IFFR 2022 review: EAMI (Paz Encina)

“Urgent and haunting yet delicate and measured, EAMI gives a voice to a people who have been without one for a long time.”

There are no boundaries in EAMI. Documentary becomes dramatisation. Human becomes animal. Past becomes present and future. Animal becomes god. This is the world of the Ayoreo-Totobiegosode, a forest-dwelling people in the Paraguayan part of the Chaco Basin (which spreads through Paraguay, Bolivia, and Argentina). A sombre, at times grim ethnographic poem about a displaced people who fell victim to greed and zealotry, as so many indigenous people have. Paz Encina’s third feature film (after the Cannes FIPRESCI winning Paraguayan Hammock and documentary Memory Exercises) mixes a fleeting fictional narrative with eyewitness accounts of a forced exile to create a haunting image of pain and healing amidst rampant deforestation. A magical realist indictment of the way we treat people less powerful than us and the way we treat nature. There are no boundaries in EAMI, sadly.

Eami is the young girl that is our guide through this world, both physical and spiritual. She wanders through the forest after her village was burned and her community dispersed. ‘Forest’, that’s what her name means. It also means ‘world’, to emphasize that the forest is all her people had. But now they are forced out, Eami too. She wanders through the forest one last time in search of her friend Aocojái; sometimes on foot, sometimes as the bird-god Asojá. She collects memories, images, sounds; to never forget the forest, her world, her eami. Eami lives in the past, as these displacements took place in the ’70s and ’80s (and several more have taken place since). Sometimes EAMI has her converse with people of her tribe in the present day, as they recount the horrors of the past in voice over to Encina. This creates a dreamlike narrative where past and present, fiction and fact flow back and forth and through each other.

This doesn’t make EAMI the easiest film to penetrate, sticking as it does to its own rhythm, which often entails long timelapse segments. Those willing to immerse themselves in its lush imagery and soundscape start to recognize a pattern in the austere camerawork of Guillermo Saposnik as he documents the devastation of the forest in gorgeous yet saddening static shots. The coñones, literally the ‘insensitives’ in the language of the Ayoreo-Totobiegosode, are portrayed as one-dimensional demons rounding up the indigenous. The Ayoreo-Totobiegosode remember missionaries sending people to find the tribe, likely referring to several such missions between 1979 and 1986. For almost a century now these people have been hunted, forced to convert to Catholicism, and displaced from their home, the forest. This endangers their language, their culture, and even their existence.

Urgent and haunting yet delicate and measured, EAMI gives a voice to a people who have been without one for a long time. In 2018 the Ayoreo-Totobiegosode finally succeeded at getting the title to 18,000 hectares of land to live on, but the ever-encroaching deforestation still threatens their lives. EAMI is perhaps too abstract to attract a large audience and thus make waves, but having won the Tiger Award, IFFR’s main prize, will hopefully give it a solid festival run. It is a film that deserves to be seen both for its message and for the poetic but also harrowing way it communicates it.