Screening Room: Owners of the Water

Photo by Laura Graham.

Once again, thanks for taking part in our Screening Room series. We hope you were able to enjoy the film. Owners of the Water has been taken down, but this page will remain. It has a preview, background on the film, interviews with the filmmakers, a selection of photographs, and suggestions for further reading.

From October 20 to November 3, we screened Owners of the Water: Conflict and Collaboration Over Rivers ("ö Tede'wa") by Laura R. Graham, David Hernández Palmar, and Caimi Waiásse (2009). The film centers around a protest staged in Nova Xavantina, blocking traffic over a bridge over the Rio das Mortes in Matto Grosso state, central Brazil. Matto Grosso is a biodiverse tropical savanna and Brazil’s largest soy-producing state. The Xavante live primarily in nine small reserves in the Cerrado, “like islands in a sea of soy.”

In addition to the film, we have interviews with Graham, Hernández Palmar, and Waiásse that focus on the process of making the collaborative film, the life of the film after its production, and the subsequent trajectories of the directors' work—in anthropology, media, activism, curation, and policy. We also have links to additional readings and resources.

See Documentary Educational Resources for information on purchasing and streaming the film. All royalties from sales go to Cultural Survival, to be used in Xavante efforts to protect their lands.


Owners of the Water: Conflict and Collaboration Over Rivers ("ö Tede'wa") is the result of a unique collaboration between an anthropologist from the United States, a Wayuu photographer from Venezuela, and a Xavante filmmaker from Brazil. The film explores an indigenous campaign to protect a river from the effects of unregulated soy cultivation in the Amazon. It centers on a protest by the Xavante in the central Brazilian cerrado, where activists made strategic use of cultural forms to bring attention to deforestation and excessive use of agrotoxins. Owners features a diversity of Xavante opinions and evidence that non-indigenous members of the local population both support and oppose indigenous demands. The film also depicts indigenous efforts to build networks among different native peoples and across nations.


Laura R. Graham is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Iowa. Her current research focuses on politics of indigenous representation to broad publics and focuses on indigenous peoples of lowland South America, specifically Xavante of central Brazil and Wayuu of Venezuela and Colombia. She is interested in notions of cultural consciousness, cultural and intellectual property, and representations of indigeneity in politics and advocacy, indigenous media and human rights. Her work promotes engaged ethnography and participant advocacy. She is author of the award-winning book, Performing Dreams: Discourses of Immortality Among the Xavante Indians of Central Brazil (University of Texas Press, 1995) and has published many articles on Xavante. Her work on Xavante oral culture has been featured on the NPR Program, Pulse of the Planet. Graham’s latest book (with H. Glenn Penny), Performing Indigeneity:Global Histories and Contemporary Experiences, has just come out with University of Nebraska Press. [Fom Graham's University of Iowa page]

David Alberto Hernández Palmar (Wayuu) is a photographer, videomaker, program organizer, and journalist. He has produced documentaries for broadcast in Europe for Deutsche Welle and Canal Arte and has worked collaboratively on documentaries on the Wayuu such as Dalia se va de Jepira (2006). He has participated twice in NMAI Native American Film + Video Festivals, as a co-director of the documentary Owners of the Water and as a discussant in the roundtable, “Mother Earth in Crisis.” Hernández Palmar has independently curated indigenous film programs in Venezuela and abroad. In 2009 these included the Indigenous Film Showcase of Venezuela presented by the National Cinetheque Foundation and the first Indigenous Film Showcase in La Guajira, and in 2010 a selection of indigenous films for the Manuel Trujillo Duran Shorts Film Festival. In 2009 he also programmed an indigenous film showcase in Geneva for the International Labor Organization’s meeting of experts on indigenous peoples’ rights, and organized the opening night in Barcelona for the circulating Indigenous Film Showcase: El Universo Audiovisual de los Pueblos Indígenas. [From Hernández Palmar's page on National Museum of the American Indian] You can follow Hernández Palmar on Twitter at: @shiaakua.

Caimi Waiassé Xavante is a member of the Xavante people and resides in the community of Eténhritipa (Pimentel Barbosa Indigenous Territory) in the central Brazilian state of Mato Grosso. Waiassé has worked as a filmmaker since 1990 and made his first video Tem que ser Curioso (One must be Curious, 1996) in collaboration with the NGO, Videos nas Aldeias. Together with Video nas Aldeias he participated in a collaborative project with other native Brazilian filmmakers (Xavante, Surui) that resulted in the video Wapte Mnhono (1999). His 2005 collaboration with Brazilian photographer Rosa Gauditano and Jorge Protodi, a Xavante colleague, resulted in the film, Darini: Iniciação espirtual das crianças Xavante (2005). His latest film, also with Protodi and produced by Nossa Tribo, is Oi’ó: a luta dos meninos. Waiassé has screened his work in international and indigenous film festivals, including: V Festival de Cine y Video de Pueblos Indígenas, Bolivia, 1996; Margaret Mead Festival, New York, 1997; and VI Festival de Cine y Video de Pueblos Indigenas Americanos, Madrid, 2000. He has also presented work at the National Museum of the American Indian. Waiassé is currently pursuing a degree in teaching (Professor Licenciado) with a focus on Language, Arts, and Literature.

Interview with Laura R. Graham

(Laura Graham in Iowa City and Jenna Grant in Amsterdam)

Jenna Grant: First, can you tell me about the process of making Owners.

