In Brazil, the miraculous rediscovery of one of the oldest films filmed in the Amazon

In Brazil, the miraculous rediscovery of one of the oldest films filmed in the Amazon


This November 22 at nightfall, the Brazilian Cinematheque is full. Several dozen impatient people line up in the brick aisles of this prestigious institution in Sao Paulo, installed in a former 19th century slaughterhouse. At first glance, the film of the day – a black and white, silent documentary dating from 1918 – was not intended to attract crowds.

But, on screen, the images, shot in the Amazon, are exceptional. Here, deep in the forest, we follow the grueling work of the nut pickers and rubber tree tappers. There, it’s a perilous manatee fishing trip, carried out with a spear. Further on, intriguing faces carved into the rock by mysterious natives. Jaguars, monkeys, crocodiles are filmed in close-up or in captivating tracking shots on a canoe…

Considered one of the oldest films shot in the Amazon, this sixty-six minute feature film has long remained forgotten. Amazonas, o maior rio do mundo (“Amazon, the greatest river in the world”), directed by Silvino Santos, was considered for decades as a lost jewel, swallowed up in the tumultuous waves of the 7th art… until that it resurfaces this year, almost by miracle.

All this was well worth a screening, with sound accompaniment by composer Luiz Henrique Xavier. He accomplished his task in “one weekend” , inspired by indigenous songs, sounds of the forest and the works of Heitor Villa-Lobos. We had to act quickly because “this is an extraordinary discovery” , summarized Eduardo Morettin, renowned professor of cinema history at the University of Sao Paulo, during a discussion after the film.

“Immense artistic value”

Back in 1918. Cinema was still in its infancy when the young Silvino Santos undertook a major documentary on the Amazon. At the time, this young Portuguese photographer based in Manaus was 32 years old and had very little experience. To his credit, he shot a propaganda film in Peru on behalf of rubber magnates, accused of treating their employees like slaves…

Filming in the Amazon will last three long years. The young filmmaker strives to film every corner of the forest and “uses the most modern storytelling techniques, with dynamic editing, zooms, movement… He alternates lyrical, comic, contemplative points of view. It is of immense artistic value,” underlines Savio Luis Stoco, professor at the Federal University of Para, specialist in the work of Silvino Santos.

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