Amazonian Indians move into the video age

TWO AMAZONIAN Indians on their first trip outside Brazil spent a morning showing videos of their tribe to 300 academics and television producers at Manchester University.

The two men from the 4,000-strong Kayapo tribe were at the Third International Festival of Ethnographic Film. Since 1989 the tribespeople have been recording their customs and culture on video equipment, encouraged by visiting anthropologists and helped by funds from the gold and mahogany concessions they own. It is a means of protecting themselves from the encircling threat of Brazil's Portuguese-speaking population.

The first film was shown by Mokuka, son of a Kayapo chief. He said he retained the perspective of his tribe in all of his work, and explained that though he was wearing 'white men's clothes' in England, at home he painted his body and lived in the same huts as everybody else.

'Is it holding such a camera which makes me a white man? If you came to our village and we gave you one of our head-dresses, would it make you an Indian?' he asked. The films that both he and his companion, Tamok, showed were not so very different from those made by outsiders: they focused on the big special events and ceremonies. They were rather monotonous - the Indian audiences, who watch them in the big central men's hut in the villages, apparently like to see every bit of a long ritual dance.

But the men clearly have access to scenes which outsiders might not. One of Mokuka's films shows Kayapo chiefs meeting to patch up a peace. 'Chiefs should not make passes at other people's wives,' one said.

Mokuka said the film of the chiefs meeting had helped to keep the peace: he had edited it to include the repetitious statements about the value of kinship and concentrated on the oldest chiefs. 'The camera helped make the words heavy, strong and lasting.'

Tamok, whose film showed an all-night men's naming ceremony in which scores of tortoises were roasted for a feast, said: 'It is important to make pictures of our lore known by the older people so that it may be passed on to young people and preserve images of our culture.'

They say that when foreign photo-journalists first came to take pictures of their tribal ways, the Kayapo people did not understand what they were doing. They had not been taught to use cameras, and had been left with nothing. So the tribe started to request and receive payment from outsiders. 'We are now at the third stage: we take pictures of ourselves for free.'

(Photograph omitted)