Amazon ‘Tribes on the Edge’: Q&A with documentary filmmaker Céline Cousteau

Tribes on the Edge is a documentary produced by CauseCentric Productions, it has been directed and co-written by Céline Cousteau.The documentary explores the themes of land threats, health crises, and human rights issues of indigenous peoples.

An indigenous man and child featured in the documentary. Image by Michael Clark/Gravitas Ventures.
An indigenous man and child featured in the documentary. Image by Michael Clark/Gravitas Ventures.

A solemn Kanimari man looks at filmmaker Céline Cousteau and says, “I’m 28 years old. All of my cousins — my relatives that were born at the same time as me — they’re all dead.” He lives in one of the many villages in the Javari Valley Indigenous Territory at the remote northwest edge of the Brazilian Amazon, an area plagued by persistent disease, neglect, and death.

This is one of the scenes from Cousteau’s new film, Tribes on the Edge, a documentary feature that offers a raw look at the lives, culture and struggles of the people of the Javari Valley, the second-largest Indigenous territory in the Brazilian Amazon and home to an estimated 2,000 isolated Indigenous people.

Cousteau is the granddaughter of the legendary Jacques Cousteau, the late ocean conservationist, and builds on her family’s track record of high-impact documentary film and conservation. She traveled to the Amazon as it teetered on its tipping point, — the knife edge marking the inexorable unraveling of the lush rainforest into a dry savanna — document the lives of the Indigenous peoples who are largely responsiblefor the parts of the rainforest that are still standing today, despite threats to their own survival.

Following up on a request from Beto Marubo, a prominent Indigenous Amazon leader and representative of the Javari Valley peoples, Cousteau spent three years documenting the people’s reality fighting against disease in the Amazon — where death as a legacy of colonialism has persisted for decades — as well as the intimate moments of community and joy that define daily life in Indigenous villages.

Released as the Amazon faces one of the world’s gravest pandemic crises, Tribes on the Edge shines a light on the longstanding consequences of institutional neglect that has caused the deaths of hundreds of Indigenous people across the Amazon. It documents how preventable and treatable diseases have swept through the community for years, and how an underfunded and understaffed health service makes do with the little it has.

At the outbreak of the COVID-19 crisis in the Amazon, Marubo published an urgent plea. “Today, we do not have any confirmed cases of COVID-19 in our territory, but I fear it’s just a matter of days before we do,” he wrote to Mongabay in May 2020. “We’re sending out an SOS to all those who will listen — and especially to those who are in a position to put pressure on our government to protect Brazil’s original inhabitants from this novel threat. We don’t usually ask for outside help. But in this time of coronavirus, we won’t survive without it.”

Marubo’s fears proved to be true. Two months later, COVID-19 swept through their territory and, by July 2020, despite a strict lockdown, claimed the life of a Javari elder, according to the Organization of Ituí River Marubo Villages. Djalma Marubo, who was 83 years old, hadn’t left his village in three months. He had suffered for years from chronic disease, including tuberculosis, which left him at greater risk from COVID-19. He died on July 5, after testing positive for the disease and experiencing respiratory difficulties. Three days later, 44-year-old Neuraci Oliveira also died.

Tribes on the Edge offers a raw look at the lives, culture and struggles of the people of the Javari Valley, the second-largest Indigenous territory in the Brazilian Amazon. Image by Michael Clark/Gravitas Ventures.

Tribes on the Edge takes a sensitive, transparent approach to documenting life in the community, showing everyday scenes and proud displays of culture, and offering viewers a glimpse into the most urgent struggles facing the Javari Valley peoples today. Cousteau shared her experiences making the film in a conversation with Mongabay. The interview has been edited for clarity.

Mongabay: How has your family’s legacy in conservation and documentary shaped your approach to this film?

