The time is March 2004 and the place is Paraguay. It is there, where a group of hunter-gatherers, quite possibly one of the few willingly isolated societies in the planet, came running out of the forest in northern Paraguay, escaping from ranchers' earthmovers. The Gran Chaco forest, which means "hunting land" in the Quechua language, the language of the people, is a thinly inhabited, warm and semi-arid coastal natural area of the Río de la Plata basin, shared among Bolivia, Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil, where it is attached to the Pantanal region. This area is often called the Chaco Plain. The people running out of the forest are the Ayoreo people, an indigenous population of the Gran Chaco. They Ayoreo live in a zone extending form Paraguay to Bolivia Ayoreo combine hunter-gatherer daily life with farming, depending to the time of year. There is a number of Ayoreo subdivisions like Totobiegosode who were inaccessible, but several of those groups have been displaced against their will, while few of them avoid contact. It is widely believed that certain Ayoreo clusters still live isolated (or in voluntary isolation), being the only existing inaccessible tribe in South America with the exception of the Amazon. As the film depicts, one of the major threats of Ayoreo is deforestation. The Ayoreo used to be an entirely wandering tribe until Baptist Missionaries discovered them in Bolivia. The missionaries trained them to farm and assisted them in land development. They also tried to advance their religion in the area and eradicate the Ayore traditional values. When a tribe member was or ready to die they immediately started digging a hole since it was considered an ominous sign to die above the ground. Another accounts regarding the Ayoreo, are mentioning the performance of a type of shamanism.
Back to 2004, the expelled Ayoreo designed a new community with their more settled families but then came the challenge and complexities of preparing and mastering how to convert to "Ayoreo Indians" and more importantly, how to stay alive in a radically changing brave new world. The documentary gives us a close look in the separated community only 4 months after the uprooting of those people and their struggle to formulate a common future in an area devastated by deforestation, and formulated by Non-Government Organizations activity, anthropologists and countless missionaries. Uncomfortably interconnecting a history of ethnographic symbols and metaphors of "first communication," the beautifully crafted documentary utilizes the filmmaker's narrative technique to mirror the experiences and misperceptions of a route that continues to stand as a totally cloudy area for the "new people," the families close to them and the scientists observing the activity.
This documentary supplies the graphic anthropology of South America by placing a human aspect to serious questions raised about communication, indigenous people and the methods in which certain constricted ideas of modernism tend to be demonstrated as the only option for native communities in the forest of Gran Chaco but also in the areas all over the world, where indigenous tribes live isolated.
This documentary tries (and succeeds in my opinion) to deliver a detailed portrait of interaction between indigenous groups and mainstream society. A film by Lucas Bessire, an assistant professor in New York University brings us one step closer to recognizing the value of some of the devices of human contact among people of different ethnicities, telling the story of a Chaco forest tribe’s fight to understanding the new reality of intruding development. Bessire, who before filming the documentary, worked among the Ayoreo in Bolivia, travelled instantly in Paraguay from the USA at the news that a cluster of people from the same ethnicity with the indigenous Bolivian tribe group was recently came across. After the procurement of all permits necessary from the Paraguayan government so he could film the Ayoreo, he engaged in his travel deep within the Chaco forest and upon meeting the community he tries to live among them in order to film and live firsthand their experience. Though no effort at dramatic calls is made in order to amplify the awful state of freshly contacted tribes, this low budget documentary tries to demonstrate the ethnographer and indigenous people saturated with the experience of a fruitful discussion. Their conversation addresses a lot of the themes that have to unavoidably be addressed in depicting these meetings. And though not unforeseen, we are still introduced in an exceptional set of traits that are frequently exhibited in the reasons and consequences of communication of such a kind. In that film there is the familiar group of contact players but we swiftly discover the existence of a singular situation among the peoples of the Paraguayan Chaco. The filmmaker does not rush to hurriedly reach the point to clarify that it is regional development and economic interests that ultimately caused the uprooting and finally the contact of a small crowd of 17 Ayoreo people and in addition we do not observe a lot of direct encounters with the main features of the Paraguayan border that have hastily shepherded them into their field of influence. Missionaries, Non-Governmental Organizations, and local livestock ranchers are not actively present in this depiction though their presence is measured by the result of their intervention. These traits hang in the context however; they remain obvious influences to be dealt with.
