This fall quarter I taught a hybrid class on Modern Brazil, which had both a History and International Studies section. We spent three weeks during the course covering modern Amazonia, during which we discussed Indigenous issues in depth. One of the videos that we watched was Amazon Games, which was available through the streaming video service at the Portland State University library. The documentary described a modern sporting event in the Amazon River basin that brings together different nations throughout the region for an annual contest. The video (released in 2005) began by showing two different Indigenous nations (Enawanes and Matis) preparing to travel for the games, then followed them to the competition itself.
The selection process for the games was a fraught one, as was the decision to take part in the competition. Some Aboriginal peoples in one nation were concerned what would happen to their people if the plane taking the competitors to the games crashed with all of their best hunters. Obviously, another risk would be that the Indigenous participants might bring back disease. But the Aboriginal people themselves were excited to participate, and clearly discussed the risks of travel. My students thought that overall the games were positive for the athletes, who wanted to engage in the competition and meet other Indigenous peoples. They also hoped to make money by selling handicrafts. There was a great deal of good natured banter about who would go, and the scene in which the Indigenous peoples were seeking to make latex balls -a difficult process- was a funny one.
The film-makers also captured the participants’ travel to Porto Seguro, Bahia, which was a difficult trip for most competitors as the majority spent days traveling by bus. Once they arrived the organizers sought to make them feel comfortable. The cafeteria, for example, did not have set hours, because most participants were not accustomed to eating at a set time. But the tents for the inhabitants were also so poorly made that a wind storm blew them all down. The participants were relocated, but were rather shocked to have to sleep on the floor rather than a hammock.
The documentary does not romanticize the different peoples that it depicts. The men are vain, and spend a great deal of time discussing their hair cuts or their use of body paint. Women were not allowed to compete in the tournament, but during the archery tournament one turned up and proved to hit the bullseye, in this case the eye on an painting of a fish. One of the participants said words to the effect: “It’s a good thing that she’s not taking part.” In their reading response, one of my students commented that she would have liked to have heard more voices from the women, while others wanted to know what was happening back in the Indigenous villages while the men were gone. They were also concerned that the Indigenous peoples themselves perhaps did not play a major part in organizing the games. One people, the Matis, took part in the archery competition even though they did not practice archery themselves, but rather used the blowgun.
Overall, my class liked the video, particularly the dialogue between the Indigenous peoples themselves. One student commented that they would have preferred to have had subtitles for the discussions rather than voice-overs, to more fully hear the speakers’ voices. Other students in class said that they were particularly struck by a final scene in which the athletes went swimming in the Atlantic Ocean. While it was humorous to hear them debate whether they could see the other side of the ocean, there was also an emotionally powerful scene in which they had a powerful -and negative- response to a cross on the beach, which they viewed as a symbol of colonial domination and historical suffering. The area around Porto Seguro was where the Portuguese first arrived in Brazil, so the cross had particular meaning for the athletes. One of the film’s strengths was its ability to convey an Indigenous perspective on issues.
When I watched the video I couldn’t help but think about the efforts to build a soccer stadium in Manaus, in the heart of Amazonia, for this year’s World Cup. This documentary showed the indigenous sporting traditions of the region, and a different form of sporting competition. This video would be a good choice for classes on Brazil, Amazonia, Indigenous peoples and sports. Strongly recommended.
Interested in Brazil? You can see my own book on military terror in Brazil here.
Shawn Smallman, Portland State University