Céline Cousteau: I first went to the Amazon when I was a child. The fact that my family had brought me there when I was 9 years old was, unbeknownst to them, a precursor to my relationship with the Amazon and eventually a sensitivity to the people. Toward the end of my grandfather’s life, I was much more aware of this notion of protecting the environment and that storytelling was one tool in bringing awareness to what was happening in the world. The ideas of exploration and storytelling were always present because my whole family was a part of this work. My formal studies in psychology, then my master’s in intercultural relations, pushed me toward an understanding of human beings in their context. It’s still where my focus is. Whenever I look at any environmental story, whether it’s oceans, jungles, Antarctica, or the Amazon, I look at the human side to translate it in a relevant way for human beings. It makes it more relevant and compelling to people who are watching, listening, reading.

Tribes on the Edge covers an overlooked theme of health and disease that has claimed thousands of Indigenous lives. Could you talk a bit more about the decision to focus on that?

The origin of the film began when I attended a conference by the Indigenous tribes. The days that we were at that conference, they focused on health issues. That’s what tied me to their story. At that time, I heard that 50 to 80% of the Javari peoples have some form of hepatitis because they have A, B, C, and delta. Delta I didn’t even know existed at the time. That’s what started this process, this coming to my awareness.

We all watch the news. We see the horrific things around the world. But then you’re standing in a village, and somebody says, “Our people are disappearing because of a preventable and treatable disease that outsiders brought in.” The health care workers that are there, it’s not their fault. They’re doing their job, but their funding is getting cut.

You hear that people are dying from hepatitis-related complications, then [the government] announces there’s going to be less help and less funding. At that moment, I thought, wait, this doesn’t seem right. This formula does not compute. People are dying, and they are also being told that there will be less help for them. That’s where the decision for the film started.

I didn’t know it at the time because it wasn’t until three years later that [Beto Marubo] asked for help in telling the story. When I went back, my experience influenced the lens through which I was going to hear and see what was going on. But a lot more came out; it wasn’t just health issues. That’s one piece of a much bigger story. These health issues began when the first invaders from Europe came in the 16th century.

Hopefully, with COVID-19, a global virus affecting us all, we can understand this better. Back in the 16th century, when Europeans invaded this land, they brought in diseases that were unknown to the Indigenous peoples. And there was no immune system built up for them, so many died of simple diseases. Well, here we are, in these times, facing something similar on a global level. My feeling is that this film’s timing is right because we are all dealing with this fear of suffering and death from an illness.

Preventable and treatable diseases have swept through the community for years, but the health service is underfunded and understaffed. Image by Michael Clark/Gravitas Ventures.

Your approach to filmmaking is very transparent. You show the backstory, the crew, your motivations, the negotiations, how both you and Beto Marubo were feeling, the journey. Why do you think it is important to show all this?

First of all, I didn’t want to be in this film at all. It wasn’t about me. It was about them. But my mentors encouraged me [to be in the film] because I was so personally tied to the origin of the story. If I were going to do that, I needed to do so with full transparency about who I am and my relationship to the story. When you render yourself open and vulnerable, and I don’t like the word authentic because it’s so overused, but in an authentic way, people know. They know you’re real. There’s no filter. I thought it was important to convey that I am one caring human being identified as an Indigenous ally, and this is what I can do.

It was difficult for me to do this project and reveal myself to the public. As much of a public figure as I am, I’m also a very private person. But it was important because if I’m willing to do that, then hopefully, the person who’s watching can step out of their comfort zone and do something more to think about their place on this planet and their relationship with other people and other ecosystems.

There is a thread in the story that connects the Indigenous struggle to a global environmental “edge,” as well as the Amazon on edge. How do you see this connection and connect those dots?

The title was chosen very carefully. I hesitated for a while about leaving “tribe” as singular because it is about the human tribe disappearing. It’s about our interconnection or human interconnection across the planet. But there could be a misinterpretation of the word tribe as exclusionary, where you only spend time with your own, and you keep others out. Plus, there are multiple Indigenous groups in this territory. Edge — it’s the edge of greatness, the edge of chaos, the edge of extinction. It can be interpreted in a lot of ways. I feel that the potential for what we can do in circumstances like these is as great as our destruction. We are, amazingly, the solution to our problem. Indigenous peoples and the Javari are the protectors of an ecosystem on which we depend. So if we know that, we are interconnected with them in our human survival. For me, it goes to then conclude that supporting their survival helps us survive forever. It’s hard in one film and one story to convey the interconnectedness of everything on the planet, but there is that thread throughout.

