By Benjamin Akpan
The Fever is a tense exploration of identity in the face of industrialization and a changing society. Brazilian documentarian Maya Da-Rin – in her feature debut – contrasts the simplicity and fertility of the natural world against the efficacy of the industrial world, highlighting the between stepping over into modernity and withdrawing into the jungle and its primitivism.
Justino – played by Regis Myrupu, with a mystery that’s reserved and warm – is a recent widower who works as a watchman at a cargo port. He lives a simple, modest life with his daughter Vanessa (Rosa Peixoto), a nurse, who has been given a scholarship to study medicine in Brasilia. As she begins to prepare for her departure, Justino begins to develop mysterious, sporadic fevers that cause her to reconsider her decision to accept the scholarship. Elsewhere, rumours of a dangerous animal in a nearby forest begins to suggest the idea of something supernatural taking shape.
Da-Rin delves into Indigenous cultures with effortlessness, taking a strictly realistic approach, a typical facet of documentary filmmaking. Her direction is true to life – natural lighting creates a moody dimness that further accentuates the eerie nature of the film, and the camera favors static, eye-level shots. Even the lack of music removes the form from the content, keeping you tightly caught up in Da-Rin’s story.
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But that would’ve been great if there was much of a story to tell. Despite all its tension and mild supernatural details, The Fever falls flat in its execution. Da-Rin teases a lot throughout the film’s duration, but it never really advances beyond its initial premise.
But one cannot help but admire Da-Rin’s devotion to the story. She spent six years researching the Indigenous communities that would come to form the backbone of her narrative feature debut. Her last two documentaries – 2007’s Margem, and 2009’s Terras – both explored indigeneity in Amazonia, so this is not new grounds for her. Her passion for the story shines through in every scene, and in every word uttered throughout the film. Rapid industrialization is forcing indigenous families out of their rustic lives, thrusting them into urbanity – something that they’re much unprepared for. In The Fever, Vanessa’s concerns for her father stems from his lack of adaptation to the modernity of life away from his rural home.
Da-Rin doesn’t care much for exotic portrayal of indigenous people in many other films today. She prods empathy out of the audience for the characters without a fleeting sense of pity or romanticism. She presents before us the day-to-day lives of these people, calling upon our understanding of the content to form an emotional reaction. Maybe this is because she draws her inspiration from true accounts of Indigenous people – specifically the people of Manaus, where the film would eventually be shot. Some of her personal experiences while researching the communities are even contained in the film. It is the personal angle The Fever bears that make it all the more engaging, despite its agonizing lack of plot.
This authenticity is further propelled by the deeply idiosyncratic performances of all the first-time actors featured in the film. Regis Myrupu and Rosa Peixoto are shockingly good, mixing Portuguese and the Indigenous Tukano language in delivering phlegmatic, yet vigorous performances. This suspenseful, oneiric film is one that lingers in your mind long after its end, still its biggest problem is that its thin structure gives you not enough meat to contemplate.
*Editor’s Note: The Fever screened at the Toronto International Film Festival ’19 as part of Wavelengths Programme.