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LBB Film Club: UÝRA - The Rising Forest


Director Juliana Curi and Amazonian artist Uýra explore Brazil’s Indigenous, LGBTQIA+, socio-political and environmentalist movements, writes LBB’s Ben Conway

LBB Film Club: UÝRA - The Rising Forest

Filming the documentary-fiction hybrid in the heart of the Amazon Rainforest, Girl Culture Films director, Juliana Curi, and her team embarked on a three-year journey to produce ‘UÝRA: The Rising Forest’, a film that uses the drag performances and activism of trans-Indigenous visual artist Uýra Sodoma to explore the intersectionality between Brazilian dialogues about Indigenous, LGBTQIA+, socio-political and environmentalist topics.

Filming in villages along the Amazon and in Uýra’s hometown of Manaus, the documentary builds a story that weaves from the preservation of Indigenous knowledge, to the celebration of queer and other oppressed groups under Bolsonaro’s government, to the conservation of earth’s natural resources. At the root of these topics, according to Uýra and Juliana, lies the need for a strategy of collective struggle; a powerful united effort to conserve life in all its forms and aspects in society.

Showing footage of Uýra’s activist performances, vibrant portraits of their Indigenous mythology-inspired costumes and body art, and of their educational projects in riverside communities, Juliana’s film exposes the true history of Brazil for all to see and aims to “reconnect us with life in its most complete form.”

Made by an independent Latin-American Brazilian team, comprised primarily of women, BIPOC, Indigenous, and queer people, during “one of the most violent moments in the country’s history”, the film derives its narrative and aesthetic choices from the imaginariness of not just Uýra’s art, but from Brazilian poets, Indigenous “guardians of knowledge” and the youth who are helping to re-write Brazil’s history against an oppressive status quo and a “voracious advance of neoliberal values of individualism.”

LBB’s Ben Conway caught up with Juliana to discuss the processes of filming in the Amazon rainforest and capturing Uýra’s art and activism, and how she created a socio-political art film that both addresses history and politics in a rational way, whilst communicating “unexplainable” sensations and metaphors felt by the heart. 

LBB> How did you get involved with this film? Were you aware of Uýra Sodoma before being asked to direct the film?

Juliana> I’m a Latina-Brazilian film director with a body of work focused on telling stories with a social-cultural impact. In 2019, I felt I was ready to tell a long-form story and I had a strong dream that it would be a documentary that could contribute to social justice. Together with Martina Sönksen, screenwriter and producer of the film, we started a search for stories and in a few days, we got to know the work of Uýra Sodoma through Instagram.

We introduced ourselves and in a few weeks we proposed to Uýra to film their biopic, and they accepted. At that moment, Lívia Cheibub, editor and producer, joined us, and in a few months, we were heading to the Amazon. We all felt a sense of urgency in filming the story and we carried out the filming through small private funding and in association with our co-producers Abou Farman, Ezequiel Soules, Itaal Shur, Leandro Badalotti, Ram Devineni, and Thiago Moraes.

Shortly after filming, the first cases of covid-19 began to emerge in the world and also in the Amazon. We went into a pandemic and post-production at the same time. From that moment on, João Henrique Kurtz, our executive producer, joined us and then we started a more traditional process through development funds. The film was granted by Bric Media Arts and was part of the BricLab Film + TV 2020 residency program and also was part of the Climate Story Unit from Doc Society, a grant that catalyses films with a powerful impact on the climate justice topic. 

In total, it took three years until UÝRA – The Rising Forest came out into the world.

LBB> When approaching a project that involves themes including structural racism, transphobia, and environmental destruction - what possibilities and ideas immediately spring to mind? 

Juliana> This is a project with a huge collective dimension. Uýra teaches us all the time about intersectionality, as they tell us in the film, ‘I’m an artist crossed by being Indigenous, LGBTQIA+ and peripheral’, among many other crossings. So it's impossible to build a story like this with just one point of view. I am a thread, a piece in a constellation of artists and thinkers from different fields of study and languages who built this story together.

I also like to point out that Uýra is not just the main character of the film, they are responsible for the co-production and creation of the script. In this way, we blurred the lines of this traditional school of cinema that divides filmmakers and characters, subjects and objects. In this film we inverted, Uýra guided us and we went together with them, weaving the story and providing the cinematographic tools to create this work.

LBB> How did you decide what you wanted to shoot? Did Uýra have the different shows, demonstrations, and activities already planned?

Juliana> Under the main care of Martina and me, the first draft of the script was created from texts, stories, and images from the body of work already produced by Uýra, from which we delved extensively. When we defined a dramaturgical structure in three acts - where each act would represent a metaphor - we started with a shortlist of Uýra's photo performances, and all together we chose the final performances to be adapted to cinema.

LBB> What were some of your favourite locations and shots in the film? Do you have any fun anecdotes or lessons learned from the production process?

Juliana> All the experiences in this film were a learning and healing process from which Uýra generously guided us. A very special location and moment was being immersed in the Tres Unidos Indigenous Village of the Kambeba People. The Kambeba community, also called Omágua, symbolises the people of the waters. They live in five villages in the middle and upper Rio Solimões region and the lower Rio Negro and we visited Tres Unidos which is located on the banks of the Cuieiras river, 60km from Manaus.

There we met the guardians of knowledge, Dona Babá who is present in the film, and Tuxáua Valdemir, her companion - both Kambeba leaders. They presented us with countless stories about Curupira, the Tururukari, and the Mother of the Woods, but the most important thing was, besides learning rationally about these stories, we could feel their presence in the Forest. This film aims to provide our audience with this rational understanding, but also to honour its sensory dimension, where we can also learn from the heart.