Laurie Graham: The film, Owners of the Water: Conflict and Collaboration over Rivers, is part of a much larger project of collaboration with Xavante that I invited David to join. Beginning with my masters and doctoral research, my work with the Xavante has involved collaborative projects. My research has been shaped by ideas that came from the communities I have worked in and has focused on issues that community leaders wanted documented. While I was doing my doctoral research in Pimentel Barbosa, leaders spoke about collaborative projects. At that time the government was investing in huge economic development projects that were top-down. They were not projects that originated in the community or had much local buy-in. Xavante and I had a lot of discussion about what kinds of projects would benefit the community that intersected with my interests and capabilities.

In the early 1990s, after I finished my doctoral research, I was learning about other exciting media projects that were underway elsewhere in central Brazil. Video in the Villages was working with the Nambiquara and also the Kayapó project that Terry Turner was involved in. I thought a video project would be of interest and appeal to Xavante, especially since a Xavante man named Mario Juruna had already pioneered the use of new media technologies (a cassette tape-recorder) in the mid-1970s and 1980s.

When I went to Pimentel Barbosa in 1991 we talked a lot about video. I had consulted with Vincent Carelli from Video in the Villages and he was extremely helpful. People in the community. were enthusiastic about the idea so I brought in equipment: a VHS camera, a video playback machine, a TV monitor and, since there was no electricity, a generator. Schlepping a generator hundreds of miles to the interior of Brazil by bus was really something! When I introduced the equipment to the community several men experimented with the camera. Leaders eventually chose Caimi Waiassé to be the videographer and I trained him to use the camera. I also trained some other people to use a TV and playback equipment. I took Caimi with me when I returned to São Paulo and introduced him to Vincent Carelli. Caimi went on to do some work with Video in the Villages. That was the inception of the video project in Pimentel Barbosa.

Owners of the Water is also part of a larger research project that I have undertaken over the last decade or so concerning the politics of indigenous representation and the issue of what I call, “representational sovereignty.” While my focus continues to be the Xavante, I have also looked at these issues in other lowland South American groups, especially the Wayuu. In the Brazilian context, Xavante are the group whose image has been most manipulated to serve state agendas, and the agendas of the dominant social class. This began to shift for a whole constellation of reasons.

In the mid-2000s I was looking at these issues in Venezuela and I met David who was at the time earning his living as a freelance photographer; he did fashion shoots and took photos for menus. He also did some work for the Wayuu newspaper, Wayuunaiki. David was trying to get state support for a project to set up film screenings and access to film and media productions in indigenous communities in Venezuela. We were working on this together. David showed me a film that he had done for a university class project and I thought it would be especially interesting to get David and Caimi together because of their interest in media. I also thought it would be interesting because Wayuu and Xavante are both prominent in the national arena and members of both group have been developing fascinating and very creative strategies to assert their rights. When the opportunity came along to get them together, I jumped at the chance. So the film collaboration evolved out of the collaborative work I had been doing with the Xavante over years and the work I was doing with David on indigenous community media in Venezuela.

I received an invitation to come to central Brazil from Hiparidi Top’tiro, a Xavante activist whom I have been working with since the late 1990s. Hiparidi invited me to come “tell the story” of the events that are the focus of the film Owners of the Water. David came along to photograph and document some of the work that Hiparidi was doing through the Xavante Warã Association. I was filming as part of my ethnographic work. I brought David along to meet Caimi and to learn about the Xavante’s work. We hadn’t planned to make a film, but a whole series of events cascaded that compelled the telling of this story via the film medium. The Xavante protest on the BR-158 bridge was an important and historic event. We had dramatic documentary footage and photographs. Film was the most compelling way to tell the story in a way that would reach an anthropological community and a broader public.

I think we were on an airplane, and I was doing an interview with David about the process of being in Brazil. It was at that point the light bulb came on for “water.” There was this incredible connection of water between the Wayuu and the Xavnate and there were very complementary kinds of issues. In the Wayuu, there’s this real scarcity of water, and in the Xavante there’s all this water but it is contaminated through the agroindustry. David made the connection about water at that point.

Getting David and Caimi and me together to actually work on the film presented a huge obstacle. We were fortunate that an opportunity presented itself to bring David and Caimi together in the United States. They came to the University of Iowa where we did a workshop with one of my former students, Drew Annis, who was working in film. Although both Caimi and David were working in film, doing camera work, neither had been involved in the mechanics of editing. The purpose of this workshop was to introduce them to this. One of the outcomes of this workshop was our realization that we wanted to make a bigger production than we had initially envisioned.

Creating a cohesive narrative from the footage that we had to work with was one of the project’s biggest challenges. If you go in to a situation expecting to make a documentary, you ask questions and solicit answers that that give you material to provide cohesion to the narrative. We did that only to a limited extent. As events were happening we did not pull people aside and ask them to give explanations that could then be incorporated to help viewers make sense of what was happening. I did that with Hiparidi when it became clear to me this could be a powerful documentary.

In the workshop with Drew Annis we edited a series of clips, conceptualized the whole, and had a series of conversations about how to tell the story and put the the film together. After David and Caimi left the U.S. I continued to do the remainder of the editing with Drew. He was indispensable to the project. David, Caimi and I consulted over email and Skype. I also returned to Venezuela to get some more footage and make narrative connections using an interview with David. The editing process started out very intensively collaborative and then became more diffuse in terms of our actually sitting together at the computer, using the software to put it together.

We showed rough cut versions to a variety of people. We showed it to students and faculty at Iowa and friends. The version that we showed at the Land Insights (Terres en Vue) Festival in Montréal was a rough cut. David showed it to people in Venezuela. We showed it to as many people as we could to get a sense of whether they were following the story or not. Then we made adjustments. This dialogic process was very productive. We also involved several graduate students who were interested in ethnographic film.