The film opens with a quote from Claude Levi-Strauss, the famous French anthropologist and ethnologist and a man who has been named the father of modern anthropology. The title of the film comes from a work of his with the same name, published in 1973. We hear a sound similar to footsteps and the goal of the film is demonstrated, along with the goal of the whole field of anthropology. A few seconds later, we see shots inside the Chaco forest and the special beings that live in it and we hear a man talking in some kind of native language. The surrounding environment gives us a sense of place and establishes a setting for the subject matter. The text rolls onto the screen with facts about indigenous people in Paraguay while we listen to a woman talking over a loudspeaker in the filmmaker’s attempt to inform us about the people that we are about to watch while exhibiting that Ayoreo have been removed from Western society for many years. Instantly, three people walking down a path, pointing at trees and marking the path with their feet while they converse with one another in native tongue, presumably about the trees to show us how the people scout out different parts of their environment and simultaneously to demonstrate ingenuity. Shots of Paraguay from an airplane with different fields and forests are shown while the narrator speaks about the Ayoreo, a tribe in South America. He asks questions about their contact with Western world while we are made to realize that the Ayoreo people prefer life before contact with the Western world. The narrator shows audience his interest in finding answers to his questions. We see people walking, gathering honey and food and at the same time the narrator talks about how and when these Ayoreo people hunt and gather food and water. He establishes the idea that these people are hunter-gatherers in the 21st century and are extremely effective in practicing this mode of nourishment. A man digs in the ground for root, name rolls onto screen reading “Ojai.”
Ojai harvests root and with comrade Chicode, drink water stored in the root. Ojai narrates the process in his native tongue, talking to the camera, describing the way they found, harvested, and drank out of the root. In this part two main characters are established: Ojai and Chicode that show how the Ayoreo people obtain water even during a dry season demonstrating the intellect and knowledge of these people even without contact with the modern world. Afterwards, a man stands directly in front of camera while his name scrolls on bottom right corner “Esoi Leader of the new people.” Esoi speaks of the different types of foods and honeys that his people find and eat. The Ayoreo people want to show that even when they live in a harsh environment, there is still an abundance of food as long as one is willing to work to find it, which they are. Esoi sits on the ground in front of the camera while men bring anteaters over to a fire and throw them on. The anteaters burn and are torn apart by the men. While Esoi describes how they hunt anteaters and the first time he hunted an anteater with the elder men of the community. Hunting and killing an anteater seems to be a sort of rite of passage in the Ayoreo community and Esoi describes his first time on a hunt. Various shots of the landscape where the waterhole used to be are shown. The camera pans to different people in the tribe as they talk while the narrator and various members of the community describe the Ayoreo’s first encounter with white farmers.
They describe the bulldozers the farmers used to drive the Ayoreo off their land and for the first time we see how the white men have discriminated against the people of the Ayoreo. It also shows the fear that the Ayoreo have of the whites and how their naiveté ended up hurting them. Various members of the community are shown as they speak. Pictures are later shown of the first encounter between the native people and the Western world. The narrator describes a time when the Ayoreo were sick of being pushed back so they decided to fight. But there was a man who used to be part of the Ayoreo who came to speak to them. At that specific part, we witness the first time this Ayoreo tribe was contacted by people of the Western world and the narrator outlines a point at which the Ayoreo people had started to be influenced by the Westerners. There is a campfire and Esoi stands with an instrument on the outside of the campfire. He sings a welcome song to the narrator and after that the narrator describes how he had to convince Esoi to let him document his tribe. He then talked about showing the Esoi the video of himself. It is the first time the Ayoreo had seen advanced modern technology and shows the interest and also trepidation in this new phenomenon. Various shots of the new land this Ayoreo tribe had just discovered. We see the tents, the clothes and even the radio that the tribe is using. The narrator describes the terms of the Ayoreo contact traditions. He talks aout how Porai is their translator and protector because he is their contactor. A woman talks on the radio to other Ayoreo women. Porai speaks about what the contact meant to the Ayoreo people.
