The Song of the Butterflies (El canto de las mariposas)

The art of Rember Yahuarcani recalls the legends of the Amazon.

(2020) Documentary (PBS) Rember Yahuarcani, Martha Lopez, Nereida Lopez, Santiago Yahuarcani. Directed by Nuria Frigola Torrent


The Amazon is a great, mysterious place. A significant portion of the indigenous people there – about 10% – have never had any contact with so-called “civilized” cultures. It is a land of lush greenery, of ancient trees and wisdom, of colorful creatures and people. It is a land that is sadly being stripped of its resources and seeing its native cultures dislocated.

Rember Yahuarcani is a painter, an artist who lives in Lima, Peru. He is a part of the White Crane tribe, which was once flourished but now consists of just two families. His grandmother Martha, who recently passed away, is his inspiration; she tells stories about the clan, from its mythology to the history she has seen. She survived the decimation that came from the rubber plantations, who killed off terrifying numbers of natives in their quest for profits. Indigenous peoples the world over can relate to those stories.

He has been at an impasse lately and decides to go visit his mother and father in the small village he grew up in. They are both artists as well and live much the same way as when Rember was a boy, teaching their grandchildren the stories of their culture, trying to preserve it as best they can. But Rember needs more, and ventures into Colombia where the remainder of their tribe lives.

This is a beautifully shot film and with the Amazonia region as a canvas, that almost goes without saying. It is the sounds, however, that make the movie sing. The flapping of butterfly wings. The buzzing of insects. The chirping of birds. The flow of water. The patter of rain. The songs of the aboriginal people of the region. Imagine hearing those sounds all the time. Preferably without the humidity.

Interwoven with all of this are archival photos of indigenous people in the employ of colonial plantation owners. We hear horrific stories of natives being burned alive, of having their skin flayed off. Discipline was brutal and the men who wielded engorged with greed and possessed of zero empathy for the suffering of others. This is the story of what colonialism has bought us; cultures essentially wiped from the face of the Earth, a lack of respect for nature and the workings of ecology. That colonialism is still with us, not just in Brazil where a tyrannical President seeks to eradicate the rain forest, turn it all into profitable farmland without caring one whit at what the world loses just so long as the profits keep rolling in. It’s no different here, only we call the colonialists “industrialists” and they enslave the working class here in subtle, but similar ways.

At times, the juxtaposition of the natural world and the horrors of the colonial world don’t mesh as well, and it can be rather jarring. Still, this first-time feature film from Catalan-Peruvian filmmaker is absolutely breathtaking from the stories of ancient wisdom to the tales of more recent horrors.

REASONS TO SEE: The sound is stunning. So is the cinematography.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little bit disjointed.
FAMILY VALUES: There is smoking and some discussion of genocide.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Before becoming a filmmaker, Torrent worked for several years at Amnesty International.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/19/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Embrace of the Serpent
Emergence: Out of the Shadows