Natterer Treasure

Image: frame from the documentary "Tesouro Natterer" by Renato Barbieri/ Disclosure
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By CARMO TEDESCO & SOLANGE PEIRTO THE*

Commentary on the film directed by Renato Barbieri

The discovery of the treasure

Following “It’s All True – International Documentary Festival” has already become a tradition, and a guarantee of good times and interesting discoveries. And it was with this spirit that we went to SESC Vila Mariana, in São Paulo, to watch the film directed by Renato Barbieri, Natterer Treasure, and which ended up being the big winner of the 2024 edition. By winning the Grand Prize, it automatically becomes Brazil's pre-nominee for the 2025 Oscar for Documentaries.

The film deals with the trajectory of naturalist Johann Natterer, coming to Brazil with the expedition that was formed in 1817, by order of Emperor Francis I, of Austria. His daughter, Archduchess Leopoldina, married by proxy, that same year, with D. Pedro, prince regent of Brazil, and moved here, accompanying the expedition.

 There were many European naturalist travelers; They were financed by national and/or imperial states and had specific demands for research and sampling in the fields of zoology, botany, mineralogy and ethnography. Natterer, as a zoologist, was one of them, but he reinforced his action, directing it towards the field of ethnography. He amassed a considerable and precious collection.

Among us historians, the name Johann Natterer was strange. We knew Spix, Martius, Saint Hilaire, Koster and a few other travelers, but Natterer had somehow gone unnoticed. Even so, we approached the session with curiosity, which, throughout its exhibition, was transformed into surprise and enthusiasm for the expedition that, between 1817 and 1835, brought together 50 thousand items, from 68 indigenous peoples in Brazil. Furthermore, the way in which the narrative was structured was impressive, exploring different temporalities and narrative focuses.

At the end of the presentation, still impacted by what we had just seen, and full of questions, we had the opportunity to exchange some impressions with Renato Barbieri. This exchange continued with some questions, later, kindly answered by the director. The comments below are the result of our conversations.

The gesturetion of the project

We immediately asked how the idea for the film was born. Renato says that his first contact with Natterer, and his monumental collection, was at the exhibition that Victor Leonardi, his friend and historian, held at the University of Brasília (UnB), in 1996.

 “Victor, who in the film writes research, script and original idea, is the original fire of everything that came later. Victor's first contact with Natterer came from a book he found in a collection of rare works at UnB. The photos in this first exhibition are by Juan Pratginestos and the production was by Andrea Fenzl, who in the film did research, script, production direction and directing assistance. The project itself, to make the film, was born in 2003.”

The working partnership between Renato and Victor has lasted all these years, and has already produced more than 20 documentary works, including feature films, medium films and series. Among them, the award-winning “Atlântico Negro – na Rota dos Orixás” (1998) and “Malagrida” (2001) stand out.

In 2012, new impetus came to the Natterer project. The Vienna Ethnographic Museum, which houses the 2.309 pieces in the collection in this area of ​​ethnography, held a major exhibition. For the first time in 200 years, the pieces were exhibited in Austria, accompanied by a beautiful catalog entitled “Beyond Brazil”, with versions in German, Portuguese and English. The idea, at first, was to film this exhibition, but there was no support at the time. Even so, the project was strengthened by the photos and texts in the catalogue, and the film proposal remained alive. Thanks to ANCINE's public policies to promote Brazilian Cinema, the work “Tesouro Natterer” became a reality and was completed, after twenty-one years, in 2023.

The narrators

One of the main reasons for the enthusiasm that the film gave us was the presentation not only of the naturalist Natterer's journey, but the fact that the route was revisited at the same time by the naturalist's biographer, Kurt Schmutzer. In addition to temporal diversity, there are also different narrative focuses. That of the protagonist Natterer, through excerpts from letters written by himself; that of his biographer's gaze; and also that of the Munduruku people, through the eyes of their representative Hans Munduruku.

Renato Barbieri reports that he did not want to make a film that portrayed only the Brazil that Natterer knew 200 years ago, but also the Brazil of today in contrast to that one.