The audience is shown how even in new times, the Ayoreo abide by traditional laws regarding contact. We see a picture of Porai in 1986 shows and also helping the members of the community to make shoes and clothes. We have a one-on-one with Porai as he speaks while the narrator gives background information on him and why he is helping this community. Porai then speaks about improving the community with stores. Since, Porai has been exposed to the Western world, he has ideas on how to improve this community based on those he has seen in modern society. A change in ideology is shown with just a short exposure to western society. The Aroyeo sit in a circle with Porai siting in the center on a bucket. Later, Esoi uses the camera and shows the narrators tent and plays with the zoom feature. Esoi asks Porai questions about his watch. Later, the narrator tells how the Ayoreo thought the narrator’s different features were funny. They Aroyeo asked also if they could use the zoom feature on the camera to go hunting. We see here that they are fascinated with new technology but can also be very resourceful with this new technology and again we see the intelligence and ingenuity with the Ayoreo people. Later on, there is a man who comes in a truck. The new man, Porai, Esoi and Ingoi all sit in a room together. Porai later signs a document and Ingoi uses his thumbprint to sign. After a lot of talking the Ayoreo leave the building. Gustavo, the man in the truck talks about a contract that gives the Ayoreo land and they discuss the terms and how much land the Ayoreo receive. When Porai has to sign, Gustavo tells him not to worry and relax as he does that. Since the Ayoreo do not use any paper or writing utensils, it is interesting to watch the struggle Porai has when he writes. Ingoi cannot write and that demonstration serves the purpose of showing that when dealing with the new world, they may be smart but they simply aren’t caught up enough with Western society.
Members of the Ayoreo sit around a fire and cook the turtle that was caught earlier in the day. Esoi describes the bees and wasps nests he found earlier that day. He says he didn’t catch any but will have better luck the next day. There is a fascination with honey present within the Ayoreo and they say they cannot be full without it. Lucas Bessire here shows the devotion to tradition as they have always harvested and eaten honey. Two women wash clothes with soap and water. Their names appear on screen: Nyae and Jororo The camera cuts to just one woman washing. She sniffs a shirt and laughs. The narrator questions whether or not what he has heard is true or not. The rest of the scene is silent except for the laugh of the woman who sniffed the shirt. The use of soap is something that has clearly been an influence from the Western world, as this girls reaction to the smell seems timid and interested. Some members sit in a circle and talk. Later, Porai is one-on-one with the camera. First, Esoi speaks about how the narrator filmed him collecting honey and got stung. Later, Porai speaks about wanting to make the members of the community cut their hair. In that segment we see that Porai respects the traditions of the Ayoreo. He thinks he knows how to make life better and this thought is based on exposure to Western culture. Tribe members sit in a group on the ground. A name comes up on the screen next to one woman: Guireijna. The members try to make Jororo speak Spanish but she does not know how to. The narrator speaks about how new members must offer Porai’s group food but got no food in return. Members of Porai’s group speaking Spanish shows influence of Western culture. The contact rules are clearly not fair but Ayoreo abides anyway because of tradition. The carpenters build a school as the camera cuts to Esoi separating meat into groups for Porai and for his own group. Narrator speaks about how Porai and Esoi’s group separated but Esoi still had to give meat to Porai and get none in return. Esoi reasons with a member of his group about the distribution of meat. This shows the difference in what is fair and unfair for these Ayoreo and the Western culture and while the Ayoreo have no problem abiding by the rules the narrator seems to have a problem. Esoi and his group walk back to Chaidi.