JG: Maybe there’s a different way of being able to comment than in writing. To get feedback and have a shifting document.

LG: We do this with writing, but not so broadly. We share our writing with an audience of peers. In its evolution, the film incorporated a lot of audience responses – scholars, teenagers, activists, film and non-film people, various professionals. We sought feedback from a much broader audience that one generally does for academic writing.

I think each collaboration has its unique characteristics. Ours was unique in its own ways. Caimi has particular understanding of Xavante, the language and the situation Xavante are living in central Brazil. He translated the Xavante dialogue, all of the discourse that is in Xavante. Both Caimi and David are incredible with the camera and we all contributed footage. We also used footage shot by Jorge Protodi, who works with Caimi and accompanied us on the boat trip featured in the film. David’s insight was that environmental issues in the Guajira, the Wayuu homeland, related to issues Xavante are facing in the Brazilian cerrado. I had the capacity for managing logistics and basically coordinating the project, seeing it through its different phases to its realization. I took care of getting it into film festivals, getting it out there. Then David became the project’s ambassador at various film festivals. He has remarkable networking and interpersonal skills. We called him "The Ambassador." He made connections opened up avenues in the indigenous media scene. We each made specific contributions in terms of what to emphasize in the narrative itself, as well.

JG: In terms of what happened afterwards, were there discussions about where it would go, where it would screen? Because it’s had a rich life.

LG: Yes, Owners has had a very exciting post-production life. I am writing about the whole process. Everyone’s idea was to have the film screened as much as possible. Owners has been shown in indigenous and environmental film festivals around the world. It has won a number of awards, at indigenous and environmental film festivals. We have also shown it at universities, various indigenous communities, and in many countries.

JG: You touched on this a little bit, but I wanted to ask if there was any work in anthropology, or in film, or activism that influenced how you conceived of the film. You mentioned the Kayapó project and Terry Turner. Were there any models you looked to, or did you feel you were doing something that didn’t have a model?

LG: All of the work that was booming in indigenous media in the 90s, including Eric Michaels’ work in Aboriginal Australia before that, were inspirations for the project from my point of view. Video in the Villages, the work that Vincent Carelli was doing with a number of indigenous groups in Brazil, not only the Kayapó, was inspirational.

One of the things that we thought about as we were working on this is that all of us had a place in the film. All of us and our dialogues contributed to the story. It wasn't possible to tell the story and leave any of us out. There were certain issues that were important to bring out for different individuals. For Caimi, it was really important to follow the sequence of events as they happened rather than mix scenes or mix temporal sequences. For him, it was important to tell a chronological story. For David, the issue was water. Water is a central issue in Brazil, and it, along with what you could call a "political awakening," became the pivot of David’s experience there. I wanted to address particular theoretical issues in the film. The heterogeneity that exists among Xavante was one of these. It was important to me to show the diversity, the variety of opinions, within Xavante and in relation to their situation in central Brazil. I didn’t want to to flatten Xavante, or simply represent them through the lens of Hiparidi, the protagonist. There were dissenting Xavante views on the protestors actions and Hiparidi himself comments on this diversity. I was interested in highlighting this social diversity, including the diversity of perspectives held by non-indigenous peoples that we encountered in Matto Grosso. This was a contribution that came from my experience as an ethnographer and anthropologist. I also wanted people to hear the different languages that are spoken in the film. We had a lot of discussion about how to do the subtitltes, about how to showcase the linguistic diversity that is present in the film. This comes from my training and commitment to linguistic anthropology.

In my reading of earlier work on indigenous media, I noticed that the role of the non-indigenous participants in film projects is often masked. We all felt it was important to show that I was there, that I was a key participant in the events shown in the film but also in the production process. For me, this is an important issue in indigenous media and it was an important part of this project. What is the nature of the collaboration? Who are the individuals involved? We could have told the story just through David’s eyes, his trip to in central Brazil. Or we could have focused exclusively on Hiparidi and his agenda. But we wanted to make the point, and I also wanted to make the point, that the ethnographer, me in this case, was a central player in the events that were going on as well as in the production of the film. Once, an indigenous activist, a journalist at one film festival where David presented, asked, "Why is she [Laura] there? Why is she in the film?" David reported to me that he was taken aback by this question. “She is our friend. People should know that she was part of this,” he said. Neither he nor Caimi indicated that they felt that it would be appropriate to erase my presence and contribution. At some phases in indigenous political activism, allies’ presence may have negative effects. This wasn’t the case in David or Caimi’s understanding of this collaboration. The three of us worked together.

JG: Interesting. You mentioned you were filming in the first place as part of ethnographic work. Are there any differences in the way you think of an ethnographic film or a documentary? Maybe that’s a silly question. In the 90s, for example, debates about ethnographic film involved how to define it as a genre, how to relate ethnographic film to documentary and to art.

LG: This takes a careful, thoughtful discussion, really. What I mean when I say this was ethnographic footage, is that much of the footage was intended to be ethnographic documentation for later reflection, to be part of my ethnographic record that would be consulted as I wrote about these events. I suppose the distinction I am making is really one of intention. When I say “the footage was ethnographic” I mean that it was part of my ethnographic documentation. This was the raw data for my ethnographic analysis. I didn’t intend to make this into an ethnographic documentary, so it was an issue of intention, at least initially.

