How do we draw the connections between queer identity, Indigenous identity, bodily/cultural autonomy, and the natural world? These intersections lie at the heart of Uýra: The Rising Forest: a documentary film inspired by the work of Uýra, an Indigenous activist and performer whose work encompasses and blurs the contours of art, education, and activism. Formerly a biologist and art educator known as Emerson, they transformed into Uýra during a period of political turmoil in Brazil in 2016. Returning to their Indigenous roots, they now practice environmental education through artistic and drag performance in Indigenous communities in the Amazon.
When director Juliana Curi encountered Uýra’s work, she immediately felt the urge to bring it to a wider audience. Gripped by Uýra’s work and the web of interconnectedness it revealed, she sought to bring that story to film. A sense of urgency underpinned the project from the start. In just one 15-minute conversation in 2019 Curi and Uýra agreed to work together. Given the rapid pace of political change and the accelerating destruction of the Amazon, they felt the situation was too urgent to wait for grant applications: two months after that initial meeting they were in Manaus (riverside capital of the state of Amazonas) filming. Looking back on events, Curi is relieved they didn’t hesitate. No sooner had they emerged from filming in the Amazon than they learned about the rapid-fire spread of the Covid pandemic. Had they waited, the film might never have been made.
Uýra/Emerson had previously worked as an academic in the field of conservation for six years, grappling with the limits of ivory tower scholarship. Science isn’t bad, they’re quick to emphasize. “Especially in this pandemic moment – science is literally saving our lives,” they point out. “But it has limitations. One of [the limitations] is its rational way of understanding.”
Concentrating exclusively on the rational and not trying to understand things with the heart means something important is omitted from public debate and dialogue, Uýra says. Uýra’s art practice strives to achieve a balance between the rational understandings of science and the Indigenous, queer ability to understand “life through the heart.” For Uýra, queer and Indigenous struggles resonate. Indigenous efforts to preserve the natural world intersect with queer efforts for many reasons, not least because central to both is the preservation and celebration of diversity.
“Indigenous life is previous to gender,” Uýra explains, their reflections translated to English by producer Joao Henrique Kurtz. “It’s previous to sexuality. Before colonization…everything was queer. [Queerness] inhabited different forms, in different peoples. The violence that was used, and is still used, against Indigenous peoples, and the violence that was taught through colonial rituals – it was not born with us. Yet it is present today, affecting our lives, interrupting life stories, interrupting many people.”
“It’s important to remember that the entire territory here in the United States was, and is, queer. When we think about Indigenous struggles, the forest is decisive. The maintenance of life and the maintenance of diversity in the forest is decisive. And trans [people], gays and lesbians, bisexuals, the entire community – we are trees in this forest.”
Earlier this year, data compiled by Transgender Europe (which collects information from queer researchers around the globe) revealed that Brazil had the most trans and queer murders reported anywhere in the world last year, a tragic record it now holds for the 13th consecutive year. Even though transphobia is legally considered a hate crime in that country, at least 125 trans and gender diverse people were reported murdered in 2021; 175 the year previous.
It would be all too easy to despair in the face of such data. Yet The Rising Forest concentrates not on the sadness, but rather on the joys of queer life. The eager engagement and process of shared learning with Amazonian villagers is juxtaposed with heartening scenes of queer joy in the region’s urban centres: queer friends dressing up in drag and glitter; claiming presence on streets and squares; sharing rhythms in sweaty, night-time dance parties.
“We wish desperately for life,” says Uýra. “We wish desperately for life because we still live in a limited, backward world, and everywhere around us, we see statistics that do not make things better. Marking our beauty, and our power, is like a prayer, in the hopes that tomorrow people will…collectively be able to turn a new page.” Queer people are often portrayed through the gaze of others, Uýra says, “not the way we are. But we are everywhere now, and showing our smiles is a way of showing who we are.”
The Rising Forest
The Rising Forest is a visual feast. Even the decay of garbage-filled waterways offers a colourful panoply of horror from which it is impossible to turn away, repellent and seductive at the same time.
