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Between Poetry and Identity Trouble: How 'A Floresta de Jonathas' is Queering the Amazon

By Toby Ashraf | /Bent March 10, 2014 at 9:10AM

Last week, I took a mesmerising trip into the jungle. I was in in the Northern Amazon region of Brazil and lost control over time and space, watching a film that I can only describe as a beautiful and poetic meditation: “A Floresta de Jonathas”. I marvelled, I relaxed completely, then I hallucinated and ended my journey when the lights went on and the curtain closed.
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A Floresta de Jonathas
A Floresta de Jonathas

Last week, I took a mesmerising trip into the jungle. I was in in the Northern Amazon region of Brazil and lost control over time and space, watching a film that I can only describe as a beautiful and poetic meditation: “A Floresta de Jonathas”. I marvelled, I relaxed completely, then I hallucinated and ended my journey when the lights went on and the curtain closed. 

Director Sérgio Andrade takes his time to introduce us to the world of Jonathas and his brother Juliano, two young men who help their parents sell fruit on a small stand near the road which marks the end of the forest. We observe, not unlike watching a documentary, the goings-on of Jonathas’ family – the harvesting of tucuma fruit, the packaging of its peel and the selling at the street. Occasionally, tourists are stopping by to discover new things and take pictures on their social safaris. Not unlike these tourists, we are taken by the hand to see and feel the jungle, its inhabitants, and its magic for the first time. The big and very important difference here is that our gaze is that of a director who was born in this region and who allows us to observe differently, putting into question the very concept of reality as the film progresses. 90 per cent of the infrastructure for the shoot of  “A Floresta de Jonathas” was already there – no sets built, no extras hired, no re-invention of something that already existed. And yet, Andrade’s depiction of a cosmos between culture and nature is unlike anything real and unlike anything you have ever seen before.

Sérgio Andrade mixes the truth of the given with his own inventive imagination and presents the Amazon region as his own subjective poem. When Jonathas, his brother, and a tourist girl go on a camping trip in the woods and get lost, we see the desperate father cut open a big avocado, insert two photographs near the seed and put the fruit together again before wrapping a red ribbon around it. The tradition of wishing well or evil to someone by letting a wrapped avocado rot is a common superstition in this region, the director tells me. The idea of putting pictures into the fruit is something Andrade made up, thereby fictionalising the documentary.

The entire film is filled with sometimes breath-taking images that stretch our perception of the real and the imagined, culminating in the existentialist trip into disorientation of a boy lost in the woods. Sometimes, in the middle of the slow-paced narrative, which often floats quietly like the Amazon River itself, the story takes a break to show us live portraits of people. Then, like the silent narrator in the beginning, the human inventory of the jungle just looks into a camera, facing the audience and returning their gaze in a powerful and yet beautiful gesture. We are looking at the indigenous people of a rural nature resort, but the people are looking back with confidence . 

As cinema goers, we have been used to certain images of indigenous Amazonians starting with the grotesquely racist “Cannibal Holocaust” to the well meant but defensive “Birdwatchers”. A form of “othering” the supposedly archaic (and poor) has been deeply rooted in the history of the moving images. Sérgio Andrade’s strategy on the other hand is one of poetic realism, which is political nevertheless. At one point we hear the rolling sounds of skateboards and see three young locals coming down the road like ghosts of the modern age. Cut. The three men turn into a live portrait for a few seconds facing another live portrait of Jonathas and his friends. In this beautiful scene, the sound of skateboards in the jungle and the images of a modern youth in the midst of nature is queering a form of representation with cinematic means, and Andrade does this in the most enigmatic and sensual way. Yes, the filmic form can be a tool of queering, and even if there is no gay subplot in the film (unlike say Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s "Tropical Malady“ or João Pedro Rodrigues’ "To Die Like a Man“), our perception of stable categories and truth gets more and more irritated. Why and how, for example, does Jonathas get lost in the woods just after he reclined the girl’s offer to get drunk with him? If the jungle, it’s trees, flowers, and animals are a main protagonist of the film, could there also be a sexual relationship between man and nature? Andrade doesn’t give us clear answers, but he finds images of irritating beauty and mystery. In the beginning, we see the thorns of the tucuma tree penetrate Jonathas’ flesh and later the pretty boy enters the swamp water naked in an erotic and somnambulistic scene whose visual pleasure defies all explanations.

Sérgio Andrade calls the jungle a vacuum and a cultural gap, in which categories like nationality cannot exist. The film’s exoticism is therefore one that is created through the cinematic strategies of his director and not one that is taken from the people and the landscapes it illustrates. Lastly, the name of the film’s hero, Jonathas, also puts into question notions of identity, since it’s the slightly altered form of a much more common name. Basing his film on the true story of a real Jonathan that got lost and died in the woods, Andrade was interested in the idea of generalising his character and thereby not linking it to some kind of documented or historic truth. Jonathas – Jonathan – John – Joanna – Joan – João - in a way, we all become Jonathas in the last third of the film. We give up our cultural, national and sexual identities as cinema spectators. We get lost in the jungle hallucinating and wishing that this dream might never end and that the lights will never go on.

“A Floresta de Jonathas” had its international premiere at the Rotterdam Film Festival earlier this year. Look for it at film festivals near you in the coming months, and watch the trailer below: