Feature Documentary Reviews

Kanarta: Alive in Dreams (2020) – 4 stars

Director: Akimi Ota

Running time: 2hrs  

Near the start of the present epidemic, I saw a cartoon showing an ogre wielding a mace the head of which was made up of the ball of spikes from the coronavirus – behind the ogre, dwarfing him, stood another ogre of gigantic size with a fantastically large mace of spikes ready to strike. The giant ogre was captioned: Climate Change. Society’s response to the existential threat posed by climate change will involve large, multiple changes to behaviour and consumption. One area of change will be in economics and how we think about valuation of common goods. An example of a common good on a planetary level is the Amazon rainforest. Because of its size, preservation of the rainforest is crucial to attempts to slow global warning but there are other less obvious benefits to humanity from its continuing survival.

Perhaps the key one stems from the forest’s incredible biodiversity – the possibilities in terms of discovering new medicines from the myriad of plant species are exciting and, in the Age of Covid, particularly pertinent. An equally pressing one is that the forest is so utterly beautiful. Through an examination of how the indigenous people of the forest live and maintain its ecology, outsiders can learn a lot about themselves and their own value systems and maybe question whether economic growth, whatever the environmental cost, is a sensible basis for the organisation of human society. All of above questions are brought to mind by Kanarta, Akimi Ota’s timely and thought-provoking documentary.

A doctoral student in anthropology at Manchester University, Kanarta is a record of Ota’s field trip to Kenkuim, a small settlement in the Ecuadorean part of the rainforest. Kenkuim’s inhabitants are Shuar, an indigenous language group which spans the borders of all the Amazon’s nation states formed in the 19th century wars of independence from Spanish colonialism. There is no camera crew, the footage is entirely filmed by Ota. Unusually and intriguingly for a documentary, there is no narrator or presence of an interviewer: Ota lets his subjects speak for themselves. Presumably, questions were sketched out prior to each sequence but we simply are given the protagonists making observations to camera.

I applaud Ota’s decision to dispense with a narrator – the look at me overbearing commentator is the curse that poisons so many otherwise worthwhile documentary projects. This does mean, though, that the audience is left somewhat floundering as to where, what, why. It would have been helpful to have had at the start of the film some text with possibly a map explaining where we were and to give the Shuar people some historical context.

As Otafollows a Kenkuim family, the Tsamarains, as they go about their lives; we are also introduced to the female elected leader of the village, Pastora Tanchima. Ota is well-served by his main character, the patriarch of the family, Sebastian, who is on camera for most of the film and who serves as the viewer’s guide to the rainforest and to Shuar culture. It is an overused word, but Sebastian is genuinely charismatic: a telegenic, benign, and humorous presence that never grates. Magically for viewers in search of the exotic, Sebastian is a shaman and Ota shows us Sebastian’s ritual use of two psychotropic plants from the forest: ayahuasca and datura.

We accompany Sebastian and the men from the extended family on trips to the forest: scavenging for plants for foods and medicines, clearing a patch of ground and planting crops. There is an extraordinary sequence where they cut down palm fronds and branches and build a house – from scratch. The only items in the construction from outside the forest that I could identify were some iron nails. Sebastian delivers a beautiful line to sum up the group’s achievement: for the Shuar, when we work together nothing is difficult to finish. Daily life is gendered, most of the footage of Jeaneth, Sebastian’s wife, involves child-care and food preparation. Jeaneth cooks a huge vat of chicha, an alcoholic drink made from a fermented root-vegetable.

What struck your reviewer in watching the scenes provided by Ota is the sense of difference from the mores of the contemporary global consumerist society. The whole family consumes the chicha as they work together in an amiable atmosphere of mild alcohol intoxication – not allowed as a wage slave on a factory production line or in your next Zoom meeting with your manager. A couple of times during the preparation of the chicha, Jeaneth honks up a great bubble of phlegm and spits into the mixture to add to the flavour. I fantasised that maybe Jeaneth could demonstrate the technique on one of the inordinate number of food programmes the UK population while away their days watching – maybe the Great British Bake-Off. We see one of the kids, probably four years’ old, wandering through the forest unsupervised, but on camera, playing with a foot long machete trying to cut palm leaves. My assumption here is that Ota is asking us to think about cultural difference: what in one society is viewed as neglect is, in another, perceived as empiricism and learning by experience. Pastora explains to us why she decided to run for elected office – she dreamt she killed a giant anaconda and the people all shouted out: Pastora! I envisaged, in some fifth dimension, the hope and excitement that would have greeted say Merkel or Macron when they declared they were running for office after dreaming they had spoken to an elephant or wrestled a jaguar to the ground.  