Esoi acts out a story for his hosts. The narrator discusses how he tried to convince Esoi to move on and go somewhere else but Esoi didn’t listen. He then tells a story to his hosts about a magical jaguar he fought off because of something his father taught him. The narrator doesn’t see why Esoi goes back but then he uses the story of magical jaguar as a metaphor for how Esoi will be able to defeat this problem like he has others. Esoi gets close up with the camera. Later, the new members listen to cassette tapes in a circle. Esoi asks if the narrator’s people believe in Jesus. Then the cassette tapes play and talk about life outside of the forest. The group who made the cassette tapes uses faith in Jesus as a way to try to get the new members out of the forest. Aregue’date has a close up with the camera as she strips wood. Then, Porai has one-on-one with the camera while Ojai watches Porai destroy bees wax holders used in religious tradition. Aregue’date tells of a time when Asoina was the one the Ayoreo prayed to. Then, Porai says there is no longer traditional religion. Later, Ojai and Porai talk about the bees wax holders as Ojai tells Porai what they were used for. Porai changes the religion of the people a move towards further westernizing Esoi’s group of people. We see a close up of Caatebia and Ingoi talking with the narrator. Later, Porai sits around the fire with the rest of the members. Caatebia and Ingoi speak about old religion vs. new religion. Later, Porai leads a prayer at the fire to God. Porai has convinced the younger members of the group that old religion is not necessary and the new religion is the one that will bring prosperity to their people. Esoi climbs a tree to get honey while soon after the narrator attempts the same and fails. Esoi talks about how they used to climb trees to get honey. A feature of Esoi’s appreciation for how things used to be done. It demonstrates that Esoi has a little bit of nostalgia. Finally we have a shot of an empty road. Then people appear and walk towards the camera, kicking up dust. The narrator speaks about how there was not an ending he could be satisfied with on his journey. He talks about other Ayoreo who have tried what Porai did but failed and wanted to go back to their land. This reflection of the narrator shows that there is a cycle of how the Ayoreo are contacted by the whites and western culture. The culture is somewhat forced upon them, though they don’t fight back. But by the time they want to fight back it is too late.
It is possible that ethnographic films could be packed together so we are given the opportunity to compare and contrast different contact circumstances. This would offer a more universal and proportional perspective of contact in dissimilar regions, to study carefully the apparatus that drives contact and encampment among previously inaccessible groups. Certain films in Adrian Cowell’s series of the Decade of Destruction could portrait the consequences of first contact. In all cases, there are different methods to access filmmaking, site and direction; diverse messages flourish, and dissimilar actions emerge between film subjects. So From Ashes to Honey should be seen along with similar works for instructive and explanatory purposes and has to be contextualized among this sequence of film and the associated literature that would fascinate and enlighten interested parties. This could help both beginners and specialists that work among indigenous peoples to encourage more debate, circulate news, and share their practices of contact and involuntary assimilation of freshly settled people. At a time that many are those who have a deep concern for the genre of ethnographic film and the symbolism it depicts of indigenous people, Honey to Ashes could not be categorized in the section of “indigenous media.” since in this film one could hastily acknowledge the ethnographer as a power at play, yet Bessire is not giving the final saying on the Ayoreo. And we cannot feel an objectification of the Ayoreo people, though this film aids towards the tuning and adjustment of the environment of procedures and exchanges. In that way, interested parties in creating more “objective” circumstances for studying encounters could interchange with these traits. Many native filmmakers now push for their own schema in building reality, but to be frank, maybe there is a small chance that recently contacted tribes could take the part of directing, acting and marketing their own stories in their own media.. As a result this direction is waiting still for a native signature where filmmaking would be recruited to film first contacts. Conventional media, as a whole, have conservatively outlined native’s issues and problems and therefore are one of their biggest adversaries for indigenous populations. For the time being, it is possibly essential for ethnographers to tie this knot until the ability for native people to tell their own stories, is given.