This is an article I was asked to contribute to Script Magazine online, (first published June 2, 2009) about my adventure writing & directing a feature film that has been billed as “Gangs of New York” meets “City of God” in the jungle. It’s about writers instinct and navigating an epic story that spans almost 50 years, transliterating a culture, way of communication and the way of life of a pre-stone age tribal people that exist today to a modern audience.
My mission: Take the story of an Amazonas jungle tribe leader who has reached the pinnacle of Shamanism. His language doesn’t derive from any of the other world languages. His people don’t speak each other’s names because of spiritual taboos. They ambush their enemies without mercy. They drink the crushed bones of their dead in a banana concoction, and when their family members become weak, their spirits demand they leave the weak to die. Make a western audience understand, relate, and feel for this man’s plight. This was my mission in writing the feature film “Yai Wanonabälewä: The Enemy God.”
My first task was to meet this remote jungle tribe, spend time with them to observe and soak in their culture. In my research I studied their gestures and the rhythm of their speech. Understanding this became paramount. The majority of how we communicate is non-verbal, but we take many of our western cultural gestures for granted.
I took time to review anthropology students’ studies of the Yanomamö. I read books and watched documentaries, but in every instance there seemed to be a wall separating me from the tribe. It was not until I began conversations and interviews, slept and ate with them, and became friends with a few, that I could see beyond the imaginary mask that separated us. On my journey I encountered tribes deep in the jungle that had not interacted with outsiders. Things that I would not have imagined became part of the screenplay. When we walked into one village we were warmly greeted but curiosity got the better of the men and children. They lifted our shirts. In amazement, they stroked the hair on our chest and arms. This ended up in the scene where the missionaries first moved into the region.
As writers we are like conductors of a human symphony, suggesting movement, words and gestures. Some of the responses come from experience and others from instinct. In another scene, an adversarial tribe visits the newly arrived missionaries. Once the friendly tribe arrives home from their jungle foraging, a violent battle breaks out. From the historical event, I knew the basic structure of what took place but not some of the human responses that triggered the events. In the scene: a missionary woman places her children in a safe room as the injured are brought in their hut. I wrote that a little boy peeks through the slats of the room as his mother attends to the wounded tribe. On set, the film advisors consisted of Yanomamö tribesmen we brought up from the jungle and the son of the missionaries in that event. When I was shooting the scene, the son said, “That’s me … I peeked through the slats.” I had no idea that he had done that but based on instinct and knowledge that we are a curious species, I was right. I just smiled.
“Yai Wanonabälewä: The Enemy God” is not a common Yanomamö story. It is the story of one man, his tribe, and their struggle to survive. It is about the shifting of a people, the shifting of a culture and in that, maybe it is a challenge for the audience to look at things a little differently than they had before.
The Enemy God was originally scheduled to be filmed in the Amazonas jungle and multiple villages were created specifically for the movie however with the deteriorating political relationship at the time between Venezuela and America, the movie shoot was re-located to the jungles of Belize, Central America and the villages were reconstructed there. The movie was shot over 47 days.