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Law and Nature

Lista de Desejos para Superagui (Dir.: Pedro Giongo, 2024, Brazil/PA) 

by Pedro Henrique Ferreira

           In the mid-1980s, the small Paraná island of Superagüi became an environmental biosphere reserve and UNESCO heritage site. Under federal law, planting on the land was banned and, during the fish breeding season, seafood fishing, the island's main economic activity, was also banned. With no other sources of income during this time, the local population was left destitute, and the laws that would guarantee temporary subsistence aid are very difficult to access. In principle, the documentary Lista de Desejos para Superagüi seems to set out for the island with two apparent purposes: to make a sort of ethnographic compendium of the residents, their habits, routines and ways of life - fishing, meals, day-to-day life - accompanied by an adagio portrait of the coastal landscapes and natural elements (the beauty of the sea, the sun and the beach), investing in chiaroscuro and predominantly natural lighting; and furthermore, to reveal the contradictions inherent in the process of social exclusion of the fishermen through legal proceedings, calls, applications for pensions, etc., also taking the form of reenactments of their dreams, aspirations and imaginations that give the work its title.

          These two aspirations seem to be a bit of a reason why Lista de Desejos para Superagüi operates from a narrative bipartition that separates its development into two parts: the first, entitled, "Opening of Fishing" deals with the time when the subsistence activity of a large part of the island is allowed; the second, "Winter", shows a certain limbo in which the local population is placed at the time of year when fishing for fish and shrimp is not allowed. Through this, the documentary repeats the structural dynamics of the Edenic myth - Milton's Paradise and Paradise Lost - somewhat reminiscent of the same oppositional dialectic of Murnau/Flaherty's Tabu (also about an island, fishing, the law and commercialization), where first the world of full adequacy is shown and then its decadence. As in Tabu, the word is what determines the destruction of the natural world, evokes social law and establishes a series of prohibitions - paper, text, documents, contracts and money emerge as the mediators of these relations with the social world that have thrown the inhabitants of Superagüi into misery.

          It's not really a case of comparing how this and one of the greatest films in the history of cinema unfold this dialectic, which is ultimately biblical. Rather, it's a matter of noting the restorative nostalgia that runs through Lista de Desejos para Superagüi. While, on the one hand, the beauty of the images - the splendid cradle - is opposed to the violence of words and speech, the oppression of the written that rises up against the illiterate, purely visual world, of an immemorial, seductive and imposing nature, on the other hand, the 'wish list' appears as a kind of 'counter-word', the gift of a voice to that population so that they can put 'in writing' (or in images) what they want and seek for their own world, a law that is imagined, but all the more real because it comes not from outside, but from within that world itself, from the bottom up. The staging of impossible desires takes on the connotation of a longed-for future, recorded through the lens so that they exist as another kind of intangible heritage.

          While Lista de Desejos para Superagüi is a noble gesture, it also sheds light on a certain paradox that goes beyond it. The island that appears on screen is mostly made up of older people who, more often than not, adopt a nostalgic and nostalgic discourse, longing for a pre-civilization model of life associated with nature - they repeat several times that they wish things were the way they used to be. This is how the scene where the 200-real note is filmed as the leaf of a tree is justified, often accused of being too digressive when, in reality, it's about the very soul of the inhabitants. But what exactly is this return to the Edenic world? The world before the statute establishing the environmental reserve and, consequently, the ban on fishing? The pre-civilization world, in a state of nature (but this is also guaranteed precisely because it is a reserve)? The world before industrial production and mechanization? The world refractory to law and speech? Before money (and ins’t there a character who dreams of being rich?) What, after all, is paradise, desire? 

          This question isn't really answered. If Lista de Desejos para Superagüi produces a strong community ethnography and is very successful in portraying a particular visual and sound universe of the island, and if it also has the ability to give voice to the desires of a socially oppressed population, to amalgamate the whole of their wills and reveal the abyss that exists between them and the sphere of the legal world (the people and the law), it does not, on the other hand, take all the contradictions that are latent in the wills it records very far. This is because, like many other ethnographic documentaries since at least Nanook, it remains somewhat statuary rather than dialectical in the binomial that mobilizes its narrative structure (nature versus culture or nature versus law), it doesn't develop the questions it raises and is rather content to note them. Without any demerits, while this doesn't stop it from being a really interesting and quality film (just looking at that world to some extent satisfies us), it's also what doesn't make it unforgettable or anything like so many others.

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