ESME MILLER reviews The Whisper of the Jaguar as part of SAVAGE’s coverage of Fringe! Queer Film & Arts Festival.
In the context of Jair Bolsonaro’s recent victory, a man with an unashamedly hostile attitude towards women, homosexuals and indigenous Brazilians, The Whisper of the Jaguar is desperately needed in the current socio-political climate of Brazil. In opposition to the conservative values promoted by president-elect, the film serves both to express LGBTQ+ pride and to highlight the beauty and current endangerment of the Amazonia. Within this framework, directors Simone Jaikiriuma Paetau and Thais Guisasola explore a myriad of dichotomous themes: the indigenous vs the colonial, the expansion of industrial capitalism vs the preservation of the Amazon rainforest, and sexual emancipation vs historically ingrained female oppression.
The plot is introduced by the voice of Ana, a punk musician from the inner city. She is retracing the steps of her late trans sibling, Sebastian, an environmental activist who lived in a rural village of the Amazon. Searching for a place to scatter Sebastian’s ashes also provides an opportunity to understand her sibling’s death. Sebastian is referred to as both ‘he’ and ‘she’ during the film, an indication of the film’s fluid conception of gender. For the purpose of this review, Sebastian will be referred to in the gender-neutral ‘they’.
We first see Sebastian enveloped by corn plants, setting up their film camera within a field. The performance that follows is strikingly unforgettable: Sebastian peels away the outer skin of a corn and proceeds to push the grain up their anus. Despite the explicit nature of the performance, what is in fact most disconcerting is the mechanical way in which they demonstrate this act. Matched by a complete absence of emotional response, Sebastian stares impassively at the audience. The purpose of our resulting discomfort is only explained later in the film by Ana: Sebastian repeatedly filmed this performance as a political act of defiance against the production of genetically-modified corn, the growth of which contributes to the destruction of the rainforest. The shock we experience watching this sequence serves to mirror the response we should be voicing against the expansion of GM farming and its destructive effects on the Amazon rainforest. Sebastian embodies the nature of capitalism to demonstrate its inhumane and unresponsive character. His performance is bound to trigger an unpleasant reaction in the audience.
This is the first of several scenes in which we witness Sebastian’s life through the lens of Ana’s mind. It is somewhat unclear whether these are her memories, imagined thoughts or simply dreamed sequences. Within each, Sebastian successfully breaks the fourth wall by explicitly confronting us as viewers. The audience is made aware of its status through Sebastian’s direct eye contact as they face the camera. The narrative is fragmented by these moments which break from the storyline and provide sudden changes in context and environment. Fracturing the linearity of the plot is also a masterful way to capture our attention. The unintelligible content of these scenes slowly unravels as we begin to understand the intention: Sebastian is protesting against the dehumanising discourse of capitalism and the suppression of queer expression in Brazil.
A telling example of this is a scene where Sebastian sits peacefully on a bench in the background of the shot, with his legs folded and his gaze directed at us through the camera. A group of unified vultures arranged vertically across the front of the screen are fighting over gummy-looking scraps of meat, making for an unnerving foreground. With their vibrant lipstick and calm demeanor, Sebastian seems to offer us an escape from the greed and competitiveness we witness before us. They embody a sense of equanimity and peace, demonstrating a space to exist removed from the dog-eat-dog mentality of capitalism playing out before us.
The fact that these sequences are shown after Sebastian’s death suggests a way in which their protest has lived on as legacy. The character provides an emblem of defiance whose rebellion is able to endure via the film. A sense of power illuminates their transcendent performances, not just within the narrative but also for Brazil’s wider political and social realities.
An advancing capitalist loom infiltrates the narrative through various news reports, stressing how the Amazon is being sold as a commodity and destroyed. A car radio, for instance, announces upcoming dates for a ‘livestock fair in the lower Amazon’. Such comments pervade the film to create uneasiness and disconcertion in the audience. They effectively serve to demonstrate the concealed and uncontrollable pace at which the Amazon is being destroyed in the name of capitalism.
Ana’s journey to understanding her sibling’s lasting footprint becomes as much about understanding her own identity however her quest seems incomplete and she is left unsatisfied by the end of the film. This feels somewhat necessary as it echoes the overriding message of the film: the journey of grief and the search for identity are interminable. This is just as persistent is Sebastian’s undefeated protest, which powerfully reinstates the importance of preserving the Amazon Rainforest. Sebastian’s determination is an inspiration that we cannot help carrying away from the film.
Featured image source: www.mubi.com
This article is published in our Environment in Arts series, raising environmental awareness alongside UCL Climate Action Society’s Sustainability Symposium that took place on 16th November. Find more information here.