The Storytellers

in 17th Fribourg International Film Festival

by Latika Padgaonkar

It is perhaps the very unpretentious narrative technique of Narradores de Javé that makes it a winner. But that simplicity, straightforwardness even, is only so in appearance. It camouflages layers that are as much cinematic as emotional. Never confusing, always cheerful, director Eliane Caffé’s art of story-telling here is at its most vigorous. But she also jostles our mind about the ways we look at ourselves and at our past.

What is doomed to happen in the village of Javé in Brazil, and what eventually does happen is what ‘progress’ is all about. A dam is to be built, and Javé is to be submerged. What can the people do? Their sole weapon against this awesome official decision is to demonstrate that their valley has enough historical and cultural significance to warrant preservation. But as a matter of fact the valley has no ‘tangible’ riches to show the world. And the people know it.

Paradoxically, it is this lacuna which gives the film its brilliance. The inhabitants must turn to their own resources of imagination. And so they recount stories of the origins of Javé, each as he or she sees it, full of punch and drama. So rich is this oral creativity, so immersed are they in their own tales, in their active myth-making, that they identify with the historical personages they speak about and, in one stroke, erase the distinctions between ‘truth’ and ‘fiction’, wipe away linear notions of time, add frills and fancies, and convince you that past wealth resides not only in stone and clay but in individual and collective imagination; that imagination is also what links people to their soil, and is as culturally significant as any item of archaeology.

This notion of how the past is defined gives Caffé the space to twist tales within tales to dramatic effect. The people of Javé are suddenly enthused by what they – for the first time – see as space for their creative energies. All are illiterate, and that no doubt explains the power of their language. The only literate man who must write down this material and present it to the authorities as visible evidence of Javé’s great history, finally does nothing, convinced that this is a wasted exercise, that the dam will be built anyway.

‘Progress’ triumphs, the dam is built, the valley flooded, the people moved out. But this boisterous, superbly told film leaves you with this thought: who but we can understand the stuff of our past? Who can decide whether the empirical is a greater truth than the imagined? The past is what you make it, meaningful even when you stick on to it your feelings today.

Latika Padgaonkar