is weakening our nature, because the ãyưhuk(14) is destroying it, right. If you return all the land to us, we will restore it. We’re going to restore our land, we have to preserve it, to restore the forests; the fruit will return, the animals won’t get sick anymore because there won’t be sewage, you understand?
Because we, the Maxakali and indigenous peoples, it was we who came out first and discovered the land here in Brazil. So, when we arrived, when our elders arrived here, the land, everything was preserved, none of the forest was destroyed, there was nothing spoiling the river, no city made of bricks, it was all natural. Because we came out and discovered the land first, here in Brazil. And today, our young people grow up and look at the land and the city today, and they think this was what it was like in the past, but it wasn’t. Students need to better understand the indigenous peoples, how the Maxakali first arose here in Brazil. But today there are people who study this, lots of teachers who have to explain it better in college; they need to show who the indigenous peoples are. It was the indigenous people who discovered Brazil, it is the indigenous people who discovered it. But there are many people who hide this. The teachers, the anthropologists, the researchers know it. Many teachers understand it but don’t want to teach it in college. There are good – bay – researchers who will explain it, but there are researchers who conceal and don’t want to tell the truth, which is that the indigenous people discovered Brazil.
Question from Roberto Romero: To conclude, recently you and your companion Sueli Maxakali led this process of moving over 100 Maxakali families to another area of land, where you have this project to create a forest school, to preserve the environment, the Atlantic Rainforest, in addition to a space to train new artists, new shamans. Could you tell me a little bit about this project of yours?
Where we live now, today, there are two villages(15) in the municipality of Ladainha. Where I live is the Aldeia Nova or New Village, we call it the school-village. We want to preserve this land where we live so that lots of forest can grow, to preserve the river. And we also have difficulties because the river is not at all normal, because there’s a hydroelectric power plant here in Ladainha. So when it closes [the floodgates] to do its work, then the river below dries up. It’s not normal. When the personnel want to maintain the plant, to actually close it, then the river dries up, and the fish die, they are dying; the capybara suffers, it stays down here. The tihik came by and saw the dry river, and saw the capybara sitting under the stone. And the tihik saw it when they went to fetch bamboo to make arrows and [the capybara] fled. So we need to preserve the river and the game, because there is little game, there are few animals and we need real land for ourselves. Because this land here is not ours, it’s leased(16), and we have a hard time buying land to ensure that we can restore the forest.
There are a lot of non-indigenous teachers studying and graduating within UFMG, at college, any college, who are studying and learning more, and we, the Maxakali also, the Xakriabá Krenak, are studying at college today. So our focus is on restoring the forest, to preserve our territory; they think like me and Sueli; they only think about strengthening our forest, the territory, land for the Maxakali people, to preserve the culture and the painting. There are a lot of teachers who are studying today, non-indigenous teachers, who want to help the indigenous people, to restore our spiritual [dimension], which is inside the forest. That’s how it is.
1. The short film Yiax Ka’ax – end of the postpartum confinement is available at: https://bit.ly/3n1AjPb. Last access: 29.09.20.
2. Grandfather or older man in the Maxakali language.
3. Child in the Maxakali language.
4. Quilombola runaway slave community near Aldeia Verde.
5. Bay is the Maxakali term for good/well or beautiful.
6. Charles Bicalho is a researcher and filmmaker, founder of the production company Pajé Filmes and collaborator on many of Isael’s audiovisual productions.
7. Indigenous people in the Maxakali language.
8. Reference to the book Hitupmã’ax – Curar, of which Isael is one of the co-authors, and which was published in 2008 by the Literaterras research center of the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG). One of the central themes of this publication are the Maxakali postpartum confinement protocols necessary to guarantee the health and well-being of young parturients, newborn babies, parents and their close families.
9. Isael is probably referring to the attacks of neo-Pentecostal missionaries on Maxakali villages, which have intensified in recent times.
10. Topa is the maxakali demiurge.
11. Yãmĩyxop is the spirit peoples of the Atlantic Rainforest who have visited the Maxakali villages to sing, dance, eat and heal since time immemorial.
12. Koxuk is the Maxakali word for images, shadows or tracks.
13. A reference to the Covid-19 pandemic.
14. Âyũhuk is the Maxakali term used to refer to non-indigenous people, also translated as “whites”.
15. A reference to Aldeia Verde, where he lived until a few months ago, and the newly founded Aldeia Nova, where he currently lives.
16. The land to which they moved was provisionally leased by the city of Ladainha and there is so far no provision for the acquisition of the new territory. The new land, where more than 100 families have settled since the end of June 2020, has a river, forest and flat area, as Isael, Sueli and maxakali leaders have demanded for over a decade.