By Robert St. Martin
Los Angeles, CA (The Hollywood Times) 8/23/23 – From Brazil comes a fascinating documentary film by Juliana Curi, Ûyra – The Rising Forest (2022), debuts Monday, September 23, 2023, on PBS Television Nationwide and free streaming on PBS.org and the PBS app until December 24, 2023.
In this poetic and visually hypnotic odyssey through the Amazon rainforest, Indigenous artist Uýra harnesses the interconnecting power of their native, queer, and trans identities to blaze a trail of ecological activism and LGBTQ+ pride across big cities and small villages alike near Manaus, Brazil. Crafting garments of eye-popping color and objects found along the way into stunning transformational performances, their reveries dazzle against the decay of environmental racism and transphobia to educate local audiences and remind them of the transformative powers of art and advocacy. Uýra reclaims the natural splendor and ancestral spirit of the land by brilliantly connecting themselves and their work as a prayer to the earth, proving that creative expression and collective action can renew the ground on which they walk. This 72-minute-long experimental work is a piece of bold and expressive cinema that tells a story of both erasure and hope.
The film opens with a haunting yet beautiful ariel shot of a burnt-out forest in Brazil. Then, in voice-over comes a lyrical commentary about our relationship with nature as the camera pans down into a cave where a performance artist mimes a form of plant life looking to survive. The performance artist is named Uýra, a non-binary trans-person and the subject of the film. They travel throughout Brazil and use their art to preach the message of environmental protection while bringing awareness to the country’s indigenous community and LGBTQIA+ rights. So yeah, a lot is going on here, and the strength of Uýra – The Rising Forest is how director Curi keeps the subject matter from running out of control.
Uýra Sodoma is the alter-ego of Emerson Pontes, a non-binary performance artist and ecologist of indigenous origin living in Manaus, Brazil. Marginalized as an Indigenous, queer, and trans person, Uýra travels through the Amazon on a journey of self-discovery using performance art and exquisite transformations – often created from materials found in the nearby forest – to spread their message of environmental protection and promote LGTBQ+ rights.
As Uýra’s story begins, we see them preparing for a performance piece as Uýra explains its importance. In 1980, the town of Manaus in the state of Pará had a river running through its center, providing the community with an abundance of fresh water. However, elected officials gradually started encouraging their citizens and businesses to dump garbage into it. The results are obviously an ugly river with unhealthy drinking water and more trash than the community can handle. On this day, Uýra conducts a performance piece dressed as a river creature dying in the middle of the debris to the crowds above them.
Uýra’s journey then takes them into the lush forests of Pará, where they mingle with the indigenous people who live in small villages along the Amazon. They highlight the tension the people have to live their simple lives free from the commercialized city and the growing encroachment of the world. Now add on top of that the even more marginalized LGBTQIA+ community. Uýra gathers a group of LGBT members as together they blend their culture, identity, and environmental concerns into a single performance that has the appearance of an indigenous drag show.
The documentary is a patchwork of a number of Uýra’s travels, workshops, and performances. We watch as performances are put on to draw attention to the racism and corruption that has destroyed communities’ natural resources and listen as groups discuss the intersection of their being trans and Indigenous. The scenes are made in three parts: interviews, which peak into the minds of Uýra and the other artists and youth; process footage, demonstrating how the art comes together from foraging in the forest to intimate sessions of applying paint; and performance, where short bursts of performance art or single images are strewn together to give the gist of what the final artistic outcome looks like.
Seemingly light years from the Hollywood commercialism of drag since RuPaul created a media empire for himself with his television show Drag Race, Ûyra – The Rising Forest takes us back to an imagined past with Amazonian indigenous people valued their two-spirit tribal members as seers and protectors of the land. The mother goddess of the forest was the force of life and renewal. Indigenous people of the Americas, much like African tribal people, use paint as a representation of connection to nature and an expression of celebration mixed with dance and song. So too Uýra uses paint and natural materials from the forest for dance in his transformational performances.
In Brazil, a country that kills the highest number of trans, indigenous, and environmentalist youth worldwide, Uýra leads a rising movement through arts and education while fostering unity and providing inspiration for the LGBTQIA+ and environmental movements. In the Amazon, Uýra visits Indigenous villages to share ancestral knowledge with the youth and bring awareness to the importance of identity and place, at a time when both are under attack from Brazil’s repressive political regime.
Through dance, poetry, and visually stunning costumes and makeup, Uýra boldly confronts historical racism, transphobia, and environmental destruction. Their search for their own identity and their struggle to bring awareness to the interconnected relationship between humans and the environment – not to mention the direct link from structural racism to trans- and homophobia – lie at the heart of this poetic and eye-popping film.
The dancing performances of Uýra are hauntingly beautiful and Uÿra’s quest a hero’s journey with mythic power. The film had the potential of being a much stronger film with better editing. I am not entirely sure why at the end the credits roll hypnotically for almost 15 minutes against a backdrop of Amazonian plants – green against the red light that bathes them. It seems that the filmmaker wants to give credit to everybody who supported this cinematic endeavor and give visibility to the people who live in and around Manaus today. I think the stills from this film would make an impressive book to help promote Uýra’s vision of saving the Amazon and protecting its once clean waters.
Ûyra – The Rising Forest premiered at the 2022 Frameline Film Festival in San Francisco – where it won the Audience Award for Best Documentary. Ûyra – The Rising Forest is directed by Juliana Curi, and written by Curi and Martina Sönksen. Produced by João Henrique Kurtz, Juliana Curi, Lívia Cheibub, Martina Sönksen, and Uýra Sodoma. Edited by Lívia Cheibub, Lucas Camargo De Barros, and Renan Cipriano. Cinematography by Thiago Moraes. Music by Nascuy Linares, featuring Josyara and Zahy Guajajara. A Story by Uýra Sodoma. A Production of Azores Filmes (Brazil) and Mama Wolf (USA).