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Xingu - Movie Review

Xingu (2012) Cao Hamburger, Filmaker

Address: Villas Bôas brothers - colonization
Phone: 415-435-1280

“Xingu” — Back in Time
A Review by Judith M. Wilson

When Brazilian filmmaker Cao Hamburger set out to make his newest film, “Xingu” (2012), he aimed to make a movie that was completely different from a previous work, “The Year My Parents Went on Vacation” (2006). Both go back in time and touch on Brazil’s politics, but there the resemblance ends. While the first takes place in urban São Paulo, the second is set in the undeveloped interior of the country and is a true story that shows an emerging environmental sensibility years before such consciousness became mainstream.


The film opens in 1943 with brothers Cláudio (João Miguel) and Leonardo (Caio Blat) Villas Bôas smearing dust and dirt from the ground on their clothes so they will fit in with the poor laborers they join in line to apply for jobs. They pass the test, in part by feigning illiteracy, and are assigned to a crew that is charged with building an airstrip in an undeveloped area adjacent to the Xingu River, a tributary of the Amazon, in Mato Grosso state. They recruit a third brother, Orlando (Felipe Camargo), who leaves his office in São Paulo to join them, and they are soon on their way to an adventure that proves to be life changing.

The brothers are educated and articulate, and their natural leadership abilities, particularly those of Cláudio, soon come to the fore, along with some reasoned risk-taking. As they paddle along the Xingu, they encounter indigenous people who greet them with bows and arrows, but Cláudio insists on approaching them in the spirit of peace and friendship nonetheless, in the belief that his men will have to speak with them eventually, and sooner is better than later. It’s a good move. The crew makes friends with the natives and proceeds in safety to build the airstrip with the help of people who know the area.

Contact comes with a price, however, and when a crisis strikes the village, the consequences of interaction with the newcomers becomes all too clear. Colonization seems inevitable, but the Villas Bôas brothers come to believe that assimilation, although unavoidable, should happen slowly, at a time and pace that the indigenous people themselves deem appropriate.


They engage in years of activism on behalf of the natives, confronting moral problems and lobbying politicians as they try to stall further development, and they see their efforts rewarded with the establishment of the Xingu Indigenous Reserve in 1961 and a subsequent Nobel Peace Prize nomination.


The largest park in South America, the reserve encompasses 6.5 million acres of tropical forests and savannahs and continues to protect the lifestyle and culture of 14 different indigenous groups who live there in the traditional way.

The film is in Portuguese with English subtitles, with the addition of Portuguese subtitles when the indigenous people speak their native tongue. The subtitles move quickly, and it would be an improvement if they stayed on the screen a little longer.

Pictures, however, often say more than words, and Hamburger is masterful at showing rather than telling. Close-up shots of native people with painted faces and bodies catch expressions that go from fear to curiosity at the strange sight of white men with facial hair and glasses, and other scenes show details of the culture, including one that involves building a house without the benefits of modern technology. The photography, particularly the panoramic aerial shots, shows the rugged landscape and the vast pristine wilderness that is under threat.




"Xingu" screened at Mill Valley Film Festival 35 and was an award winner at the Berlin International Film Festival. One of the joys of festivals is the opportunity they give viewers to see films on the big screen that otherwise wouldn’t make it into North American cinemas. “Xingu” is one of them, but it’s likely to be available on DVD or Netflix for home viewers, and it’s worth seeking, because in addition to its cinematic merits, it’s a chance for one to see and get some insight into an area that has become the subject of international controversy.

The government of Brazil has approved moving forward with the construction of the Belo Monte dam on the lower Xingu River in the state of Pará in northeastern Brazil, and it will be the third largest dam in the world. The resulting water diversion and other ecological effects are likely to affect other areas in the Xingu River basin, including the reserve upstream. “Xingu” gives us a glimpse of a rich land as it exists now and helps us to understand the lives and ecosystem that are at risk.