Indigenous cultures are under pressure the world over, and nowhere more so than in Brazil. Not only directly by violence (several indigenous people have been murdered in recent months), but also because of the erosion of language, knowledge, and tradition as younger generations opt for ‘Western’ culture and its lure. Brazilian director Maya Da-Rin’s debut feature The Fever, which has already won prizes at festivals from Locarno to Chicago to Mar del Plata, illustrates this by focusing on a father-daughter relationship set on the edge of Manaus in the country’s Northwestern Amazon region.
Justino (Regis Myrupu) is a widower in his 40s, and a member of the indigenous Desana people. He works in Manaus’ port as a watchman and lives on the outskirts of the city with his daughter Vanessa (Rosa Peixoto). She is a nurse in a health clinic, but has been accepted to study medicine in Brasilia, meaning she will move out in a short time. Other changes happen to Justino: he gets a new colleague at work, a bigoted man from a different and whiter region of Brazil. Justino also seems to be followed by a mysterious creature that he hears in the jungle as he gets off the bus each day after work. Is this the same creature that is creating havoc in the neighborhood? At work he finds it increasingly difficult to stay awake. A visit from his brother makes Justino remember life in the village he left many years ago. He is torn between Western city life and a longing for the culture he has left behind, and this manifests itself in his fever.
Maya Da-Rin has a history as a documentarian. This shows itself in an observational style and mostly static shots, which give The Fever a steady rhythm in which Justino’s story unfolds. Placed as markers in this narrative are his encounters with his increasingly hostile and bigoted colleague during their shift changes at work. In a way this symbolizes Western life slowly driving out the indigenous, clearly signaling a message: adapt or die (if not literally, at least culturally). With Western civilization encroaching ever more on the natural habitat of the indigenous people of Brazil, a third option, retreat, is becoming less viable by the day. The film also highlights another way in which Western culture is expanding its sphere of influence: faith. One night, as Justino comes home from work, he passes a small church gathering and stops to listen for a while. The preacher speaks an indigenous language, and everyone in his congregation is indigenous as well. Yet what is taught is the Catholic faith.
The biggest problem lies within the community itself, though: a younger generation that doesn’t relate to the traditions of the older one. The cosmology of Justino and his brother, in which the relationship between humans, animals, and the forest plays a big role, is lost on Vanessa and her brother. They are more attuned to the modern world, and combined with a diminishing amount of space to live in, it is easy to see how indigenous life is slowly dying out even without direct interference from bigoted people like Justino’s co-worker, himself an example of the Brazil of Bolsonaro.
The use of non-professionals shifts attention away from the acting, but that is not to say that the two principal actors, Regis Myrupu and Rosa Peixoto, don’t leave a lasting impression. Myrupu’s performance, which won him the Locarno Best Actor award, might seem emotionally withheld at first, but a lot of what Justino is going through is in his eyes, whether his sadness over his daughter leaving, the joy of having his family around, or the anger over his colleague. Peixoto has the easier role but proves to be a natural.
The Fever is a timely document about the cultural dangers of progress, and a reminder that our Western ways are not the only possibility. The spiritual world of indigenous cultures is one that often escapes us, conditioned as we have been by monotheistic beliefs (or increasingly no beliefs at all), but our perception of reality and the higher planes is not necessarily more valid. Nor is our expansion of our culture that promotes these ideas. The culture clash that it leads to, as personified in the father-daughter relationship of Justino and Vanessa, can be detrimental for a way of living that has lasted for millennia. Maya Da-Rin’s film highlights this without judgement (Vanessa is as respectfully treated as Justino) while leaving the viewer with something to, hopefully, think about.