Ota show us a world which, apart from those iron nails, the occasional plastic bucket, and the essential footwear for working in the forest, rubber boots, has not changed much visually in millennia. There are two interludes, in which Ota takes us to the village community centre. On the first occasion, we go to follow Pastora making the case to visiting government officials for Kenkuim to have a clean water supply. We are suddenly and dramatically transported to the world of laptops and cell-phones. We discover where we are on the planet for the first time in the film – we see a statue of Simon Bolivar and a TV is tuned to the Ecuadorean public broadcaster. Ota begins with a killer shot: a bored bureaucrat scrolling on his phone, a staple of meetings throughout the global knowledge-based economy. Pastora and her colleagues are met with obfuscation by the officials – the problem is money. Ota is referenced for the only time in the entire film when an official remarks that maybe ‘the Japanese guy you are with could pay for it’. The second time is when Sebastian and Jeaneth proudly attend a ceremony where their son is one of a group of villagers being awarded certificates for passing some form of paramedic training. A health ministry official makes a speech heavy with development studies theory – lots of references to longitudinal structures. The young man reassures the viewer that undergoing the training has not changed his belief in the efficacy of natural medicines gleaned from the forest.

The pace of the film suddenly changes, we suddenly have a drama in the life of the family. Sebastian has cut himself badly whilst out working in the forest. We see the paramedics, including the son, rushing to the family home – a saline drip is administered. Ota captures the action extremely effectively. For an anthropologist filmmaker the concatenation of events is fortuitous – Ota is given the opportunity to contrast the new and the traditional approaches to healing. Some of the scenes portraying traditional healing that Ota films, it has to be said forensically, are not for the faint-hearted. For your reviewer, the section where Sebastian applies an herbal salve to a man’s infected foot and the one where Sebastian shows how he cures the occasional numbness that he feels in his arm by plunging the entire limb deep into an ants’ nest were pretty rebarbative.

And then we have the DRUGS use as the UK and US mainstream would doubtless frame Ota’s footage of Sebastian’s ritual partaking of ayahuasca and datura. Ota’s filming of the sequences is straightforward and prosaic. We see Sebastian retching and vomiting a great deal – both substances are notoriously toxic as well as hallucogenic. Sebastian in his explanatory monologue presents the experience as a conversation with some sort of Superego – a ritual voyage of discovery within his own psyche where he meets the family’s ancestors and receives a true vision of what he is. This is very definitely not about escapism but about confrontation with an alternative reality albeit one with exciting possibilities such as bumping into the sky or metamorphosing into a jaguar or a giant waterfall. I am guessing that the point Ota is making is that use of intoxicants is best understood in terms of cultural context. We are in a different dimension from a hedge-fund manager taking a toot of cocaine before the opera, a migrant working having a hit of methamphetamine to get through a back-breaking shift or a US mom popping a prescribed opioid from Walmart’s to survive another day of the great American alienation. The archbishop taking communion wine and the dedicated drinker supping their nth can of industrial lager of the day are both using alcohol. The substance is the same, the difference is the context. Ota ends Sebastian’s and our trip with a stunning shot, Sebastian pushes the bowl with the datura preparation towards the filmmaker with the imprecation: Drink It! Ota is being asked to cross over from being a social scientist observer and join the world of the Shuar.

Kanarta has already won several festival prices and is an excellent and in many ways ground-breaking piece of documentary cinema. However, I believe as it stands, Kanarta will only appeal to a somewhat niche audience of dedicated environmental activists, university development studies faculty members and professional anthropologists. The length in particular will not have helped with this. While the amazing imagery might have made cutting it down a truly heart-breaking process, Kanarta comes in at two hours long and could easily have been sifted down to make a punchier, more impactful offering.

I can understand what Ota was doing, personally, I enjoyed the slow-burn feel and the minute examination of the quotidian, but I worry for a wider audience this might have come across as simply boring. I had a problem with some of the editing. When Ota moves from the timelessness of the forest to the 2021 of the community centre, we are given on both occasions a dark blank screen as a transition. This approach seems odd, as it negated the impact of the contrast which an immediate cut from forest to modernity would have achieved.

My most serious reservation concerns the flubbed ending of the movie. We have the extraordinarily powerful and climactic Drink It! scene fading to black and then we are back in the sunlight in the forest, much to this viewer’s surprise. Sebastian cuts a hole in the trunk of a tree and proceeds to drink from the juice gushing from the opening – a wonderful scene vividly illustrating the treasures to be found in the forest. Possibly, Ota was reticent about ending the film with a question to himself as filmmaker and wanted the last word to rest with Sebastian as voice of the Shuar people. Or, he had two resonant scenes and decided to use both. Whatever reason, the result for me was a mess: alternative endings rarely work in any film genre.

These minor criticisms aside, Ota has produced a landmark work in filming the Shuar people and portraying their role as custodians of one of the planet’s great natural resources. I hope that he continues to use film to record his work as an anthropologist or uses his skills as an anthropologist to make cinema aimed at as wide an audience as possible – it’s a fine line but Ota has shown with only the occasional wobble that he can walk it. The giant ogre is swinging his mace – cinema can play a lead role in telling the world the blow is about to fall.

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