Set in Mato Grosso do Sul, Brazil, BirdWatchers tells a story of great friction at once eerily poetic and didactic. It opens with a scenic journey through the waters of a great jungle—of foreigners marveling at a seemingly untarnished landscape and besotted by the sight of natives grasping bows and arrows and wearing makeup and little else. The image exudes a palpable danger, but it is a striking ruse: It is the present, after all, and away from the prying eyes of the clueless white tourists, the natives put on clothes and are paid by a local white woman for their ostensibly well-done show. Thus begins writer-director Marco Behis’s visually mesmeric inquiry into the nature of empire and borders in the depths of the Amazon.
The tensions between whites and indigenous persons in this area of contemporary Brazil is explored through the affront of a Guarani-Kaiowà leader moving his people from a federal native reserve and to a patch of land beside an entitled douchebag’s farm, ostensibly a Guarani burial site; it is also conveyed through harsh glances and confrontations, the shadows that trail behind characters like ghosts, and the car lights that pierce a particularly dark night. As if by magic, the Guarani camp’s inhabitants multiply even as the trek the people make through the farmland to get to the river that satiates their thirst increasingly angers and rattles the couple that owns the land. Theirs is a thrilling resistance—of a native leader struggling to stake ownership to land that belonged to his ancestors and refusing to submit to the will of people with colonialist blood coursing through their veins. Capitalism and colonialism are conflated, sex becomes currency and suicide a way out.
Unfortunately, Behis wears his dialectical heart on his sleeve: the division line between the forests of Mato Grosso do Sul and its adjacent, treeless farmlands becomes an obvious metaphor for the philosophical tug of war between the races; a “Jesus te ana” sticker on the truck owned by the man that offers work to the natives blaringly draws the connection between colonialism and religion; and the sexual escapades between the white landowner’s daughter and a Guarani youth is a nuance-free example of the bourgeois exoticizing the Other. This ends up feeling like pretense—the type of intellectual rigor Lisandro Alonso eschews and Lucrecia Martel embraces.
Behis’s images get under the skin, but they conspicuously insist on always saying something about racial and sexual conquest, distractingly though never histrionically, except perhaps for the director’s view of Guaranis hanging themselves for having embraced the comforts of modern society. Behi’s belief that the spirits of the dead compel Guaranis to suicide feels respectful, but it’s also a conceit of sorts; in truth, real-life Guaranis are not killing themselves because of their submission to capitalism, but because of their rejection of it. This unfortunate misrepresentation of the native’s will ends up feeling borderline condescending and zaps the film of its otherwise resonant visual and philosophical power.