‘Damiana Kryygi’: Film Review

Courtesy of Oceano Films
Compelling, delicate and discreet

A documentary which bears powerful witness to the symbolic righting of a historical wrong done to a young Paraguayan woman

In 1896, settlers in southern Paraguay entered a community of Ache people and killed a family as revenge for the stealing of a horse. When they left, they took the daughter with them, and it is the life of that young girl, and its shameful aftermath, which is the subject of Alejandro Fernandez Moujan’s remarkable documentary, Damiana Kryygi. This story of one very specific historical wrong is also about the wrong done to a culture, and hence to all indigenous cultures, which makes the film a compelling if wrenching film of value and significance: a minor-key supplementary piece to say Sebastian Salgado’s The Salt of the Earth. It seems ideally suited for educational purposes and for ecologically-friendly festivals.

The script, discreetly voiced over by the director, basically moves between two stories: that of Damiana herself, which is touching, miserable, and even guilt-inducing, and that of the recent project to give her remains a decent burial, which is touching and, against the odds, affirmative.

Having been taken alive, Damiana was raised by her parents’ killers until puberty, when she became sexually active -- excessively so, to her family, who duly declared her mad and handed her over to an Argentinian asylum. Here she was photographed naked for one of the two ghostly, evocative pictures of her which exist and where she died of undiagnosed meningitis at the age of 14.

Damiana’s body was broken up, her body staying in Argentina while her skull was sent for study in Germany: the film is not only about the evils of the destruction of the Ache, but also an attack on the science of anthropology. In seeking to demonstrate that Ache were a link with the Stone Age, Damiana after death was further dehumanized as anthropologists dissected her like, as one speaker says, "a little frog".

But the film’s second strand records the attempts of various organizations to bring together her body parts so that she can finally rest in peace with her tribe, only 2000 of whose members still remaining.

The potent symbolic significance of Damiana’s “return” to her tribe after 114 years can scarcely be imagined by anyone from a culture which has not been systematically attacked, killed and reduced by successive waves of politicians, as the Ache has, particularly during the 50s and 60s. The funeral scenes have a rare emotional charge, heightened by Fernandez Moujan’s careful work in bringing the little we know of Damiana to life.

Meanwhile, Fernandez Moujan frames the bigger picture too. He attacks the mechanized farming techniques which have destroyed much of the Ache’s habitat, as well as recording Ache song, ritual and personal testimony: one Ache man was raised by a wealthy US family but chose in the end to return to his tribe, another speaks of being attacked with a settler’s gun, a third explains how her own mother was removed from her in exchange for a pair of cows.

One academic, whilst explaining that the Ache were regarded not as people but as a part of the jungle, turns to an Ache bystander and quietly apologizes for his observation. It’s a moment which is representative of Fernandez Moujan’s film as a whole: his treatment of these horrors is low-key and respectful, never over-emphatic or sensationalist, and crucially careful not to portray the Ache as simply victims: the the cold facts as given are sufficiently condemnatory. Striking poetic landscape imagery is used, while the community scenes are powerfully intimate, but the visuals are never merely look-at-me hollow, feeling more like an evocative reminder of sacrificed beauty.

At one point we are reminded that thousands of people like Damiana remain in boxes in the museums of the world, still awaiting proper burial.

Production company: Oceano Films, Gema Films
Director, screenwriter: Alejandro Fernandez Moujan
Producer: Alejandro Fernandez Moujan
Executive producer: Gema Juarez Allen
Director of photography: Diego Mendizabal
Production designer:
Editors: Valeria Racioppi, Alejandra Almiron
Composer: Sami Buccella
Casting director:
Sales: Oceano Films
No rating, 92 minutes

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