ND/NF: Birdwatchers glares from afar
Reaching at but never grasping the heels of the likes of Terrence Malick and Werner Herzog, Marco Bechis’s Birdwatchers portrays the on-going conflict of paradigmatic shift between the indigenous people of Mato Grosso do Sul, Brazil and the “fazendeiros,” opulent opportunists who exploit the land and its naturals for monetary gain. The wordless opening scene cuts from a glorious wide shot of the jungle to a motor boat cutting through a river, slowing to a stop so that the binocular and camera-clad tourists can gawk at the Indians standing around at the riverbed like a herd of deer. As soon as the boat is out of sight, the Indians disperse into the woods to a clearing where they receive payment for a day’s work. They get onto a truck bed where their jeans and T-shirts are, and are driven back to a reservation. There, the supposed chief, a drunkard, and the tribe shaman decide that they must take their land back, and camp out on the property of the fazendeiros. More Indians join “the movement” as time goes by, and soon the tensions escalate into “metaphorical and actual war.”
Bechi makes no qualms about his intentions being as didactic as they are lyrical. His frames are constantly bisected, symbolizing the schism inherent to the film’s story, using as his go-to image that of harvested land versus the sprawling jungle. The tribe’s youth are prone to the tonally accurate but logically ambigious act of suicide by hanging, putting an emphasis on the helplessness that plagues the marginalized group but also limiting the taking of one’s own life to a conceit (see: device). The gravity of life lost is obscured by the preference for polemical narrative. The most problematic and in some ways indicative misstep is in the decision to assign a shaky P.O.V. shot and boogeyman soundscape to the evil spirit the Indians believe are inhabiting the forest — Belchi’s images have a tendency towards the literal, and prove to be a disservice to its elemental story.
Films with the ambition of Birdwatchers rarely come this close to success however. While Belchi may not be able to find the right balance between his aforementioned impulses towards sensory cinema and didactic grandstanding, there’s no shortage of talent on display here. The film’s most powerful scene is a testament to sensibilities worthy of attention. A young shaman-in-training, lit by headlights and guns pointed at him, lashes out against his oppressors, screeching a native war cry and promising their death by his hands. It is at once cathartic in its moment of empowerment but devastating in its futility.
One may wish that Malick or Herzog had helmed this instead, but there aren’t too many films that can’t be said about.
– Sam Song