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“We Can Dream Really Far Away”: Morzaniel Ɨramari Discusses ‘Mãri Hi - The Tree of Dream’

By Aron Penczu

Still from 'Mãri Hi' showing a group of Yanomami walking through a dense forest.

Morzaniel Ɨramari, an Indigenous documentary-maker from the Amazon rainforest, is traveling with his third film, Mãri Hi - The Tree of Dream, in order to raise awareness about his people's current plight. He is the first filmmaker from among the Yanomami, an ethnic group of roughly 35,000 foraging agriculturalists stewarding a Nebraska-sized swathe of the Amazon, who live in equilibrium with nature. During Bolsonaro's reign, through a calamitous combination of state neglect and an influx of illegal miners hungry for gold, the Yanomami suffered what President Lula da Silva terms "an attempted genocide."

To bring home the reality of their suffering, Morzaniel is present whenever his 17-minute documentary is shown. Before each screening, his assistant offers audiences hand-outs describing the encroachment of the garimpeiros—small-scale miners who cut gaping wounds into the rainforest, poison rivers with mercury and mud, and bring diseases, guns, alcohol, and prostitution. "If the forest dies," Morzaniel writes, "the Yanomami will die, and […] city people will also die along with it."

Instead of focusing on the garimpeiros, however, Mãri Hi - The Tree of Dream attends to the spiritual experiences of the Yanomami. Offering a bracing and welcoming view of Indigenous people as seen from within their conceptual and cosmological imagination, it contrasts sharply with most ethnographic documentaries. Watching it on its own terms requires recognizing the sacral quality of the ritual dances it depicts, strikingly, with deliberately overexposed footage, and the weight of the warning it concludes with the demiurge Omama will take vengeance on those who inflict suffering on the Yanomami.

Documentary spoke to Morzaniel via an interpreter at Sheffield DocFest, which has a history of programming collaborative projects by Indigenous filmmakers. The most notable among them is Nũhũ Yãg Mũ Yõg Hãm: This Land Is Our Land!, directed by two members of the Maxakali people, which won the International Competition in 2020. Mãri Hi - The Tree of Dream was lensed and directed by Morzaniel and produced by Aruac Filmes, who organized an audiovisual editing workshop in collaboration with the Yanomami Hutukara Association and the Instituto Sociambiental in 2022. Having won Best Short Documentary in the Brazilian competition of It's All True, the film is eligible for next year's Academy Awards.

Our conversation covered the origins of Mãri Hi - The Tree of Dream, the need for more Yanomami filmmakers, and what Lula's return to power has meant for garimpo in their territory. It has been edited for clarity and length.

DOCUMENTARY: How did you become a filmmaker?

MORZANIEL ƗRAMARI: I had many dreams. I was dreaming about how to make cinema from the city. Then I learned a lot through Davi Kopenawa [shaman, activist, and production partner in the film]. When I was a child, he was starting to receive journalists and people interested in his work, and I started to look at the cameras they brought. I was really interested in how they work. Where are these images going to? And then there was a journalist from São Paolo who brought a TV, and showed images, showed films. I began wondering: how do they make cinema?

The films that the journalist brought were films from the city. But one of the films was about Serra Pelada, where the garimpo started in the Amazon. He brought this film to raise awareness about what is happening. And he told us that you, the Yanomami, must also make films and become journalists. Through films, you can show your reality and what's happening, and you can denounce, so the napëpe [whites, the non-Indigenous] don't keep destroying the forest. It's a way of fighting.

D: You clearly have a very important relationship with Davi Kopenawa. Can you tell us about that?

MƗI learned about Davi and his fight when I was a child. He was the first one to talk to us about what is happening in the Yanomami territory: about the garimpeiros, about the Yanomami that are dying. That's why I'm so close to him. I'm following Davi and thinking the same good thoughts as Davi. The thoughts are one. For a long time, Davi fought alone. He alone, when I was a child, demarcated the Yanomami territory. But it's a collective fight. That's why I am together with him—so the thinking can be one, but the forces are many.

