Director, producer, and co-writer Céline Cousteau’s new documentary, Tribes on the Edge, is a plea for Brazil’s indigenous people, who are afraid of becoming extinct. The film is a stark eye-opener that draws our attention to a beautiful rainforest that harbors severe problems for the Javari tribespeople. (SYJ:4.5/5)
Review by FF2 Media Intern Sophia Y Jin
The opening of Tribes on the Edge is a serene, picturesque scene of the Amazon rainforest. Faces of its inhabitants appear, accompanied by summaries of the problems they endure. Cousteau lives in the modern world, yet she explores it—and the lives of the indigenous — from a place of hoping to protect it from the chaos of modernity. Having visited the rainforest with her grandfather, the famous French explorer Jacques Cousteau, when Céline was younger, she felt a deep connection there. Seeing firsthand that these people are both ignored and suffering in a knot of colonization via deforestation and lack of healthcare breaks Cousteau’s heart; her documentary illuminates their struggle in an effort to educate.
The film project began when Beto Marúbo, the Director of Forest Trends’ Communities and Territorial Governance Initiative, reached out to Cousteau to help the tribespeople. They had met at a conference in 2007 about the status of the rainforest. When Marúbo asked Cousteau to help document the disregard for the health care of the rainforest’s inhabitants, she agreed to it, feeling showing the world these travesties was a part of her calling. Despite being an outsider, Cousteau was accepted as she was sensitive to the cultural differences. She set out a clear plan detailing which tribes she would visit to film and made it clear that she would not force her way. This documentary aimed to attract the international media attention to the challenges faced by the Javari. In turn, this would extract the global support needed to pressure the Brazilian government to decrease land threats (deforestation, mismanagement, etc.) and the health crisis that are decimating the Javari population. Most of the decisions about the welfare of the indigenous people are made by the government in Brasilia, an institution often missing representatives that have set foot in the rainforest. Many problems faced by the natives are not being resolved. People are still dying because of the lack of care. Equipped and ready with her close team, Cousteau and her crew cross over with their permits to enter the Vale do Javari.
The people face numerous challenges in their attempts to survive. Fatal illnesses are difficult to tackle, such as malaria and hepatitis, and the government is withholding the proper aid. While Cousteau and her crew live with these people and interview individuals from each tribe, she finds out that these illnesses are wiping the tribes out. Malaria is thought to have traveled from Africa in the sixteenth century. Hepatitis, however, could be coming from two potential sources: One is thought to be coming from the Peruvian border; (The indigenous lands in Peru are not protected, so there could be many illegal happenings there, including drug smuggling.); The other theory is more of a conspiracy that the Brazilian government is systematically exterminating the indigenous people by sending in the disease. The fact that the people genuinely believe this could be true shows how little trust they have in their government. The people used to only rely on the forest for their medicine, but since being introduced to foreign diseases, there is a greater need for aid.
Director and writer Céline Cousteau truly excels in documenting the beauty of the tribes while painting a moving portrayal of their suffering. Cousteau translates the issues masterfully for an audience unlikely to have experienced indigenous life. She is clearly passionate and affected by the subject; her personal connection with the rainforest makes a world of difference. She included a lot of history, linking modern issues to their ancestral origins. The film highlights many rituals and dances that the tribe members perform, such as for welcoming guests, lifting spirits, or praising nature. Cousteau and her crew are seen throughout the film talking to the inhabitants and taking part in their rituals and dances.
Additionally, the music is atmospheric, weaving in sounds from the tribe. The scenes showing their day-to-day lives provided a sense of calm, as a viewer witnesses their traditions and lack of outside influence. It does make one wonder why the Brazilian government won’t extend their support and show the natives the respect they deserve. It’s saddening to see them go without basic supplies while enduring dire living circumstances. There is a good balance of objective observation and subjective interviews. This film is a plea for the attention of people as well as authorities globally for their survival. To me, the film is an enlightening watch, and illuminates how — through the comfort of or our warm homes — I am able to somewhat confront privilege when watching the suffering of others.
The film is available on Primevideo and iTunes. Visit official website for full list of available platforms.
© Sophia Y. Jin (02/09/2021) FF2 Media
Featured Photo: Céline Cousteau and other crew members
Top Photo: Tribesman receiving medical attention
Bottom Photo: Tribesman
Photo Credits: CauseCentric Productions; Gravitas Ventures
Q: Does Tribes on the Edge pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test?
Yes, because the content about the film is about tribes, history, and disease.