In the Colombian Amazon jungle, indigenous people of different nations, ethnicities and languages have come together to find a single voice in the cinema to tell their own stories, rather than letting outsiders do it.
In the community of San Martín de Amacayacu in southern Colombia, the local Tikuna tribe was recently taken on a film crash course for the first time by the Matis of Brazil.
“We didn’t know how to operate a camera, so they’re showing their experience, offering knowledge and perseverance,” Lizeth Reina, a 24-year-old Tikuna, told AFP.
The Matis, a tribe not contacted until 1976, acquired two video cameras in 2015 and were trained in filming by the Brazilian Center for Indigenous Labor (CTI) and the National Indian Foundation.
Last month, they embarked on a seven-day journey along fast-flowing rivers and almost impenetrable jungle trails to share their knowledge with this Colombian community of about 700 people.
As boot camp began, a Matis with a prominent facial tattoo gave instructions on how to focus a video camera.
About 10 Matis, known as “cat people” because of the cat tattoos on their faces, had arrived from their home region in the Yavari Valley – an area larger than Austria and riddled with drug trafficking and illegal mineral extraction, logging and fishing.
British journalist Dom Phillips and Indigenist Bruno Pereira were murdered there in June.
The Yavari Valley has the largest number of voluntarily isolated communities in the world.
“It’s not easy to come here, we suffered a bit, but it’s very emotional,” said filmmaker Pixi Kata Matis, 29, of the trip to San Martin.
Tikunas laughed as her guests grimaced while sipping masato, a yucca-based fermented drink that was passed around in a mug made from the hard-skinned fruit of the calabash tree.
Films were projected in the maloca, a cultural, political, social and spiritual center.
Hundreds of dazzled spectators watched as images of blowgun, bow and arrow hunts flashed before their eyes, as well as the tattoo festival marking young Matis’ coming of age.
“We have to show other people and white people that we have our own identity,” said Kata Matis.
The films “can help preserve memories for the future … so we don’t forget our traditions,” added Yina Moran, 17.
Placed in mixed groups, the Tikunas, with the help of Matis, CTI and the French association ForestEver, proposed three short films on seeds, medicinal plants and masato.
“The cameras blended into the landscape and families were more willing to share and communicate,” said ForestEver coordinator Claire Davigo.
Surrounded by a lush natural park, San Martin de Amacayacu is made up of wooden houses, some with brightly painted walls, housing several generations of the same family.
Trainees and their supervisors spent the day conducting interviews and filming everyday life.
“The communication was wonderful because although we hardly speak Portuguese, we understood each other through our cultures,” said Moran.
In the afternoon, locals headed to the river to wash clothes or bathe.
At night, generators were ramped up to provide electricity for four hours.
After that, the noise stopped to give way to jungle sounds.
A decade after they were first contacted, the Matis were already the “stars of exotic reports” by US, Japanese, French and British journalists, according to CTI.
Foreigners were fascinated by their body art and accessories: ears pierced with huge ornaments, fine chopsticks protruding through noses and lips, facial tattoos, and bodies encased in jewelry.
But Kata Matis complained that “a lot of people wanted to go to the village … film without our permission, without our understanding, and then they took the footage” without sharing it.
To prevent a repeat, the Matis began writing their own history in 2017.
Since arriving in San Martin, 27-year-old Dame Betxun Matis hasn’t put down her camera.
He was involved in the production of the documentary Matis Tattoo Festival, which won the Jury Prize at the Kurumin Indigenous Cinema Festival in 2021.
The film demonstrates the tradition of face-marking, a practice abandoned by young people who faced discrimination in the cities.
Kata Matis convinced the community to resume the tradition and filmed about 90 young people going through the ritual.
On the last night of the Matis in San Martin, hundreds of locals crowded into the maloca to watch the Tikunas’ short films.
After much laughter, applause and masato together, Kata Matis reflected on the place of indigenous people in modern nation states.
“We don’t live between two worlds, we live with two worlds,” he said.