If I were going to make another ethnographic documentary with Xavante I would use better equipment. I would have a crew, and somebody that was working specifically on sound. Some people have criticized of the film for its quality. I think these criticisms miss one of the film’s main points. You can see the equipment we used; we made it very visible. It is obvious that we were not making a high-tech documentary film. But the technology we used was perfect for creating certain effects: our small cameras create a sense of immediacy, the feeling that “you are really there in those intense moments.” In a way, you can think of this work more along the lines of social media, showing what people can do spontaneously with relatively simple equipment that is relatively unobtrusive. It would be a very different film if we had used a crew, with boom microphones and big cameras. We would not have been able to document the kinds of things that we did.

JG: Particularly the sequences on the bridge would have been really different.

LG: Yes, in the sequences on the bridge, people would have related to us totally differently. We had these small cameras that were pretty much invisible to people. We weren't hiding anythng. People just didn't pay attention to the fact that we were filming. Until, well you see it well in the one scene where people realize, “Wow, this is being filmed!”

JG: Can we shift now to talk a little bit about the current situation with regard to Xavante land claims and dealing with agribusiness in the Matto Grosso? Has anything changed, and if so, how?

LG: The situation continues to be very complex. Agribusiness has intensified in the region and there are now soy processing plants near Xavante areas whereas before, there was just intensive farming and the use of GMOs. Since we completed the film multinational companies have made a much greater investment in their infrastructure in the area. There is also constantly increasing pressure on the rivers to implement large infrastructure projects, especially to transport soy out of the region. Part of the motivation for the protest and Hiparidi’s efforts to coordinate indigenous peoples was a state initiative to construct two hydroelectric dams on the Rio das Mortes, in Xavante areas. We weren’t able to show this in the film. Hiparidi and his team have succeeded in halting these in Matto Grosso state.

The government also has plans to construct what in Portuguese is is called a hydrovia. This is an immense hydro-engineering project that would transform non-navigable rivers into "water highways," that can support barge convoys transporting soy out of the agricultural regions in Brazil’s interior to ports along the coast. The hydrovia that would directly impact Xavante territories has been on the books since the 80s. It comes and goes and has been the subject of a lawsuit brought by a group of Xavante. Right now that project has again been tabled. Plans have shifted to construction of a railroad that would bisect several Xavante territories.

There is terrific pressure on Xavante lands as agribusiness continues to intensify around their areas. Crop dusters overfly Xavante communities and release the toxins over Xavante communities. There are issues with water pollution and the release of toxic chemicals that Xavante, often unknowingly, come into contact with.

One of the exciting things is the work that the Xavante are doing to organize themselves and pressure the state to protect their rights. This project itself and the events that are documented in the film, really spawned a recognition that Xavante must be united. The trip to the Karaja village that is documented in Owners helped to create and reinforce the recognition that Xavante and other indigenous people have similar problems and common cause. Subsequent to the events documented in the film, Hiparidi founded the Mobilization of Indigenous Peoples of the Cerrado. This is a coalition of various indigenous and other traditional populations who inhabit the region and confront problems that are similar to those the Xavante now face.

Hiparidi has also been working intensively to coordinate Xavante who live in eight separated territories. He is working to implement a project that would create easements, or corridors, between different Xavante reserves that Xavante could use for hunting and collecting natural resources that are scarce or not available in their territories. This and the issue of environmental destruction from agribusiness are discussed and elaborated in the articles in the 2009 Cultural Survival Quarterly issue, “The Other Brazil”. The CSQ issue is a good resource for teaching in conjunction with Owners of the Water; the articles are accessible to an undergraduate or general audience.

The film has been, in different ways, an important instrument for all of the participants in the project. For Caimi, it prompted a recognition that he and Xavante could take an active role in the editing process in addition to being excellent cinematographers. He has completed a number of projects since, some of which he mentions in his interview [coming soon]. Communities he works with now are using editing equipment as well as video cameras in the schools and there is a team of youth that is working on projects, focusing on documenting everyday life. He and others continue to work on collaborative project with non-Xavante allies, but the members of neighboring Xavante communities are assuming greater control of the process.

For David the trip to Brazil was significant in terms of raising his political consciousness and his articulation with the international indigenous media movement. The first film festival we went to was Terres en Vues/ Land Insights in Montréal, Canada. We made a lot of connections there. Then, in 2009 when the film was in its finished form, we went to the Smithsonian/NMAI Film+Video Festival. David made more good connections there. At Land Insights, he met Iván Sanjines of CEFREC – CAIB, who works in indigenous film in Bolivia. David has since experienced a cascade of opportunities that have been wonderful, enriching, and transformational for his work. It’s really exciting to watch.

Hiparidi was committed to using media technologies before we made this film, but for a number of reasons there were challenges. Seeing the film renewed his and other Xavante leaders’ awareness of the importance of and commitment to documenting with film and video. Hiparidi also uses the film as a political tool to raise Xavante, as well as other people’s, awareness of what is happening in their region, what some Xavante are doing and the effectiveness of actions like staging road blocks. The film has fired Xavante’s enthusiasm about these actions.

There are now more than 20,000 Xavante. They don’t all know about the work that Hiparidi and the Xavante Warã Association do. He has been able to use the film as an educational tool for Xavante and a broader indigenous audience. Owners is used in Xavante schools and at meetings of Xavante leaders. It has been an important means for educating Xavante people, particularly youth, about the power of civil disobedience. Xavante have a long tradition of civil disobedience and road blocks. The film gives members of the younger generation a sense of their strength and power.