You showcase a relationship of trust and connection with the people and places you were filming. Can you tell me a bit more about this?

You’re always walking a bit of a fine line. Beto [Marubo] asked me to tell their story. In the film, I ask him, “Why me?” He says it is because it was a sensitivity that he saw in me, and I think he adequately saw how I treat a human subject. I honored that from the beginning to the end. I wanted to finish the film before bringing it to the public or finding a distributor or selling it because I wanted to honor their trust.

We took three years to film, and each year was a reconnecting because we’d go back a year later like, “Hi, it’s me again.” And there are renegotiations and requests for going into certain villages, and only going where we’re invited. There is an understanding that if we’re entering their village, it’s because they have trusted us to do so. At the same time, I didn’t go in with any specific agenda. I knew I wanted to get stories about the illegal activities happening on their land, their health situation, how the environment is doing.

A perfect example is when I walked into the Boa Vista village. The teacher schooled me. He said, “This is who you’re going to interview, this is what they’re going to talk about, here are my posters, you will hang them up and film them.” So I said, “OK, this is how it happens here.” And I went with the flow. As a film director, I need the beauty shots too. I need to get those compelling images. But I stood there all day filming interviews and realized that part of my place in that story was to give them a platform to be heard. When your existence is not acknowledged, when your suffering isn’t seen and all of a sudden you have an opportunity to speak, it’s really important to have the space to do so in a way in which you feel honored. I am honoring their voice. I’m honoring their time. I’m honoring their story.

At that moment, I realized the film isn’t the only reason I’m here. Many times, at the end of somebody’s interview, they would look at me and say, “Now you take my story and you tell them to fix it. Tell the government.” I became the messenger, and the film is a part of that. My ongoing work is a testament to my conviction that I can do more. It was a process.

Indigenous peoples and the Javari are the protectors of an ecosystem on which we depend. Image by Michael Clark/Gravitas Ventures.

The Javari Indigenous territory has the largest number of uncontacted Indigenous peoples. Was that something that you felt was present while you were filming?

It’s a surprise to people that there are even uncontacted peoples that still exist in the world. Just that, in and of itself, it creates a sense of awe and realization. We talk about how we’ve only discovered a small percentage of our oceans and there are still species that have never been seen, while there are still humans that have never had contact with the outside world. It was always present in my mind for several reasons. One is, how do you represent people whose voices are not heard? Maybe there’s a photograph from a helicopter and that’s about it. People who were contacted still remember because it’s not that long ago. In essence, the energy of the uncontacted is heard through those who are speaking to us.

On a concrete basis, there was one area that we were going through to get to other villages that happen to have uncontacted tribes roaming. We have strict rules: we don’t stop our boat. If we run out of fuel, we paddle. Don’t go to the shores. We don’t have our camera equipment out. If they come to the shore, we do not make contact; we do not film. There are laws and restrictions, and we honored all of that because it’s not our home.

I believe that you should sacrifice the “best image” for the best content and to honor human beings for who they are. It’s why it was important for us to make sure that we had the interviews, and even if there were going to be uncontacted, to not film them.

When we came across one of the government bases, the Funai [Brazil’s Indigenous affairs agency] base, there were three Korubo women with two children and two babies. They were in transition of contact, so a part of the Korubo tribe — this was in 2015 — part of the Korubo tribe had come out and contacted the Funai government workers and other tribal groups. Even just walking past them from one shack to another, we were told not to stop and not to approach. There was this possibility to have a little camera in your pocket and not listen, but it wasn’t worth it. I wanted to honor their wishes and honor those people in that way.

The documentary was filmed before Jair Bolsonaro came to power. How have things changed since the time of filming? How do you feel looking at the situation today?

I’ll start with the last part. How I feel looking at the situation is stressed and anxious. I feel like I need to accelerate the work to protect people in place. How it was before Bolsonaro is a bit of the same policies, just Bolsonaro is more obvious about it. As we’ve seen in several governments, the underlying issues of racism or ignoring climate scientists, or not thinking that the environment is important — this has always existed in places and people of power guided by other priorities. It’s just Bolsonaro is more obvious about it in the way he speaks, but the laws that he is trying to pass have been in action for several governments.

I remember when I was filming, Bolsonaro wasn’t around. And they, the Indigenous people, were already talking about a specific law that the government was trying to pass to allow mining. I just read an article the other day that stated that Bolsonaro finally had an ally in Congress to enable him to pass this law. But it’s been in motion for several mandates. That is when you realize that the movement toward exploitation of Indigenous land has been around whether it’s spoken or not.

You end the film highlighting a struggle between finding hope and solutions and contrasting that with a sensation of despair. How did you deal with this conflict?

It’s not easy. I vacillate between being wildly optimistic about what we can do, then a piece of news comes out and you feel like all of the good work that’s being done is being wiped away by one fell swoop of negativity. Then I also remember Beto’s words. I’ve quoted him often because I think I need to hear it myself often because I sometimes get into my sort of Western world frantic mode of thinking that I’m going to solve them quickly by doing things quickly. Beto said to me, “Calma, relax. This problem didn’t happen overnight, and you by yourself will not solve it overnight. You need to be here for the long run.”

I’ve always been a sprinter, literally and figuratively. Good at the 100-meter sprint, and I’ve never done a marathon. But this is a marathon. And to prepare for it, you have to train — and that’s mental and physical. And I plan on being here in general and being here for the people [of] the Javari for the long run. So I have to think in terms of long-term solutions. Although it breaks my heart not to be able to fix things.

It’s about walking every day. I don’t know how else to think of it. Now I think of it in terms of the marathon. It’s learning how to keep going. Yeah, there are days of despair. And I think those are days when you have to take a step back and go for a little walk. Because if I don’t regenerate, if I don’t take care of myself, I’m not going to be here for the long run, not in a healthy way. I’m good at giving advice, and I’m not always good at following through on it. I’ll tell you that.

An indigenous man and child featured in the documentary. Image by Michael Clark/Gravitas Ventures.

Is there anything else you want to share?

I showed [the Javari people] the film in November 2019. And that was the important audience because I worked for them. If they felt good about how I interpreted their story, that’s what matters.

Can you tell me more about this screening? 

It was a bit frightening for me because that’s the audience that matters right there. [The Javari people] are seeing themselves on screen and a white girl’s interpretation of their world so that my world can hear it. And they know this, they’re smart. They know that everything is a translation. But there’s no facial expression. So I have 150 Indigenous representatives watching this from the different groups. I’m just looking at them watching the film. The only times there were any emotions apparent were when there were funny parts of the film. Or when they saw somebody they knew, then you’d hear a murmur. That was it.

There was one Marubo woman. She came up to me in tears and hugged me, and she goes, “Thank you for understanding us and for sharing us with the world. You don’t know how important it is to know that we are heard.” It takes everything for me not to get emotional right now crying because that’s really what we all are looking for. That’s almost all I needed, that one reaction, but I was still a little bit concerned that the other 149 weren’t quite as enthused, and I asked Beto. “I don’t know what they’re thinking.” And he looks at me and goes, “Céline. If they didn’t criticize and come to tell you it was bad, that means they approve.” Oh, the absence of comment is the comment. So that’s what I walked away with: we live in overly expressive worlds, and sometimes you have to read in the silence.

Do you still keep in contact with the people you met in those years filming?

Mostly Beto. We communicate back and forth on WhatsApp. He’s like my little brother. He [visited] when I was living in the U.S., he came to my house a few times. And I brought him to the U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues for two years in a row. He was able to hold the floor, which is amazing because many people don’t have platforms to share their voices. One of my goals was to create an opportunity for those voices to be heard because they have strong voices. I can create a bridge for that voice to be heard.

You know, there’s all of the serious stuff in the film. But there are also moments where Beto and I would sit and drink a beer together and laugh. Because we’re also only human, and we need to acknowledge that part of it, too. It’s not always heavy every single day and every moment.

This article was originally published in Mongabay. 

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