Long scenes of Uýra and their performances punctuate the film: Uýra decorated as a plant. Uýra dancing in a ruined, abandoned churchyard, the rubble of industrial arrogance in the background. Uýra emerging in masked, painted, and feathered splendor from a cave; from a thatched hut; from a dark jungle clearing. Uýra’s presence is striking, eerie, and beautiful; and yet they blend naturally into the environment in which they move.
Uýra talks with village children about the jungle in which they live, an exchange of knowledge that easily morphs into face-painting and what might in another context be called drag. These artistic forms are technologies of survival, Uýra explains in the film – for queer and Indigenous communities alike.
“We have always been here,” Uýra explains, a sweeping observation that encompasses both communities. They explain that painting, costuming, and dressing up is one of the most ancient practices of healing and resistance, common to cultures around the globe. The identities we express through our adornment and self-presentation may assume different meanings in different times and places. What we seek to express through art, face painting, or costuming changes over time; meanings are organic and specific to place, time, and struggle. Whether it’s for war, resistance, or healing, choosing who and what to present yourself as is central to one’s identity, both given and chosen. It reflects a process of self-curating one’s identity. There is power in that.
“Groups that are persecuted and denied their earth-given diversity are like plants growing and living in violent and abandoned land, living off the strength of memory,” Uýra explains in the film. Whether as individuals or as groups, this process of growing and living amidst the violence “creates fertile soil for others to come and occupy.”
There is both beauty and horror here but hope too, in spite of the violence directed against queer and Indigenous peoples. “What we’re experiencing now is not a natural process,” says Uýra, referring to the violence directed against both queer and Indigenous communities. “It’s another phase of a war that has to end. It’s another phase of the change that’s needed.”
Inventing Histories and Identities
Reality is constantly being invented and reinvented, Uýra observes. This understanding is central to the work of change: understanding how our sense of ourselves and our identities, of what is normal, of what is permissible, is all the result of a long process of invention that has simply been naturalized as ‘reality’. The very idea of Brazil (like that of the US) demonstrates this process.
“We have three different Brazils. One, a Brazil where the story is that it was discovered. Another Brazil, where the story is that it was invaded. And then a Brazil as it really is – which is an invention. An invention created based on many different [forms of] violence. This violence was so profound in the construction and maintenance of the country’s history, that it’s now considered natural. But it is an invention.
“As LGBT and Indigenous people, we are all part of a real nature – ancestral nature – with its own forms of expression. We did not invent ourselves. But there is this great invention – it’s what is completely wrong with the world – the idea that we are wrong as LGBT people. We are taught to internalize this lack of value.
“But the way to educate ourselves and the world when we are taught something wrong is to teach each other [the truth]. To teach each other, and reinvent ourselves. This happens through a process of continuous encounters – of LGBT people from different places in the world, different races, and different cultures, being able to get together and learn from each other. What’s happening right now is exactly that. We can see ourselves, we can hear each other, and so we can speak and learn and reinvent ourselves.”
This is the idea explored through Uýra’s work and documented in The Rising Forest. It’s an ongoing methodology, explains Curi. She says the team behind the film is committed to ensuring The Rising Forest doesn’t just pursue the traditional track for documentaries, but that it continues its engagement with the communities represented in the film. “Often we see documentary films going through the traditional process – festivals, theatres, streaming – and they never return to the original community. In order to avoid this extractivist type of production, we designed an educational exhibit and program that will travel to important places in the Amazon, democratizing the film’s offerings there,” she says.
Uýra hopes the film – which recently won the Audience Award for Best Documentary at the Frameline San Francisco International LGBTQ+ Film Festival – will reach broader audiences around the world too so that they will realize their own interconnections with the efforts depicted in the film. “[I hope] it reaches the highest diversity of people possible so that a lot of people – our people, LGBT people, Indigenous people, people from the outskirts, youth around the world, different territorial causes and different fights around the world – will feel themselves a part of this huge forest that is the world. My great desire is that this forest takes over again the territory and the imagery of the world, that we can grow and spread ourselves and be fruitful – stronger than the tractors that want to destroy us.”
We are beautiful as hell and we have a lot of power!”
Uýra: The Rising Forest won the Audience Award for Best Documentary at Frameline Film Festival in June 2022, and will be heading to Outfest next for its Los Angeles premiere on Saturday, 23 July at the DGA Theater 2. The film is also available to stream online during the festival.