Nothing But the Sun Review: Recorded History

Nothing But the Sun chronicles the story of a Paraguayan community and the oral histories that were preserved on trusty cassettes.

6 mins read

The Ayoreo communities within Paraguay once lived a rich nomadic life in the forest. They had their own medicines, religious deities, and used only what was required from the natural resources around them to ensure they never went hungry. This all changed in the 1960s when missionaries uprooted the Ayoreo people and forced them into the arid and desolate Paraguayan Chaco region. In Arami Ullón’s powerful and absorbing documentary Nothing but the Sun, one man attempts to preserve the culture that was violently stripped from him one cassette recording at a time.

Armed with his trusty tape recorder, Mateo Sobode Chiqueno has been documenting the stories of his Ayoreo people since the 1970s. Recording the conversations, songs and memories that others have shared with him, Chiqueno has amassed a wealth of stories that capture the devastating impact of colonization.

From the minute that the “whites” arrived, life was never the same for the Ayoreo people. Families were immediately torn apart, loved one’s murdered, and kidnapped people were tortured until they agreed to help the invaders locate others in the forest. In one of the many heartbreaking conversations that Chiqueno has in the film, he speaks to author José Iquebi who was one of the individuals forced to become a tracker for the missionaries. While Chiqueno still holds some emotional resentment because it was Iquebi who convinced his family to go with the missionaries out of fear of death, an act that still resulted in the death of his mother, it is clear in their discussion that Iquebi was not given much of a choice.

What is remarkable about the discussion between Chiqueno and Iquebi is that it is the only time in the Ullón’s film where we see any images (which Iquebi shows from his book) of the Ayoreo people prior to the invasion. Relying primarily on the interviews Chiqueno conducts, and his vast collection of recordings, Nothing but the Sun allows the Ayoreo people to paint an unfettered picture of their past and present. Similar to Chiqueno, who has to pause during one conversion to reflect on the horrors he has just heard in relation to his own experiences, Ullón lets the various discussions hang uncomfortably in the air.

By taking a meditative approach to the subject matter, Ullón constructs a truly mesmerizing work that lingers in one’s mind. Juxtaposing the dry landscape where most of the Ayoreo now call home, complete with rotting animal carcasses on the side of the road, with the lushly gated ranches that the white cattlemen own, the documentary makes it clear who continues to benefit from the horrors of the past. Not only are the cattlemen continually practising deforestation, to keep the Ayoreo off their land, but they sit on land full of resources that could improve the Ayoreo’s current way of life.

What makes the current predicament of the Ayoreo people so unnerving to observe is the way in which many have been conditioned to believe that the missionaries were their saviours. While there are some in the aging population, such as Chiqueno himself, who question if the current assimilation was worth the loss of their culture, others have denounced everything they once knew, including shamanism, in favour of a white Christian God. They blindly praise the white way of life without reaping any of the benefits that come with it.

In listening to the converted call the life they once lived a sin, and seeing the inner turmoil that some have been living in, desiring their old life while wanting to stay connected to their grandchildren who have been raised in white society, the necessity of Chiqueno’s work takes on a greater significance. While not everyone sees the value in his project, even his own wife Tona admitting to his need to constantly record being a bit of a burden at times, his recordings are more than a hobby.

The tapes are an oral history of not only the atrocities that the Ayoreo have experienced, but they also serve as a reminder of the vibrant culture that existed before the missionaries arrived. Anchored by Chiqueno’s gentle conversational style, which allows him to broach difficult topics with the same ease and empathy as a seasoned journalist, and Ullón’s patient direction, Nothing but the Sun is a stunning look at a culture stolen. One that will hopefully be reclaimed again by future generations.

Nothing but the Sun premieres at Hot Docs 2021.

Please visit the POV Hot Docs Hub for more coverage from this year’s festival.

Courtney Small is a Rotten Tomatoes approved film critic and co-host of the radio show Frameline. He has contributed to That Shelf, Leonard Maltin, Cinema Axis, In the Seats, and Black Girl Nerds. He is the host of the Changing Reels podcast and is a member of the Toronto Film Critics Association, Online Film Critics Society and the African American Film Critics Association.

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