D: What are the ideas behind Mãri Hi - Tree of Dream?

MƗ: Many non-Indigenous people came to the Yanomami to take images, but in these films, the Yanomami didn't talk. They were not listened to. It was just non-Indigenous people taking pictures, making images there.

We have lots of stories having to do with Yanomami cosmology. Stories about the spirits and the xapiri [mythological animal ancestors], and Davialways talked about the tree of dreams. I asked him: "Where is this tree? I don't see it." Only Davi, because he is a shaman, can see it. Davi would say, "Without this tree, we wouldn't have dreams." Not the Yanomami, nor the animals, nor the dogs. It's from the tree that a dream arrives to us. So I began to think about making a film about this. And the shamans would say: "I'm going to sleep so that I can work." I thought, how can they work if they're sleeping? It doesn't make sense.

We talk a lot about dreams. Because we, the Yanomami, can dream really far away. I can dream about other worlds, like this world here; I can remember the moon. I can dream about the sky, the rain, the sun. So that's how this film was born. Through the dreams of women, the dreams of children, and the dreams of shamans, which are the ones that go furthest away.

Mãri Hi has many images of the Yanomami dances. There are a lot of feathers and face paint. These dances represent the dreams of the spirits. When we see someone dancing, like Davi, the shaman, we say: "Ah, it's true; that's how the spirits dance." These dances are images of the spirits.

D: How is the situation of the Yanomami today?

MƗToday, things are only a little bit better. Lula has only made a small difference, a small improvement. The genocide situation is reduced, compared to the previous government of Bolsonaro. When Bolsonaro was the president, many of the Yanomami people were dying—there was lots of violence, sexual abuse of women by the illegal miners, disease, and malaria. In 2018, when Bolsonaro started to work, he himself sent many garimpeiros to the rainforest. The illegal invaders destroyed a lot of Yanomamo territory. That's when the Yanomami started to die. They started to kill, to bring diseases, to destroy the forest.

When Lula became president, things started to get a little better because he started to kick the miners out and to clean up the river. Also, to send medicines for the treatment of malaria among the Indigenous. But still, Lula could not yet improve everything.

It's important to say that there are still miners in the territory, still working there. In Roraima, in the north, some politicians still support the Bolsonaro mining project. Although Lula is in power, these Bolsonaristas defend laws that hurt the Indigenous, like the Marco Temporal [which could lead to many Indigenous people losing the right to live in their ancestral territories]. This project was approved in the first round by some deputies, and there will be another round, but so far, it has passed. We strongly oppose it because we have many families and relatives in this region. The Yanomami territory is large, and it traverses Brazil and Venezuela. It's not just three people; it's a large community.

D: This short is one of a growing number of Yanomami films. Will this contribute to change?

MƗIt's really important that more Yanomami know how to make cinema. When these young people and women know how to create cinema, we can gather all the images that they've shot, and they will strengthen our fight. I think the existence of more Yanomami filmmakers will change things a great deal, for us, for the better. It's going to improve our health, how we are living today. And also, I believe we will gain more fighters to defend the earth, Yanomami and also non-Yanomami.

For us, it's not good when the non-Indigenous make images. They put their own thoughts on the image of the Yanomami. They add non-Indigenous elements—their music, their images, and many elements from the non-Indigenous universe. They don't tell the truth or explain to the other cities what it's really like. When we make films, we put images and sounds which belong together. We explain the truth about the Yanomami to the napëpe.

D: Is there anything else you want to share with our readers?

MƗSince the time of Bolsonaro, I have been asking journalists to denounce the situation and to share widely news about the plight of the Yanomami. I don't know why but Brazilian journalists haven't done the job well enough.

I always use the word "support" [apoyo]—I really want support at this moment. This support that I'm asking for is not support of resources or money, but of taking the Yanomami word and bringing it to more people, talking about us, and reaching the Brazilian authorities with the outside press, creating pressure that can arrive back to Brazil, and the authorities that are doing the wrong things there.

With thanks to Margarida Serrano for interpreting.

Aron Penczu is a writer and filmmaker based in London.