Cinéma du Réel 2023 review: Adieu sauvage (Sergio Guataquira Sarmiento)

“A tender journey of self-exploration filled with spots of humor at the expense of Sarmiento himself, Adieu sauvage is a film that slowly reels you in through its two subjects.”

At the age of nineteen director Sergio Guataquira Sarmiento left his home country of Colombia to study film. Now, sixteen years later, he returns to Colombia to look for a reason behind a flood of suicides among the indigenous tribes in the Amazon region. Though his search for an answer isn’t entirely fruitful, a return to his roots makes him realize that he has not only been an outsider in his adopted country Belgium, he is just as much an outsider in the community where his origins lie. Though his guide through this, to Sarmiento, strange landscape and culture bluntly makes this clear, this fact also connects the two men, as Colombia’s native people experience the same feeling of ‘otherization’ even in their own lands, encroached upon by a conquering culture that has exploited them and their lands for centuries. A tender journey of self-exploration filled with spots of humor at the expense of Sarmiento himself, Adieu sauvage is a film that slowly reels you in through its two subjects: the Cacua tribesman who invites Sarmiento into his community, and Sarmiento himself; two strangers who despite their differences connect.

Laureano is a Spanish-speaking member of the self-sufficient Cacua tribe, his language skills courtesy of having served in the Colombian army for a time. Sarmiento meets this well-respected man early in his travels through Amazonia, when Laureano invites the director to live with him for the time it will take Sarmiento to uncover the reason behind the suicides, originally the subject of his documentary. Sarmiento is like a fish on dry land, utterly useless when trying to do tasks assigned to the men of the tribe, like hunting or slaughtering a rooster. When Laureano pushes him to help out the women instead, Sarmiento doesn’t fare much better, until at long last Laureano finds a suitable task: coach of the village women’s football team (since they win a game late in the film this might be deemed a great success, although Sarmiento’s involvement in it seems to be marginal).

The refreshing self-deprecating humor applied to the scenes of Sarmiento stumbling through these acts gives Adieu sauvage a comedic layer on top of what is otherwise a wistful and nostalgic portrait of a community on the brink of self-extinction. Laureano confides in Sarmiento by telling him his traditional name, while also revealing that his own children don’t have them anymore. The children aim to leave for the big city, a new life with new opportunities which they see reflected in Sarmiento, though the director was born and raised in Bogota and only shares their heritage through his parents. Laureano is puzzled by Sarmiento’s use of the word ‘nostalgia’; the Cacua don’t know this word, although it is clear they know the feeling.

The suicides rapidly fade into the background, and Sarmiento never really gets to the heart of the issue, but observing Laureano and his withheld emotions and what Sarmiento describes as ‘deep solitude’ gives a hint of a hopelessness that pervades the community. Laureano only gradually opens up; “I have never known love,” he says initially, but at the end of the film he talks about the love for his wife Angelina saving her from her own suicide attempt. Communities like these will cease to exist in a couple of decades, and in that regard the ‘adieu’ in the title is fitting (Francophones generally use this word when someone passes away; the slur ‘sauvage’ can apply to either man). Laureano recalls a Japanese scientist who wanted to study the community, and one day simply vanished. “People come to do their thing, and never come back,” he laments. ‘Adieu’ indeed. Sarmiento is one of those people, but at least he and Laureano have shared an experience, two strangers in a familiar land that has grown estranged.