In terms of a broader audience, for example, last April Hiparidi spoke at a conference on indigenous peoples and environmental activism. The conference commemorated the memory and work of Chico Mendes, the Brazilian rubber tapper and activist who formed an The Forest Peoples' Alliance that united various peoples affected by the destruction of the Amazon Rainforest. The “Chico Vive Conference” brought together indigenous activists from all over the world. Hiparidi spoke at that meeting, and he spoke compellingly and well. But when he showed the film, other indigenous activists said to him, “Now I understand who you are and what you are doing!” The film made him and the challenges Xavante face, and his work real. The film conveys the racism that he and other Xavante confront; it exposes the creativity of his activism. (Hear Hiparidi speak about the contemporary situation and some of the work that he and Mobilization of Indigeous Peoples of the Cerrado are doing here.)

There is also, a broader way that the film has had impacts in the world. It has been screened at film festivals, universities, and environmental festivals where it reaches wide and diverse audiences. I think it raises people's awareness about soy and the problems associated with the soy agroindustry. Many people have the sense that soy is a “green” food. They associate tofu with organic farming. This film contributes to an understanding that soy is often agribusiness and that, at least in central Brazil, there is opposition to soy agribusiness. Brazil is now the world’s largest soy exporter; the industry has rapidly expanded in the cerrado, with devastating environmental and social consequences

JG: Do you know where the soy goes?

LG: Soy produced in Brazil goes mainly to China, but it also goes to Europe, to the Netherlands especially, where it is used in cattle feed. Soy agribusiness boomed after the Mad Cow Disease scare in Britain and Europe. Previously bovine parts were used to make cattle feed. After Mad Cow, feed producers looked to other sources and started to use soy as a central ingredient in cattle feed.

The film has also been used in specific ways to advance an environmental agenda. It was part of the materials about the situation in central Brazil that were supplied to Al Gore as part of his preparation for his visit to the controversial Belo Monte dam. This dam, which is currently under construction, is very close to Xavante territories. Opposition to this project has prompted a coalescence among different sectors, including indigenous and rural populations. Owners has been shown on Japanese TV, been used in college courses, and in high schools. This is gratifying to me, seeing the product of ethnographic research in such diverse arenas.

JG: It’s a bit different than a written ethnography?

LG: It has a broader dissemination than much of my written work. I think that a general public is much more receptive to watching a film than reading an academic article or an academic book, for instance. I know this has been very much appreciated by Xavante and by the Wayuu. There is a recognition that this work helps people to understand the situations they are living in.

JG: What you have been working on since?

LG: My work focuses on issues of indigenous representation and performance. I just co-edited a book with Glenn Penny, a historian and colleague at University of Iowa, called Performing Indigeneity: Global Histories and Contemporary Experiences (University of Nebraska Press, 2014). I am also writing a book that focuses specifically on Xavante efforts to achieve representational sovereignty. Discussion of the film project will be a chapter of that book. And I plan to write a book about the film itself that, among other things, will give more biographical depth to the individuals involved.

JG: What is representational sovereignty?

LG: With this concept, I am building on film scholar Michelle Raheja’s (2010) formulation of Native American moves to reclaim “visual sovereignty” in film. Representational sovereignty entails indigenous control over the way that images, sounds, whatever representations, are used and disseminated beyond local communities. Xavante are a good case for the exploration of this because, since their first contact with representatives of the state in the late 1940s their images have been extensively used to support state projects, to serve the interests of the dominant class. Historically Xavante were not consulted. Xavante people have a complex image in the Brazilian national imaginary and my book explores how dominant interests have shifted constructions of their image over time. They have been the subjects of Others’ representations, but until recently, they have not had a role as authors.

JG: Thanks, Laurie.

LG: Thank you.

Waiásse (L) and Hernández Palmar (R) being interviewed at NMAI

Interview with David Hernández Palmar

(David Hernández Palmar in Maracaibo and Jenna Grant in Amsterdam)

Jenna Grant: What have you been working on since Owners of the Water?

David Hernández Palmar: My primary work since Owners has been curatorial and policy-related. For example, after starting this work with Laura, and also Armando (who worked with Cinemateca, the Venezuelan state film bureau), we decided to do a Showcase of Indigenous Cinema in Venezuela (Muestra Internacional de Cine Indígena de Venezuela, or MICIV). We’ve gotten more than 100 films for the 2014 festival, including shorts, animation, and long films. I’ve been participating in policy making in spaces such as Encuentro de Documentalistas Latinoamericanos y del Caribe - Siglo XXI. For the first time, in 2008, we had indigenous people participate, and we could see what indigenous people have been doing in documentary. It was quite interesting because I got to see these very well-known non-indigenous documentary filmmakers from Latin America and the Caribbean basin.

In Latin America, one of the things that is happening now is a new participation in policy making. For instance in Colombia, a lot of indigenous communities have come forward in terms of making policy proposals. But they don’t have the same privileges as indigenous peoples in Venezuela, in terms of being heard. I think the situation in Colombia has pushed indigenous people to strengthen their voices, in terms of creating more spaces and spreading the word, and in terms of political participation and policy making when it comes to indigenous communication. What I see in Latin America is that there are a lot of changes in the constitutions of Latin American countries, and indigenous people have been taking advantage of the little spaces that have been opened. In the case of Venezuela, we do have communicacion alternativa, we do have a lot of media outlets, but these are still funded by the government. I would like to see more work towards sustainable alternative media. I am supportive of the Venezuelan government and at the same time I do recognize that we have to have other media than private media and government media. We have to have media that criticize the government. It is not doing everything perfectly. Sometimes it doesn't do the right thing.