“Our desire has always been to create a “time bridge” of 200 years, without dwelling on what happened in the meantime. A “bridge” of this size is very rare and with the elements included in it we would already have enough subject matter to cover in a feature film. And, for this to actually happen, we created the challenge of having a contemporary transatlantic “trance” with the presence in the film of an Austrian in Brazil and an indigenous Brazilian in Austria. The most delicate thing about all this was defining: who these new characters in the film would be, the Austrian and the indigenous Brazilian. These choices would seal the final form of the film. This required research, back and forth. In the middle of this process we discovered Kurt Schmutzer, considered today Natterer's greatest biographer, who had completed his thesis 'For the Love of Natural History – Johann Natterer's travels in Brazil, from 1817 to 1835', around 2015.”

Barbieri also reports on another challenge of the same magnitude: choosing the indigenous ethnic group, among the 68 represented in the Natterer Collection, to be privileged. The first selection was made by ethnic groups that had a set of more expressive pieces. After a lot of research, specialized consultancies and field research, with technical visits to the Indigenous Lands of three ethnicities (Baniwa, Munduruku and Saterê-Mawê), it was decided that filming would take place on Munduruku lands, and its representative, speaking for the community, Hans Munduruku.

But it was the historical character Johann Natterer himself who tied together this trilogy of film protagonists. The main documentary basis for understanding Natterer's thoughts are the 60 letters he sent, gradually, from Brazil to Vienna. Historian Victor Leonardi, on his trip to Vienna in 1996, brought microfilm of all of them with him, but with one disturbing detail: they were all written in Gothic German, indecipherable to anyone who speaks German today.

He states: “I printed all the letters and kept looking at them as if they were an impenetrable mystery, thinking about how to access their content from a Brazil that was rarely written about 200 years ago; because the Portuguese, for reasons of commercial secrecy, were not in the habit of writing down their knowledge about Terra Brasilis or even making maps, almost everything was tete-a-tete. It was with access to Kurt’s thesis that we became aware of its content for the first time.”

In addition to these interesting choices, Barbieri adopted another narrative strategy, by mixing drawings of Brazilian landscapes, made by travelers on naturalist expeditions through Brazil, with current shots, of the same locations, in a general shot. The game between both situations, which masterfully explored light, in the latter case, is remarkable. This was another resource – imagery – found to give more density and tangibility to the much desired and found “temporal bridge”.

The complaints

Through Hans Munduruku it was also possible to explore some important themes. One of them, the complex debate, very current, about the repatriation of the collection to Brazil. Austria makes itself available for conversations, and this friendly tone is noticeable in Hans' visit to the Museum, scenes that, in fact, open the film. It cannot be forgotten, however, that at the heart of the debate is also the issue of preserving the collection. It is known that the requirements that modern museology and museography provide are effective, but not all institutions have them.

And if there are threats that loom over the natural preservation of the collection, many others are more complex: the destruction of indigenous lands, the vulnerability of their integrity, and the difficulty in preserving the cultural identity of the different communities. These were themes that were not exhausted, obviously, but were introduced for reflection by the script.

A treasure to be appreciated

The exposure of the questions above, arising from the rich dialogue we were able to have with Renato Barbiere, provides us with a framework of the adventures that were resolved by the management, in the production of the documentary. These are questions that, certainly, each person will bring with them after the exhibition, but in no way overshadow the experience of the narrative that was produced. Discovering the pieces that are preserved in two museums in Vienna, the Natural History Museum and the Weltmuseum Wien (World Museum), of exceptional beauty and creativity, fills our hearts.

Traveling with the team, retracing the route taken more than 200 years ago by Johann Natterer, experiencing ceremonies with indigenous communities that resist the process of destruction imposed on them, all of this constitutes fundamental records of the history of this country, which we have appropriated thanks to to the sensitivity and artistic quality of Renato Barbieri and his team.

*Carmo Tedesco is a historian.

*Solange Peirão, historian, is director of Solar Pesquisas de História.

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