Finitzo’s big challenge: The meaning of civilization

Maria Finitzo and crew in Bolivian jungle

Maria Finitzo makes films that wrestle with complex social issues, like Terra Incognita, about how stem cells are mapped, and In The Game, how Title IX rules affect women and sports.

But in her new, film Encounters with the Other, with Kartemquin Films, she’s upping the ante perhaps even higher by taking on the story of the what happens to a culture of indigenous peoples when they encounter the modern world.

Finitzo was approached by anthropologist Bill Leonard, chair of Northwestern’s School of Anthropology, to tell the story of the Tsimane, a people who live in Bolivia on the Amazon River.  They are a linguistically and culturally unique population of less than 5,000.

Leonard had been following the Tsimane for a decade and watched what was happening as some of the Tsimane began to trade with the Bolivian economy.

At the same time, some of the group who lived farthest away from a city were untouched, making them a perfect anthropological subject. 

The anthropologists knew that the time was now to begin to document the Tsimane to understand their culture and how this group makes their way in the world.  

History has shown that encounters with the Other, Western society, often leave indigenous peoples exploited, forced to subsist below the poverty level, suffering from poor health and well-being, and living in the midst of environmental degradation. 

A grueling trip to reach the Tsimane

Maria Finitzo

But to turn it from an anthropological study into a movie, Finitzo needed to go down with cameras and find the characters we can watch as this change happens. She identified key families, to explore the effects entering Bolivia’s market economy will have on Tsimane culture.”

Finitzo chose cameraman Jason Longo of Boston, sound recordist Rich Pooler, and editor/media manager Liz Kaar, all of whom shot and edited Milking the Rhino, for Kartemquin, which was made in Africa.

To get to the Tsimane peoples, Finitzo and her crew sat in a canoe without seats and paddled a grueling eight hours into the lowlands. “It’s the wild west. Spiders as big as my hand. No running water. No electricity. Almost no contact with the outside world,” she says. 

“With my red hair and pants and pale skin, they thought I was hysterical.”

Turns out the Tsimane were observing them as much as they were observing the Tismane.

“Like arriving on the moon”

The Amazon is home to up to 500 million indigenous peoples making up 350 nations, most with their own language and culture.  “Usually I connect with my subjects but they speak their own dialect and a little Spanish. It’s like arriving on the Moon,” Finitzo says.

“The Tsimane are extremely poor, but they’re relatively happy people, they feel that one should live well, not better, and that’s the opposite of Western society,” Finitzo comments.

A return necessary to complete the film

It wasn’t till Finitzo got home to read the transcribed recordings that she even knew that they could possibly produce a film. Finitzo did her initial filming with a development grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, so she will need to return a few more times.

“When I got home I thought I’d never go back again,” she says.  But that thought has passed and Finitzo is ready to return to complete the film.

Carey Lundin is the owner of Viva Lundin Productions, producers of documentaries, webisodes and commercials.