Pierre Flasse examines the latest from Needs Must Film, an award-winning documentary exposing indigenous Brazilian genocide through rap
The rapper in the rainforest is Werá Jeguaka Mirim – but he raps locally under the name Kunumi MC. His lyrics are fuelled with anger and sadness about the genocide and repression of his disenfranchised people. Werá achieved some notoriety when he was thirteen and unfurled a “Demarcation Now!” banner in the centre circle at the opening ceremony of the Brazilian World Cup. Because of this act many know him, but although they remember the protest, they have no idea who he is or where he came from. In a revolutionary tale of rap exposing indigenous genocide: My Blood Is Red is his story.
Werá’s act at the World Cup interested Needs Must Film – a collective of directors that aim to “give a voice to the people” by breaking documentary tradition, and putting the subjects of their films at the centre of the production’s decision-making process. Associate producer Gui Bolliger points out the value of this, in that the filmmakers learned so much about working as a collective from the indigenous leadership directly: “Inaldo’s primary purpose as a leader is to build co-operative agreements between groups of people”. For the indigenous people it means that it is harder to assassinate a “leader” – it is safer to be a collective. In the case of the film, it enables the story to build organically. The decisions flow naturally from the conscience of the group and the “reliable creative engine is to always ask the story what story it wants to tell.” The collective have succeeded in reshaping the definition of what a documentary can offer through this intimate introspection into genocide. Due to the gravity of its cause, it is by no means an easy watch, but a wholly necessary one. It is an extraordinary film, impossible to look away. A powerful meditation on the slaughter of innocents.
In an interview with one of the directors, Brian Mitchell explained, “we wanted to help Werá crystallise what he wanted to say – our aim is to help people reclaim their narrative through film”. Werá’s journey is a quest for identity, vocalising his anger at the repression of his people and expressing this through music. As the film progresses, he meets indigenous people facing the same plight across the country, refining his message. His musical hero Criolo inspires him through collaboration and he creates an album to become a voice against this genocide for the people. The film should be commended for disrupting the passivity of traditional documentary filmmaking, while supporting and guiding its central subject. By capturing the genocide in a musical documentary you feel like you are part of the roots-up protest, utterly overwhelmed at the destruction displayed.
In October 1988, the Supreme Federal Court imposed a legal condition called ‘Marco Temporal’, stating that if the indigenous weren’t positioned on the land on the 5th of October 1988, they didn’t have rights to the territory. People were thrown out of their lands before this date by force and so lost their claim to vast amounts of territories. Across Brazil, the indigenous tribesfolk are persecuted for laying claim to their land. They protest for basic human rights in a battle for life or death, but they are fighting against opaque bureaucracy, farming establishments and corporate giants. Private security forces are hired to deal with the indigenous threat and lay waste to communities by violence, guns and blood. It is not a conversation; it is an extermination.
The indigenous people fight for this land, because it is more than just property to them. In the interviews, indigenous leader Inaldo Gamela explains: “our roots are in the earth, we belong to it more than it belongs to us. It’s where we planted our ancestors; we are part of the earth. It is sacred and only in this earth that we can grow as humans. If we leave this place, we lose our identity”. The indigenous have had to develop a voice and engage with the government at the highest level; they fight for their right to speak. They are educated and aware of their rights, but blood continues to be spilled alongside empty promises. It is linked to two factors: “one is identity – the hate is characteristic of the colonisation process. The other factor is the conflict which arises when this person of difference decides to fight for his existence”. But the indigenous are just as much Brazil as the people that are targeting them. Werá listens on to these interviews with humility whilst learning to develop his own argument.
In a recording studio, Werá is in the process of putting his album together when Brazilian rapper Criolo arrives on the scene. Criolo is touched by Werá’s raw strength, “you bring love in your expression and you bring your ancestry. We need to learn about it from you”. He understands the value of Werá’s message and collaborates with him on a mixtape to help project this message further. The genocide is silent across mainstream media in Brazil and so the importance of using other platforms to express these issues is paramount. In this whole process, the lyrics are flooded with raw emotion, imagery and wordplay that drive straight to the heart of the issue, “without firearms we sing/only words of fire to rhyme”. He accepts his role with grace and recognises the importance of speaking out – “if you write about pain, you have to live in the wound.”
The film ends in Brasilia at the giant ‘Free Land’ protest in early 2019, bringing these rights to the attention of the government. It is a struggle not easily fought, with the farming lobbies holding huge power over the legislation and allowing the farmers the right to bear arms. Werá meets key human rights activists who recognise his importance. Among them the widely respected national indigenous leader, Sonia Guajajara. She reassures Werá, who is harbouring doubts that he’s bringing anything of value to the struggle. Since the national media is silent, people must hear about the cause from other avenues. His music, she explains, is a political weapon to educate the masses. The more people that hear about this treatment of the indigenous, the more likely their struggle will hold sway at a legislative level. Werá understands this: “No one sees it. Who will see it? The media won’t show it, that’s why I’ve got to show it”. For many, he has become a beacon within an invisible war.
This is a testament to the Needs Must collective. With a documentary that humbly recognises the enormity of the situation in Brazil, they are frontrunners in a new genre of film: fly on the wall becomes hornet in the nest. They have used their position to mature a voice, as well as unify and inspire a wider movement. As the protestors note, “the young are not the future, they are the present. Tomorrow is another day.” This fearless film is a bracing, haunting experience, one that rouses the viewer with its lyrical howl. It offers a beautiful and profound glimpse into the battles that are being fought every day in Brazil and offers a blueprint for marginalised communities all over the world on how to mobilise. It is essential viewing, demanding to be watched.
Unfortunately, there is still a way to come, with mass education, support and public awareness deemed necessary on an international level to combat the conservative government that currently holds Brazil. As Werá sings: “We are surrounded by white people.”
Mitchell explained that now the film is finished, “Werá is on a wider platform with his album available. He is known in these communities for the important message he is giving”. Although Werá is fighting this battle, there are many challenges still to overcome. As this emotionally tumultuous film ends, the final quote fills you with outrage, injustice and disbelief:
“It’s a shame that the Brazilian cavalry wasn’t as efficient as the Americans, who exterminated their Indians.” – Jair Bolsonaro, President of Brazil.