Director Marcos Colón Takes an Intimate Look at Three Indigenous Leaders’ Fight to Preserve Their Ancestral Connection to Nature in the Amazon

His documentary, Stepping Softly on the Earth, which tells their stories as “a way to postpone the end of the world,” debuts in the U.S. next week.

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José Pepe Manuyama, who is featured in the documentary film "Stepping Softly on the Earth," stands before a graveyard in the Peruvian Amazon. Photo courtesy of Marcos Colón.
José Pepe Manuyama, who is featured in the documentary film "Stepping Softly on the Earth," stands before a graveyard in the Peruvian Amazon. Photo courtesy of Marcos Colón.

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Set in Colombia, Peru and Brazil’s Amazon basin, “Stepping Softly on the Earth” is a documentary that follows three Indigenous leaders fighting to preserve ancestral ways of life that depend upon a deep connection to the Earth. 

The film’s opening minutes unfurl in a long moving shot down a riverine entrance to the verdant Javari reserve in Brazil’s Atalaia do Norte. The footage is narrated by Ailton Krenak, an influential philosopher, writer and Indigenous leader in Brazil who frames the issue at hand for the viewer: humans are feasting on the Earth, and “a time will come when there’s no more cake.”

Krenak alludes to a solution—there are clusters of humans who for thousands of years have existed outside the societies where the modern system of mass consumption developed. Perhaps they have something to offer a world in ecological distress. The film is told from their point of view, punctuated by Krenak’s deeply insightful commentary. 

The documentary, now making its way around the film festival circuit, revolves around three Indigenous leaders:​​ Kátia Silene, chief of the Akrãtikatêjê people living outside Marabá, Brazil; Manoel Munduruku, chief of the Munduruku people in western Pará, Brazil; and José Pepe Manuyama, a Kukama from the Peruvian Amazon. Cycling through a day of intimate moments in their lives, the film is entirely composed of their voices, and Krenak’s.  

The three leaders tell stories of resistance and survival, such as Silene’s harrowing account of her family’s forced displacement from their ancestral land to make way for construction of the Tucuruí Hydroelectric dam. 

Despite an onslaught of soy plantations, cattle ranches, mines, logging, railroads and other forms of development, the three leaders have remained tethered to an existence in harmony with nature. 

It is in the routine moments of their everyday lives, like washing dishes or sharing coffee with a spouse, that filmmaker Marcos Colón, an American of Puerto Rican and Brazilian ancestry, invites viewers to see the world from the perspective of Kátia, Manoel and Pepe. 

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Visually, the film moves between diametrically opposed images: on one hand, panoramic shots of the rainforest’s dazzling, diverse beauty, both human and nonhuman, and on the other,  sweeping aerial shots of vast, nature-altering hydroelectric dams and industrial soybean plantations. The film asks viewers to contemplate the morality of that development, which is largely unseen by the people who benefit from it. Another question Colón explores throughout the film is whether a future of continued exploitation of nature is inevitable, or whether, as Krenak suggests, the future is ancestral—meaning humanity can move forward by hewing to the wisdom of its ancestors.

“Stepping Softly on the Earth” is Colón’s second documentary. He released “Beyond Fordlândia” in 2017, about Henry Ford’s attempt to establish industrial rubber plantations deep in the Amazon rainforest in the first half of the 20th century. Colón is also a professor in the public health program at Florida State University and the founder and editor-in-chief of the digital magazine Amazônia Latitude.

José Pepe Manuyama, a Kukama person from the Peruvian Amazon, is featured in the film "Stepping Softly on the Earth." Manuyama has been fighting the contamination of the Nanay River by mining and oil industries. Photo courtesy of Marcos Colón.
José Pepe Manuyama, a Kukama person from the Peruvian Amazon, is featured in the film “Stepping Softly on the Earth.” Manuyama has been fighting the contamination of the Nanay River by mining and oil industries. Photo courtesy of Marcos Colón.

I spoke with Colón about “Stepping Softly on the Earth” and his work more broadly. Our exchange has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

What made you decide to make this film and how did it come together?

The process took over two years because we were delayed by the Covid pandemic. I had originally set out to do a film about the killings of dolphins in the Amazon and was shooting in the same region where, months later, my dear friends and colleagues British Journalist Dom Phillips and Indigenous expert Bruno Pereira were killed. The opening scene of the film is on the river where they were last seen alive. 

In the field, I realized the dangers and violence that people in the Amazon were facing from extractive and criminal forces. Then the pandemic happened. There were a lot of Covid deaths in the Amazon. All businesses shut down but the miners and prospectors still continued nonstop. I decided to change course and brought together the stories of Pepe, Katia and Manoel, and finally, Kreank who acts as a link throughout the whole narrative. 

What was the main goal or goals of the film? 

My goal was to give a platform to the voices of Katia, Manoel and Pepe and to bring their communities to the forefront of the discussion on topics important to them. That is why I don’t use any voice overs in the documentary. I tried to bring in poetic visual components and show that there are other possibilities and ways of looking at the world. 