This is what I see that we need to focus on: first, indigenous participation in policy making in Latin America, taking advantage of the situation in those countries that are changing their constitutions, and second, the application of media technologies in indigenous communication projects. Argentina is really interesting in terms of the experience, with Kristina Kirchner. I think media production has been conditioned by political changes there. After the first Continental Summit of Indigenous Communication in Cauca, Colombia (2010), we issued a declaration, a “bill of rights of indigenous communication.” This calls for free and independent indigenous communication, protection from violence against indigenous journalists and media makers, correction of distortions of indigenous images and realities, construction of a continental archive of indigenous media, development of structures for training, among many other things. The second Summit took place in Oaxaca, Mexico (2013). So in sum, since Owners, it has been nonstop. I’ve been travelling to other places in the world because they were really interested in Owners of the Water, and also because of possibilities of doing collaborative work.

In addition to Owners, my work has benefited from opportunities the (Venezuelan) government has created for new kinds of work around indigenous issues. The government doesn’t really know what to do with indigenous issues, but it takes into account most of the proposals that are submitted to the government, are taken into account. The government is not necessarily convinced it should support [the proposals] because it doesn’t understand or know, or maybe we don’t explain fully, or we don’t know how to explain, or maybe it doesn’t know how to listen. We’re still trying to figure it out. But right now, with the Venezuelan Indigenous Showcase, let's see what is next. In this second year of the Showcase, a theme is “Sabino Romero Vive,” which honors a leader of the Yukpa people who struggled for indigenous rights, and who was killed last year, three days before Chavez passed away. There is still a lot of media about land tenure. That issue is the main theme of indigenous media in Latin America. At the same time I think there are other stories, there are other narratives, other possibilities of telling stories. For instance, we have seen the work of Nanobah Becker, who is Navajo. She has done an amazing job of telling stories of the Navajo people. We see her work as a point of reference for what we can do in fiction, for instance.

One thing that I have to say is that in Venezuela, there is not as much indigenous production as we would like to have, even though we have the privilege of getting money from the government for indigenous production. I think we as indigenous peoples have not empowered ourselves by taking advantage of the opportunities and privileges that the political context has given us. I think we have underestimated that, as a political movement. Maybe it is because it is obvious; that if you don’t have to work for it, you don’t value it?

JG: Could you explain that? I didn’t catch it.

DHP: The support that the government has given to the indigenous people is very obvious, and maybe people don’t realize how valuable it is that you have these privileges or advantages.

JG: Okay, I understand now.

DHP: Maybe we have to go through a more difficult process in order to understand and value—apreciar y valorar— appreciate and valorize the politics and privilege we have here.

JG: The thing you mentioned that you are working on right now, the Venezuelan Indigenous Media Showcase, it sounds interesting that it’s not just documentary, but a mix of different genres and forms.

DHP: Yes. As a programmer, it was difficult for me to put the films in blocks of documentary, animation, or fiction. So what I did was to compile all of them by theme and not by género (genre). For instance: “Indigenous Women”—there are a lot of films about indigenous women’s issues—and “Memoria Territorio,” which is “Memory of Land,” and “Historias Mayores” which are films that are based on elders’ words. When you try to categorize the work that’s been done, maybe the genre is given by the aesthetic or look of the film. But maybe the narrative is not actually a documentary. Sometimes it’s hard for you to categorize a film because you don’t know if it’s documentary or it’s fiction. Sometimes the look is documentary but it is actually fiction. It was easier for me because I didn’t just want to put those narratives in a box, “Oh this is fiction, this is documentary, this is animation”. Sometimes, when people don’t know how to label a film, they call it in Spanish, film narrativo. It’s like, “okay, whatever!”

This year we have really good films from Canada, from Wapikoni, which is a native organization. They do short films in Quebec, really great stuff. They choose different ways of narrating the films—maybe it’s animation, maybe it’s short fiction, or short documentary film.It has not been typical, but we have had really good participation from India, Asia, and a film from the Chechen people. It was shot in Poland, and it is about Chechen refugees. We’re really proud of the open call. The open call was really nice. I would have loved to have more material from Venezuela, but that’s reality.

JG: What about your filmmaking? You’ve mentioned curation, organization, and policy; have you been doing any media production?

DHP: I’ve done two documentaries since, and I’ve done production on other films. One is about an indigenous women’s organization, about the organizing process, called Indigenous Women and Other Forms of Wisdom. The context of this documentary is a training process of indigenous women—and also anyone else—around the ILO 169. International Labor Organization 169 is a political tool to claim self-determination. This documentary explains how to implement this Charter. For example, to address the question, “What is the United Nations?” the narrator compared the U.N. with Wayuu social institutions. The result was really amazing and surprising. If you would have asked me at that time, what would be the best method to do that, I would have had no idea how to answer! For me, it would not be possible to see how to explain complex concepts in a simple way. In Spanish, sometimes we use two words—simple and sencillo—for the same meaning “simple” but in the end, they don’t have the same meaning. For instance, when nos vamos a cocinar, when you cook, you can make a simple food, una comida simple, it means that it is tasteless. You can do something sencillo, which is very easy to do, but has taste in your mouth. So that was a discussion we had about the film. How do you make it sencillo, pero que tenga contenido?

An interesting thing for me to share would be the experience I had in New Zealand. When I went there I did a study of the process of repatriating films about Maori people. I met with Hinekaa Mako, who is in charge of repatriating Maori films, digitizing them, and putting them in an archive.

I’ve also done translation for films from Australia, New Zealand, and India. They send the captions in English and we translate them into Spanish. They put the translation in the timeline so they have the chance to show their films to Spanish-speaking audiences. That is something we have enjoyed a lot.

JG: It sounds like you’ve been very busy!

