In David MacDonald’s 1949 version of the “first contact” story, Christopher Columbus, a golden-haired, British-accented Columbus, lands on the empty shores of the New World. Slowly, he and his men find themselves surrounded by natives armed with spears and arrows. Columbus plants a flag and reads a piece of parchment claiming the land for Spain. The music swells, and the inhabitants of the land miraculously lay down their arms, kneel, and acquiesce to their own colonization.
While later versions of the same story offer less golden, less British, and less benevolent Columbuses, they support the basic ideology of the story, often denying point-of-view shots and other means of cinematic subjectivity to Native American characters. The brilliance of Nelson Pereira dos Santos’s How Tasty Was My Little Frenchman is not only that it recasts “discovery” as colonization and questions the very strategies with which history is written, but also that it explores the role of contemporary film within this power nexus.
How Tasty Was My Little Frenchman opens with a voice-over reading of a standard historical document, a letter from the French Admiral overseeing the colony of French Huguenots in Guanabara Bay to John Calvin describing the European “settlement” of Brazil. The voice-over descriptions of barren, desert land, barbarous, godless savages and Portuguese rivals who hate the French are accompanied on the soundtrack by the type of baroque music associated with French newsreels of the ‘60s and juxtaposed with contradicting images: lush vegetation, indigenous people offering food and drink to the Europeans, Portuguese sailors kneeling and praying (Robert Stam, Tropical Multiculturalism: A Comparative History of Race in Brazilian Cinema and Culture, Duke University Press, 1997).
The ideas introduced in this sequence – that history is narrated through a particular point of view, that the adoption of one history as official Truth entails marginalizing others, that representations of the past have a living relationship to contemporary documentary media – are carried throughout, as the film incorporates 16th century images of cannibalism in the Americas and quotations from various historical figures about the conquest of Brazil. The story itself, as Richard Peña explains in the DVD’s extras, is a cinema verité style adaptation of a 16th century diary, Hans Staden: The True History and Description of a Country of Savages, a Naked and Terrible People, Eaters of Men’s Flesh, Who Dwell in the New World Called America. Supposedly an account of Staden’s own experience of being captured by indigenous Brazilians, the diary offered some of the earliest descriptions of cannibalism, the tone of which seems pretty clear from the book’s title.
Like Staden, dos Santos offers his audience a captivity narrative, but as the film’s title suggests, one told from a different perspective and without the usual comforts of heroic rescue, individualistic escape or peaceful assimilation (there is assimilation, it’s just of a different kind). At the end of the film’s prologue, we see the Frenchman of the title chained and pushed into the sea. He somehow survives, finds his way back to shore and is captured with a group of Portuguese men by the Tupinambá, who have an alliance with the French. Although the Tupinambá try to differentiate between the French and the Portuguese by having them speak, they ultimately mistake the Frenchman for Portuguese and take him captive.
To verify his Portuguese identity, they present the Frenchman to a French trader, who places economic interest over the bonds of national solidarity and affirms the Portugueseness of the Frenchman. The trader explains to the Frenchman that he will live among the Tupinambá for eight months, be given a wife (Sebiopepe, whose husband was killed by the Portuguese), and then be ritualistically killed and eaten. In the meantime, the trader continues, he can gather Brazil wood and pepper for the trader, who will arrange for his return to France with a large sum of money.
Much of the story is set in the Tupinambá village, where Sebiopepe teaches the Frenchman her language and culture. Although he shaves his hair and beard to resemble the Tupinambá, and integrates himself into the village’s daily life, he also organizes an escape plan. However, the film itself remains indifferent to this plan and ambivalent about his captivity. It is more concerned with the Tupinambá: their unequal economic relationship with the trader, their everyday life, their interest in acquiring gunpowder and their on-going battles with the Tupiniquin.
Dos Santos’s film privileges the perspective of the Tupinambá characters and works vigorously against the conditioning of audiences to identify with title characters (although, as Robert Stam points out, when the film was released, audiences still identified with the Frenchman). The film’s title character has no name, and he is often shot alone in the frame, in contrast with the communal shots of Tupinambá characters. With dialogue in Tupi-Guarani, French and Portuguese, the film, as Stam has noted, distances even a Brazilian audience with the need for subtitles (Stam).
This linguistic distance is picked up visually through a preference for long shots over close-ups, a shooting style that benefits immensely from the newly restored DVD transfer. Viewers who remember the film from scratched and aging prints or fading video tapes will be pleasantly surprised by the presence of vivid color and may find themselves noticing aspects of dos Santos’s beautifully composed shots for the first time.
Included in the DVD extras are two discussions: one with Columbia University Film Studies professor and (among other things) program director of the Film Society of Lincoln Center, Richard Peña, and one with Aílton, a member of the Krenak tribe. Peña addresses the documentary shooting style, gives a significant amount of historical / political background and explains different ways in which How Tasty Was My Little Frenchman functions as historical allegory. Aílton’s discussion raises important points about the contemporary existence of native people in Brazil and the rest of the Americas, their relationship to different histories, and the usefulness of global media for survival. Both discussions are engaging and excellent additions to an already outstanding film.