LBB> The scenes with the young people painting their faces and going to the plaza that had been built on top of Indigenous burial grounds made me quite emotional. Did you and the crew feel the emotion and passion that Uýra and the others showed? How did you try to portray these communities as mistreated and removed from history?

Juliana> Yes, this is one of the most important moments in the film and a moment that moved us all. The team on this film formed a very diverse group, from different fields of study and language and also from different regions and social crossings. However, there is something that unites all of us, which is a recognition and a desire to honour the true history of what is now called Brazil. 

Everyone involved in the film has a commitment and a dream that more and more people can recognise that all of Brazil is Indigenous land.

In my case, my grandmother and great-grandmother were Indigenous, with their stories completely erased and I never found my ancestry. Because of that, I grew up with this feeling that Brazil is a place of epistemicide, which is the killing of knowledge. So, being able to contribute to the preservation of traditional knowledge is a great honour for me and for all those who dedicated themselves to the creation of this work.

LBB> Who was your cinematographer and what was your camera setup? 

Juliana> Thiago Quadrado Moraes, our great partner and ally! After some meetings with Thiago and our executive producer Lívia Cheibub, we concluded that the film should speak a contemporary and intimate language, we wanted the camera to meet the characters. We were looking for an intimate portrait and not one told from a distance. We should take advantage of the moment we were recording and be very flexible not to cut the mood of the scene.

In the beginning, we thought of recording with a camera like RED or Arri Alexa; we were looking for solid files for post-production and as cinematic a texture as possible for our project. But studying the context of the geography of the Amazon, other factors began to appear: the climate, the boat trips, the walks through the closed forest, an urban stream named Igarapé... So it became an essential part of this process to travel as compactly as possible, taking us to an adaptation that was more conscious of our reality. 

We were a very small crew, made up of five people and only the cinematographer was responsible for the entire camera and lens package. We opted for a solid camera, resistant to weather variables and that would deliver good performance in a small and compact setup. Most of the project was shot with a Canon C300 MKII and Sigma Cine 18-35 T2 lens filtered with a linear polariser, Small HD 703 monitor, all hanging from an easyrig.

We didn't use any kind of light or reflection for recording, we wanted it to be as natural as possible and the sensor we were going to use should suffer as little as possible with our ISO increases. In the day-to-day recording, we generated LUTs designed for the situations we would face and visualised on the monitor. Our concern was to get the best exposure for each shot so we didn't play with RAW files for post production.

LBB> The film is largely a documentary but has scenes dispersed throughout that act as ‘portraits’ of Uýra and the others in their costumes. How did you film these ‘portrait’ scenes differently to the rest of the footage? Why were these shots important?

Juliana> The film for me is a hybrid of documentary and fiction films. One of the main references that guided us and that was introduced to us by Uýra, was the Amazonian poet João de Jesus Paes Loureiro. A great reference in Amazonian poetry, Loureiro said that the enchantment of the Amazon springs from the bottom of the Rio Negro. A river of oceanic dimensions, which weaves and feeds the entire state of Amazonas, not only with food from the forest and water but with its sophisticated mythology and imaginariness. Translating this imaginariness into non-fiction, contemporary and sociopolitical film was the creative basis that navigated and guided all the narrative and aesthetic choices of the entire team.

Uýra is an entity that presents us with a universe that we often cannot ‘explain’ in a rational way, there is a dimension of Uýra's work that is understood with the heart and the sensation. Therefore, we could not approach this history with only Cartesian, linear and rational perspectives. That's why we bet on the language of the hybrid between fiction and documentary. So that the audience could understand the political dimension of the struggle and the alarming data, but that they could also ‘understand’ with other than rational meanings.

We also intended to blur the lines between social justice films and art films, because we truly believe that poetry and metaphor can also have a powerful effect when we talk about socio-cultural impact.

LBB> UÝRA won the audience award at the Frameline Film Festival - what does that mean to you?

Juliana> Brazil is one of the countries that kills the highest number of trans, indigenous, and environmentalist activists worldwide. And Uýra leads a rising grassroots movement through arts and education in the whole country, especially for the Amazonian youth. Besides the political aspect of this film, I always like to highlight that this is an independent Latin-American Brazilian production, made by a team mostly made up of females, BIPOC, Indigenous, and queer people during one of the most violent moments in the country’s history. 

Brazilian culture, arts, and environment are under attack by Bolsonaro’s government. So for everyone involved in this film is really significant to have this international recognition and being part of a historic festival like Frameline, which celebrates queer and diverse narratives. After Frameline, we had our Los Angeles premiere at Outfest and we also won the Special Programming Award for Freedom. We're celebrating!

LBB> If there is one thing you want people to take from this film, what is it? 

Juliana> Uýra shows us the power of crossings created by their intersectionality. They have the ability to awaken, in adjacent groups of struggles, the understanding that at the essence of all these struggles is the conservation of life. Faced with an unprecedented climate emergency, Uýra shows us a possible path of reconnection with the forest, pointing out that solutions for climate justice go through collective dialogues.

Another aspect of Uýra's work that drives the making of this film is its collective dimension. Faced with a voracious advance of neoliberal values of individualism, Uýra teaches us about the construction of a strategy of collective struggle.

Through all these intersections, Uýra: The Rising Forest has the potential to reconnect us with life in its most complete form.

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Institute, Wed, 03 Aug 2022 16:37:00 GMT