DHP: I never imagined that Owners of the Water would have given so much, in terms of opportunities. At the very end the process of making the film was very tough. We went to Brazil in 2006, we had a lot of strong emotions to figure out before working on this project. There is a lot to be told about this video: before, while we were doing it, and after. You just can’t expect what will happen next.

JG: Thanks, David.

DHP: Thank you.

Interview with Caimi Waiásse

(conducted in Portuguese by Laura Graham in Berkeley and Caimi Waiásse in Pimintel Barbossa, translated into English by Graham)

Laura Graham: What are you working on now?

Caimi Waiásse: Right now I am working on a project financed by the Ministry of Culture called Ponte de Cultura (Cultural Bridge) that sponsored the installation of AV equipment in my community. We have a still camera, video camera, and editing equipment. Six boys are steadily working with this.

LG: Are there any girls?

CW: There are some girls but boys are the ones who are most interested. They are ‘ritai’wa (novitiates) who belong to the Nozö’u age set, about 15–17 years old. This project started in Wederã, one of the communities in the Pimentel Barbosa Indigenous Territory. The nearby communities of Eténhiritipa and Pimentel Barbosa also have some equipment. The editing equipment is in Wederã. The boys are putting out a lot of work; its been going on for seven years.

I am also involved in school-based projects. The state gave some money to put technologies into the schools in Pimentel Barbosa communities. It provided a “kit” that includes a still camera. This is a five-year project. Our emphasis is on filming everyday activities. We have been doing a lot of filming in the last two years since electricity arrived as part of a state project called Luz 24 Horas (Light 24 Hours).

This audiovisual work is helping and strengthening the youth to reflect on our situation and fortify our culture for the future. In the last four years, boys have been filming and editing with this state-sponsored project that we have in the school. It is interesting. The state school in Wederã began seven years ago. A small part of its budget was designated to purchase AV equipment: a still camera and video camera. The schools in all of the communities in Pimentel Barbosa now have some equipment. The Museu do Indio [part of the National Indian Foundation] is also sponsoring the construction of a museum in Pimentel Barbosa. This project has provided some equipment.

I am also doing some archiving. I’ve sent my MiniDV tapes to São Paulo to be digitized. I have 300 MiniDVD tapes. I am also working on a proposal to take a course on archiving.

Since 2011, I have been studying in a program for Indigenous Peoples, Intercultural Studies, at the state University. This is a Mato Grosso state project, sponsored by the Department of Indigenous Development. There are students from 34 different ethnic groups. It is a lot of work. There is also a lot of discussion about political mobilization.

I’m in my third year of a five-year program. I will earn a teaching degree (Professor Licenciado). My area of emphasis is Language, Arts, and Literature. My final project will be a film. I’m planning to do it on the influence of technology on the Xavante language. Several other people from the Pimentel Barbosa Indigenous Territory are also doing this program.

LG: What are some of the projects that you have completed since working on Owners of the Water?

CW: The last film I did with Jorge Protodi was Oi’ó, about a ceremonial fight between small boys. It was produced by the NGO Nossa Tribu, run by Rosa Gauditano, and edited by an editor in São Paulo.

I have been busy with my studies at the University. I did a film on butchering game [for a university assignment]. It’s called, Abazé Ezé Wasu’u (The Story of Butchering Game).

LG: What or how has the work on the Owners project influenced your subsequent work?

CW: I see the connection not just in terms of the Owners project but beginning with the moment that you [Laura] brought and then left the camera and audio-visual equipment with the community in 1991. Ever since that first contact with AV equipment my conceptualization of how to work with media, how to work with image, has been evolving. The first thing it taught me was the value of our image, the importance of taking pride in our image.

I keep refining and improving as I move along my path. I recognize the importance of sharing, sharing my ideas as an indigenous person, as a documentarian, and as a cinematographer. Each project, each encounter, is an opportunity to improve my skills. Meeting other people who work in this field gives me the opportunity to improve my work and expand my network. I am also learning more about the academic world of this work.

The Owners project was important for me. It was a significant learning experience because we were directly engaging political issues. We were giving voice to people who are suffering because of the situation of agribusiness in Mato Grosso, specifically, the contamination of the water. It was important to say, “Stop polluting this river that is sacred to Xavante.”

This project fortified me and my work. It also connected me with new people. I met people at the university where you work (University of Iowa). It is important to work with other people who are involved in indigenous media, scholarship, and politics, with anthropologists and with photographers, like David. I think his work is interesting and important.

Working together with people from three different countries in the Owners project was a very positive experience. It was a good learning experience. It strengthened my work in general. It helped me see things from new and different perspectives. I liked working with the professional editing equipment and other professionals who work in this area, people who are also working with Others’ images.

The computer that I received as part of this project made a tremendous difference in my work. Being able to work with high quality equipment improved my work a great deal.

The course with Drew Annis helped me a lot. It taught me new things about how to edit. I have been able to teach others—indigenous peoples and others who work in the indigenous movement—what I learned in Iowa. I was introduced to editing before but this was the first time that I used professional editing equipment.

LG: You mentioned [in a previous conversation] that you are “accompanying the projects at Wederã.” What exactly do you mean? Are you teaching?

CW: In 2007 Jorge and I received training to use Softlivre [an open source program], just for editing images. After that I trained a group of boys who were interested. They have made a couple of short videos. Others like to film, and in Eténhritipa there is also a group that edits.

LG: Do you continue to specialize in filming, more than anything?

CW: Yes.

LG: Some people who see the film are interested in collaborative projects. Would you comment on your involvement in the collaborative aspect of Owners?

