Juan Castrillón’s KİRAİÑİA (Long Flutes) (2019) is a film about searching for lost sounds and their partial retrieval. In particular, the sounds that emanate from the kiraiñia, the long flutes played by the Emi-Hehenewa Amazonian community who live in Uaupés River Valley in Southern Colombia. The instruments’ tunes are felt, heard, as the voice of the ancestors.
The film opens by explaining that although Castrillón has recorded songs and instrumental performances among Emi-Hehenewa people since 2012, he wonders what the kiraiñia sounds like. We are told that, in Camutí, long flutes were last seen in film footage decades ago, specifically in the 1972 film, Tarzan and the Brown Prince. In an excerpt from this Tarzan film, we see the long flutes leading a parade as the narrator prompts excitedly, “Listen, do you hear?” But we learn that the sounds of the kiraiñia cannot be heard as they are “masked” behind the film’s musical score, composed by the Italian conductor Sante Maria Romitelli. It “reveals and hides” what the director’s interlocutors have explained: it is only through masking themselves—a becoming other—that the Emi-Hehenewa can sing and dance what was gifted from their ancestors.
Ethnographic interviews with women, recounting stories of past kiraiñia, are interspliced with scenes of men building a long house, and retrieving and crafting the instruments, which Castrillón has learned are “not present all the time” and are “available upon request.” Young men are guided by elders as they search in a stream for the hidden flutes. Found beneath waters, the flutes resurface, they are brought back to the fore. Much like the deliberate and processual memory-work that occurs throughout the film, the flutes’ resurfacing unfolds over time, as a process of repair. There is still work to be done, we learn, as the flutes must be washed, cut to the right length, carved and whittled, fixed with beeswax, and so on. Memories, like instruments, are revealed through a sharing of intergenerational knowledge.
Through a rotoscoping animation technique, the contours of the characters are vaguely traced, fading into a milky white screen, as the director ruminates through the film’s narrator. Dreamy, out-of-time reflections take hold as we hear Castrillón instruct the narrator to perform the text with seriousness and not sentimentality while reciting his text, a questioning of his own purchase on truth, representation, and memory. Through blurring film footage with animation, storytelling and documentary footage, we move between the real and the unreal, certainty and uncertainty, truth and fabulation. The film does away with the conventions of documentary realism and inquiries that are in search of historiographic mastery. It is instead interested in fragmented reconstructions of what an acoustemology felt and sounded like; what types of worlds the long flutes held together.
The film’s plot is centered on loss and repair: the repair of the long flutes as a way to repair social discontinuities with their ancestors. Elders teach young men how to craft and play the kiraiñia and young women how to dance along to kiraiñia music. Paradoxically, in order to retrieve, one must first become partially lost, entranced by the mixture of manioc beer, dance, and the sounds of the long flutes. These are openings, portals that allow for knowledge to “manifest,” as Fernando reminds us.
The long house is an elusive site for this repair-work, referenced frequently in elders’ memories as the site of past kiraiñia performances. Often referred to using the colonial terminology of “maloka,” an elder insists on the correct terminology of “Pami kirami,” translated as long house, in a linguistic reckoning with a colonial past. A new long house is built behind the scenes, glimpsed only briefly at the beginning of the film.
The film culminates with a performance of the kiraiñia in the long house by the community who is joined by the director. They sway to the sounds together, sharing manioc beer. But the sounds of the kiraiñia are distorted, masked to listening viewers. Instead, we hear an interview with Ernesto, healer and storyteller, who talks about the long flutes as the contorted sounds murmur in the background. Recollection and storytelling, music and sound, fiction and reality blur together in this obscured event. In refusing to represent “the” sounds of the kiraiñia to viewers, the film eschews anthropological paradigms and quests for authenticity, leaving the question of “how an instrument sounds” to linger in uncertainty. It is through an accumulation of performances that memories are gleaned, sounds retrieved, and connections forged--felt between past and present, across generations, and with ancestors.