“First Contact Films” continue to have lasting effects on Indigenous communities 

Photo Courtesy of Boston University Cinema & Media Studies

By Pamela Sari
Boston University News Service

November is National Native American Heritage month, a good time to examine the unique difficulties Indigenous communities face–one example being their constant problematic portrayal in film and other media. 

On Nov. 3, Boston University’s Cinema and Media Studies program, in collaboration with the Latin American Studies and Portuguese Program, hosted a guest lecture entitled, “The Indigenous ‘Contact Film’ and its Afterlives in Latin American Cinema.” To a group of 20, accompanied by visuals of the different portrayals of Indigenous communities, Professor Gustavo Furtado examined exoticism in film. 

An Indigenous contact film is a form of media that documents the first encounter with isolated communities. Such films have come to serve two purposes, one of preservation and one of destruction to the same Indigenous communities they followed, according to Furtado who spoke in BU’s Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies. These impacts continue to be seen as new forms of media continue to follow the fixation of a “primal moment.”     

“The contact film consists of footage of the actual moment of encounter,” said Furtado. “The authenticity of the contact as a documentary record is certified by the moment-to-moment unpredictability of the contact event.” 

Furtado said contact films are centered on a traveler’s encounter with Indigenous people who have some degree of isolation from the outside, usually Western, influences. Early contact films can be traced back to the 20th century.  

Past audiences have developed a “fetish” for Indigenous contact, Furtado said. The “first contact films” have evolved into different genres in modern Latin American cinema that include documentary, romance, science fiction and even comedy. Alternative forms of these first-contact films also include Youtube videos which feature the invasion of these communities. 

Contact with Indigenous communities leads to the spread of disease, loss of territory, subjugation and the large-scale portrayal of images of death that had a negative effect on these communities, according to Furtado. 

The cinematic attraction of “first contact” with isolated indigenous communities is bound to the “destructive legacy and effects of colonialism,” said Furtado. This idea is one shared in the 2013 film “Yvy Maraey” that Furtado focused on in his lecture. 

“First contact films,” despite their damaging legacy are also commonly used for cross-cultural purposes. Indigenous communities are exposed to earlier footage of themselves which can allow them to regain their cultural identity and can even lead them back to where they lived before their relocation, Furtado said. 

Professor Gustavo Furtado giving lecture on Nov.2nd. Photo by Pamela Sari/ BUNS

The lecture was preceded by a screening of Luiz Bolognesi’s documentary “The Last Forest”  Nov. 2, which followed the Yanomami Indigenous community from the Amazon rainforest as they tried to protect themselves against threats to their environment such as disease and invasion from prospectors. The documentary was heavily influenced by the first Indigenous contact films. 

“[The Last Forest] shows a new form of making films with Indigenous communities,” said lecture attendee Fernanda Alves Dos Santos, a BU Ph.D. candidate studying Spanish language and literature. “One where they are showing us their culture and not our vision of them.” 

Dos Santos attended the event as part of her Brazilian cinema course and thought it was impactful to learn about the destruction and death of some communities that were featured in first contact films.  

“It is like an awakening that you are constructing on top of destroying,” said Dos Santos. 

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