There is a saying in the Amazon that there are places where a scream is a whisper, and places where a whisper is a scream. What we try to say with this film is that we need to turn the voices of these people into screams to cry out to the whole world. 

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We want to make people aware that there are many “points of life” in the world as Emanuele Coccia beautifully put in The Life of Plants. I purposefully use that phrase instead of saying “points of view.” As he said: “All cosmic knowledge is nothing but a point of life (and not just a point of view), all truth is nothing but the world in the mediated space of the living.”

The phrase points of life centers Indigenous perspectives. For example, a river is a point of life—it provides food, it is a connection to our ancestors, it is a life system. Everything is connected to the river. Points of life will produce points of view. 

What happens when we kill those points of life with pollution and extraction? We kill Katia’s and Pepe’s and Manoel’s ways of living. We are killing inner worlds and ways people live on the planet. The subjects of the film are part of a living system that is the Earth. Telling their stories is a way to postpone the end of the world, as Krenak says. 

At the end of the film, Ailton Krenak says “the future is ancestral.” Some people may have trouble understanding what that means. Can you unpack that?

To understand the Amazon and its people requires an understanding that most people in the world have biocultural amnesia—they’ve forgotten the past and human’s connection to the Earth. For people to get out of that state of amnesia, they have to reconnect with their ancestry, to reconnect with life. 

One way of doing that is to embrace Indigenous thinking and their ancestral knowledge. By doing that, people can recalibrate their way of seeing, thinking and feeling. This is what José Quintero Weir called Amazonian “sentir-pensar indígena,” or Indigenous feeling and thinking where people don’t see things with their minds, but with their hearts. 

Children play in a river in the Amazon basin on June 24, 2021. Photo courtesy of Marcos Colón.
Children play in a river in the Amazon basin on June 24, 2021. Photo courtesy of Marcos Colón.

The Amazon region has been inhabited for 19,000 years in the Chiribiquete Cultural Formation, which is part of the Colombian Amazon. For 11,200 years in Monte Alegre, in Pará, Brazil. For 8,500 years in the Serra dos Carajás, also in Pará. The forest is about 13,000 years old and the region has been occupied for 19,000 years, so one of the theses we defend is that the ecological and biocultural diversity of the Amazon, so fundamental to life on the planet, is the result of millennia of feeling-thinking with the forest of the Amazonian peoples.

The stories of Katia, Pepe and Manoel help to resist the world’s biocultural amnesia. They are all fighting for life, not only theirs, but also the life of the forest and the planet. A big part of that resistance is in expressions of joy and the film tried to bring that to the surface. For Indigenous people, the future is in the river, it is in their fathers, the shamans, the culture, the food. The future isn’t moving into modernity but recouping the narrative that has been forgotten, the traditions that have been forgotten. That is why the future is ancestral—in Brazil we have more than 305 ethnic groups speaking more than 270 languages, and all living with their own cultures and histories and cosmologies. 

What other lessons do you want viewers to take away from the film? 

Everything in life is a choice. The film lays out different possibilities for humanity. We can choose to eat the Earth, to destroy mountains so we can get minerals. Or we can choose life. This is our choice and we decide between choosing life and choosing death. 

Indigenous peoples’ fight for life has gone on for 500 years. People are starting to realize that their fight isn’t only for themselves, they’re saving all of us by protecting the Earth. 

I also want people to learn about Indigenous thinking. There are records of Indigenous peoples living in Brazil for 19,000 years. No one lives there that long without developing knowledge. Why don’t we pay attention to that? One small example, people enjoy acai flavored ice cream, but the only reason why they can enjoy that flavor is because Indigenous people discovered that the acai fruit was edible and nutritious. No one gives them credit for discovering thousands of edible and medicinal plants. We only see Indigenous people the way we want to see them. We don’t see them as an asset that can provide us knowledge, perception and understanding that can make us better humans. 

The last thing about the film—it challenges the current model of thinking, which is representative of death. There is no way to teach capitalism to be nice. The way capitalists function is they want to get more and more and will never be satisfied. 

In the film, we try to present an alternative model, a proposal for life. This is important for humans and nonhumans. I talk to my students about the concept of one health. If the land is sick, the people are sick. People can’t be healthy if the land and rivers are not healthy. We see this happening now with the Yanomami peoples. Their forest is sick and they are sick. 

There is a cognitive dissonance in our society right now. We refuse to see how climate change and environmental destruction affect humans and non-humans. The film shows what people refuse to see and it is an invitation for people everywhere to step softly on the Earth.

The Film’s US Debut 

“Stepping Softly on the Earth” premiered at the São Paulo International Film Festival on Oct. 29, 2022. It won the prize for Best Cinematography at the 12th Filmeambiente (Environmental Film Festival) in Rio de Janeiro. It will be making its U.S. debut at Florida State University’s Student Life Cinema on Monday, and is slated to play at the 2023 Princeton Environmental Film Festival in March, the FIA Cinefront Amazonia!!! in Brazil, and the Ecozine Film Festival in Spain in April. 

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