CW: Everything is a learning experience. There wasn't a “good” or “bad.” I liked all of the parts that I participated in, from the filming until the film’s completion. I liked the direct involvement in the project and also the fact that I got to meet and work with new people. From my perspective, there was nothing negative about the process. The most positive thing for for me is that we continue to work together, we continue to collaborate.

LG: Can you describe how people responded to Owners in Pimentel Barbosa?

CW: The film was important politically. It is a form of making a claim, of making our case for environmental and cultural protection. It strengthened our resolve to prevent the hydrovia [a massive hydroengineering project on the Rio das Mortes]. It is like the footage that I showed to the community of that trip we took to the Mississippi River. After people saw the commerce and lock and dams, they became even more concerned about the hydrovia. They understood what a hydrovia is.

Owners helped people understand how the river is being used for transportation of soy. People know that the Rio das Mortes is not navigable and understand that changing its course will have a huge impact on the areas where we fish. Every year we go to the Rio das Mortes to fish.

The film also helped people understand the transformations that are occurring around us. Previously, in the 1970s and 1980s, lands surrounding our reserves were made into cattle pastures. The film helps people see that now we are surrounded by soy agribusiness. The changes are very rapid. The farmers are planting right up to the edge of our territories.

People are most worried about the agrotoxins, the chemicals. We are worried about how these are polluting the rivers. We used to worry about the cattle ranching and the intrusion of cattle into our areas. Now we worry about being poisoned.

The film helped by providing a lot of information. In Xavante, information is transmitted from one generation to the next. Most elders and some young people are aware of the situation; the film reinforced this awareness and helped people to understand the situation.

We can see what is happening in our region. It is very visible. Xavante education is entirely linked to the cerrado, to its vegetation and the animals, and the springs that are the source of the rivers. We are deeply tied to the cerrado. The film enforces our recognition of the importance of preserving the cerrado. The cerrado is our life.


(courtesty of Laura Graham)

At the protest
Hernández Palmar, Waiásse, and Graham at the National Museum of the American Indian
Portuguese cover
Spanish cover


Muestra Internacional de Cine Indígena de Venezuela

Associação Warã

Related Readings from Cultural Anthropology

Cultural Anthropology has a Curated Collection on Water and also see Christian Zlolniski’s “Water Flowing North of the Border: Export Agriculture and Water Politics in a Rural Community in Baja California” (2011).

Cultural Anthropology has a Theme List on Indigeneity, and see also Hanne Veber’s "The Salt of the Montaña: Interpreting Indigenous Activism in the Rain Forest” (1998).

Cultural Anthropology has published many articles about Brazil, including Alexander Dent’s “Piracy, Circulatory Legitimacy, and Neoliberal: Subjectivity in Brazil” (2012) and Robin Sheriff's "The Theft of Carnaval: National Spectacle and Racial Politics in Rio de Janeiro" (1999).

Cultural Anthropology recently published another article that has to do with soy in South America, Kregg Hetherington’s “Beans Before the Law: Knowledge Practices, Responsibility, and the Paraguayan Soy Boom” (2013).

Cultural Anthropology has a Theme List on Activism and Social Movements.

Cultural Anthropology has published many articles related to media, including Faye Ginsburg’s "Embedded Aesthetics: Creating a Discursive Space for Indigenous Media” (1994) and others in the Media Studies Theme List.


A special issue of Cultural Survival Quarterly, "The Other Brazil" (2009), including:

Xavante, Cipassé. 2009. "Saving the Cerrado." Cultural Survival Quarterly 33, no. 2.

Graham, Laura. 2009. "The Tractor Invasion." Cultural Survival Quarterly 33, no. 2.

Top’Tiro, Hiparidi. 2009. "My cerrado." Cultural Survival Quarterly 33, no. 2.

Baud, Michiel, Fabio de Castro and Barbara Hogenboom. 2011. "Environmental Governance in Latin America: Towards an Integrative Research Agenda." European Review of Latin American and Caribbean Studies 90:79–88.

Boyer, Dominic. 2006. "Turner’s Anthropology of Media and Its Legacies." Critique of Anthropology 26, no. 1: 87–101.

Continental Summit of Indigenous Communication. 2010. Declaration of the Continental Summit of Indigenous Communication. La Maria Piendamó, Cauca, Colombia, November 12.

Graham, Laura R. 1995. Performing Dreams: Discourses of Immortality Among the Xavante Indians of Central Brazil. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Graham, Laura R. 2005. “Image and Instrumentality in a Xavante Politics of Existential Recognition: The Public Outreach Work of EtÉnhiritipa Pimentel Barbosa.” American Ethnologist 32, no. 4: 622–41.

Graham, Laura R., and H. Glenn Penny, eds. 2014. Performing Indigeneity: Global Histories and Contemporary Experiences. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Michaels, Eric. 1986. The Aboriginal Invention of Television in Central Australia: 1982–1986. Canberra: Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies.

Michaels, Eric. 1994. Bad Aboriginal Art, and Other Essays. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Raheja, Michelle H. 2010. Reservation Reelism: Redfacing, Visual Sovereignty, and Representations of Native Americans in Film. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Top'Tiro, Hiparidi. 2014. "Protecting our Cerrado against Agribusiness." Cultural Survival Quarterly, February 28.

Turner, Terence. 1992. "Defiant Images: The Kayapo Appropriation of Video." Anthropology Today 8, no. 6: 5−16.

Turner, Terence. 1995. "Representation, Collaboration and Mediation in Contemporary Ethnographic and Indigenous Media." Visual Anthropology Review 11, no. 2: 102−6.