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‘The Falling Sky’ Review: A Vivid Portrait of an Indigenous People’s Urgent Fight for Survival

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If you’re expecting to ride out the apocalypse in a deluxe bunker, you might want to consider the visionary wisdom of Yanomami shaman Davi Kopenawa, a central figure in The Falling Sky. “When the earth transforms,” he says at one point in the documentary, “you can have all the money you want. You can run away with the money, but when the stormy winds come, you won’t be able to silence them.”

Filled with beauty and fury, the film offers an immersive portrait of an endangered community. The specifics are those of the Yanomami people: their struggle to maintain a way of life in sync with nature, and to withstand invading forces of greed and commerce that treat nature as a source of wealth to be plundered. But the calamity that Kopenawa warns of is a global one. We’re in this together, and, if the looting of the planet continues unabated, the sky that he and his fellow shamans are entrusted with holding up is the one that will fall on us all.

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The Falling Sky

The Bottom Line Dynamic and eloquent.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Directors’ Fortnight)
Directors: Eryk Rocha, Gabriela Carneiro da Cunha
1 hour 48 minutes

Inspired by a book of the same name by Kopenawa and anthropologist Bruce Albert, The Falling Sky (Hutomosi Kerayuwi in Yanomami, A Quedo Do Céu in Portuguese) is, like a couple of other recent films about Indigenous people in Brazil, The Territory and The Buriti Flower, the result of a collaborative effort with its subjects. The filmmakers’ access to Kopenawa and his Watoriki community, the result of ongoing involvement and established relationships, yields a vibrant insider’s perspective. Accomplished documentarian Eryk Rocha (Cinema Novo) and Gabriela Carneiro da Cunha, an artist and researcher at the helm of her first feature-length film, take a mostly vérité approach, with a few well-deployed stylistic flourishes and excerpts from other films. They bring the viewer inside the villagers’ reahu rites for Kopenawa’s deceased father-in-law, his mentor in the ways of shamanism, leadership and defense of the forest.

In the half-century since Brazil’s military government built a highway through Yanomami territory in northern Brazil, cutting up the forest “like meat” and establishing a “gateway for invaders,” Kopenawa and his people have felt themselves the targets of a war waged by white people, or napë. First came the loggers, then the miners. With them came sickness and death, contaminated rivers, deforested land.

The urgency that propels the doc is that of a non-warring people fighting the good fight. Via radio, groups within the territory keep one another apprised of the approach of devious gold miners, and exchange updates on children who have fallen ill to the various illnesses (malaria, coronavirus) that the outsiders bring into the region. Hundreds of children have died so far. With history as their guide, women worry that there will be rapes and murders at the hands of the interlopers.

Along with the radio conversations, on-camera interviews and voiceover commentary, mainly from Kopenawa, the film offers an impressionistic sense of the encroaching miners: the smoke and popping sounds from their fires. Led by Rocha and Bernard Machado, with additional camerawork by Morzaniel Iramari and Roseane Yariana, the cinematography moves fluidly between long views that take in the green of the countryside, group interactions and the unhurried fullness of the night sky, and up-close communion with the reahu, from preparation through ritual. Peeling bananas by the bushel for huge pots of puree, older men, smiling and joking, work by flashlight and worry that they’re missing the good part of the feast. In daytime, younger men engage in ferocious warlike dances and combative ceremonial dialogues that spark more commentary from the smiling oldsters. Kopenawa explains a few core aspects of the rituals, but otherwise the helmers let the specifics of the reahu speak for themselves.

Sniffing the powdered hallucinogen yãkoana, made from tree resin, the shaman’s “eyes die” so that he may see the xapiri (spirits). And so The Falling Sky softens its focus, the visuals blurring momentarily, in an obvious but well-used effect, as Kopenawa enters a realm of dream and prophecy. At another point in the film, he explains that he used to emulate the napë, but his father-in-law opened his mind to the magnitude of the threat the Yanomami face. Today, with his knowledge of Western ways and his fluency in Portuguese, he’s well equipped for his work as a spokesman and ambassador, not only dealing with the Brazilian government but also traveling the globe to deliver his urgent message. Closer to home, he’s determined to awaken Yanomami youth who might otherwise be lured into promises of wealth from what he astutely calls the “merchandise people.”

The gold miners’ numbers now approach those of the roughly 30,000 Yanomami. But unlike the Amazonian tribe, the miners and their ruinous power are backed by “even bigger destroyers,” as Kopenawa puts is. And this, of course, is where those of us who aren’t bunker-building billionaires can identify, inextricably connected as we all are by the ever-expanding power of mega-conglomerates and the governments that serve them. In ways that are cinematic and incisively poetic, Kopenawa and the writer-directors let the dots naturally connect. How far of a leap is it from the predatory practices that strip land of ore, clear-cut it for agribusiness, let chemical runoff poison waters and cause disease and hunger and death, to the profiteering coalition of industry and government that’s devoted to bombs and other weapons of mass destruction while insisting, as Kopenawa points out, that Indigenous people trying to live in peace are the savages? Is it a leap at all?

The Falling Sky presents something more immediate than an argument, something more powerful than statistics. And, perhaps most wrenchingly, it offers the memories of an elderly Yanomami man whose life was upended by the belligerent missionaries who ravaged his community and put him to work. “Today,” he tells the filmmakers, “you want to film me.” And then he asks a burning question: “Are you really going to be our allies?” He might not be as angry as the xapiri, who have witnessed generations of devastation, but he wants to know that his words will be heard, and that his grandchildren will be defended. It’s a reasonable question, and it burns bright in this potent film.

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