The Thinking of Speaking
Issue #10 July / August 2014
At the Cinema
by Erik Zidowecki
July / August 2014 | 

The film Xingu is the story about how the Villas-Bôas brothers, Claudio, Leonardo and Orlando, created the first Indian park in Brazil to protect the indigenous tribes from the encroaching Brazilian government. It is based upon the true story, even using actual footage from the events at the end of the film.

The film starts with Claudio and Leonardo dressing like workers and signing on to an expedition into the Amazon rainforest. The mission is to open up the jungle for roadways, development and "taking control". The voice-over narration by Claudio says they were giving up their jobs to find the freedom of the wild. Once signed on, they send word to their brother Orlando, who is still working in an office to come join them, which he does happily, wanting to get away from the daily drudgery of his job. With the small team, they soon run into a tribe of Indians, the Xavante, who have probably never seen a white man before. At first the brothers and the team try to avoid them, but finally, Orlando and Claudio approach a group of them on a beach and through trading a few items, manage to earn the trust of the chief and then are taken to see the entire tribe.

Their main view is that the Indians should be able to assimilate into modern civilization at their own pace, not ours.

Within a year, the tribe and expedition are good friends, with the men living among them while the Indians help them build a landing strip. A government plane lands, marking a great success, for they have made contact and worked with the Indians without any loss of life. That changes, however, when the Indians start getting sick. They have contracted the flu from the white men, and before it can be stopped, half of the village is wiped out, including the chief. This turn of events has a huge impact on the brothers, who realise that they are the ones that have caused the deaths by making contact. They know that inevitably, the government will move in to take over the land, so they decide that they must be "both the poison and the antidote". They set out to inoculate the tribe against further disease, bringing in a doctor and staff.

The brothers, on alert, when they are first confronted by the Xavante in the jungle

They want to do more than that, however, and start talking about having a place for the Indian tribes to live, separate from and protected against the white man invasion. They get the chance for this when the government asks them to establish a military base in the jungle. They agree, but only on the condition that the Indians get their own land: a Xingu Park, named because of the Xingu river they are on.

The Xavante, dancing

In typical government fashion, once the base is completed, rather than providing the Indians with their own land, they divide it up and start handing it out to ranchers. Infuriated by the betrayal, Claudio and Orlando embark on a risky strategy. Claudio starts having the Indians attack some of the new ranches being built while Orlando returns home to stir up sentiment for the Indians in the media. They manage to finally push the government into giving them the area they want, and they start bringing in other tribes that are outside of the area. By this time, Leonardo has returned to the mainland with his Indian wife and child, having broken Orlando's command to not get involved with the Indians’ women.

The brothers, in one of their many discussions over what is best for the tribes

The film does a fantastic job of presenting the hardships that both sides, the brothers and the Indians, endure as they attempt to work together and understand each other. It is also inevitably sad, because it is a story that has been repeated so many times throughout history, although this one is done a bit more peacefully. Whenever "civilized" men come into contact with indigenous people, the results are almost always devastating to the tribes, who are either killed by fighting, disease, or both. The brothers are very aware of this pattern, which is why they work so hard to make it a peaceful meeting, but even then, they know that they have quickened the end of these people. Their main view is that the Indians should be able to assimilate into modern civilization at their own pace, not ours.

Indians and brothers watching an airplane approach for the first time

There was something more profound that I realized while watching this. As we see the Indians living their lives slowly losing their culture (some already start wearing modern clothes and learning to ride in airplanes), there is the truth that cultures are always being lost; we simply don't notice because it is a gradual change. It isn't just invasions or the rise and fall of empires; it is the "progress" as what we once did is left behind for the new. The world that exists now is very different from the way it was one hundred years ago, and that world was very different from the hundred years before that. We can take any two time periods and compare them and see what was lost and what was created. Even in the short term, the world around me is very different compared to when I was a child, and that world was very different from the world of my parents' childhood. There is no way to truly save any culture, because it is always changing.

Claudio, dancing during the celebration over the creation of the park

The same is true of languages. Even if you look at a modern language like Italian, it is different now compared to what it was a few hundred years ago, as words change in meaning or become lost altogether while new ones are adopted or created. In English, we don't speak the way they did in Shakespeare's time.

There were a few things I wish the film was clearer about. The start of the film seems to be unsure as to the purpose of the brothers. At first, it shows them as sneaking onto an expedition, and Claudio is talking about freedom being the motivation. But once they are in the wild, they seem to take control of the group, rather than being the normal peasants they passed themselves off as. So who was supposed to be leading the group? It was also a bit unclear exactly what Leonardo had done wrong. He did get a native woman pregnant, and the media found out and made a big deal out of it, but I don't know why that would force him to leave the mission. Indeed, it seems to me it would be worse to return to society with an Indian wife and child rather than living in the tribe like they already were.

Orlando, also dancing, with Marina, one of the assistants

The film is listed as being in Portuguese and Tupi, for those wanting the language aspect. I assume the Indians are speaking Tupi, but Tupi is listed as being extinct while there are other Tupian languages, under various names. The Xavante people, the first the brothers make contact with, speak the Xavante language, which isn't even in the same language family as Tupian. I am still hopeful that someone will be able to clarify what was being spoken in the film and why.

There is some truly beautiful cinematography going on, with most of the story being filmed in the actual Xingu Park, which is still thriving today. The film is unrated, being more of a documentary than fiction, but there is some violence, strong language, and partial nudity (Indian women being topless).

I would highly recommend Xingu to anyone interested in the tragedies of indigenous people, as I have become through my own studies into endangered languages.

At The Cinema - Xingu
Writer: Erik Zidowecki
• "Xingu" Internet Movie Database <>
Globo Filmes, O2 Filmes, Alambique Destilaria de Ideias Unipessoal, Breaking Glass Pictures, Cinemax

All images are Copyright - CC BY-SA (Creative Commons Share Alike) by their respective owners, except for Petey, which is Public Domain (PD) or unless otherwise noted.


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