Tigrero is less a documentary than a document. In 1993 film director Sam Fuller (Pickup on South Street) returned to a tiny KarajŠ Indian community in the interior of the Amazon, accompanied by a director of a younger generation, Jim Jarmusch.
The trip was an honest pilgrimage as well as a stunt organized to create this film. Although he was still a remarkably active man, Fuller was soon to be slowed down by illness, according to his posthumously- published autobiography A Third Face (a good read). His wife Christa Lang helped him jet around the globe attending film festivals; his last directed theatrical feature was The Street of No Return in 1989.
Tigrero! was to be the name of an adventure film proposed for Darryl Zanuck at 20th Fox in 1954-55, to star John Wayne, Ava Gardner and Tyrone Power. In what sounds like a cross between Bwana Devil and Garden of Evil with a heavy dose of Ernest Hemingway thrown in, Fuller's original story was to have temptress Ava spring her worthless husband Power from prison, only to hire big cat hunter Wayne to cross the jungle with her to rescue him. Insurance companies refused to underwrite big stars going to such a remote location, and the movie was dropped.
But Fuller made a fact-finding safari into central Brazil before the cancellation. At a place called Mato Grosso he was charmed by a tribe of Indians with peaceful ways and uncomplicated lives. They made him feel welcome while he shot 16mm CinemaScope movies (the better to convince Zanuck) of the countryside's rivers, giant waterfalls and the tribal rituals. The footage has been legendary ever since; in Fuller's book is a photo of him straddling a horse with a broad brimmed hat and a big cigar in his mouth (what else), looking like The Big Red One gone cavalry.
That brings us to Tigrero: A Film That Was Never Made. It has a lot in common with The Epic that Never Was, an old English docu that used raw preserved takes to tell the tale of an unfinished 1930s Josef Von Sternberg/Alexander Korda production, I Claudius.
Tigrero! never actually got near a camera, but Sam Fuller was so impressed by his 1955 visit that he was excited to go back again. So Finnish director Mika Kaurismški accompanied Fuller back to the Mato Grosso and filmed the experience. It's obvious that Fuller, who by this time was having some trouble climbing stairs, was overjoyed with the idea. Accompanying him is young director Jim Jarmusch, who seems the one wet blanket in the whole affair. Affecting his expected dark glasses, Jarmusch goes through the movie with a deadpan look on his face. He's no different-looking than a million expressionless art students, but his Mutt & Jeff pairing with Fuller comes off as a stunt - there's little chemistry between them.
The film has some great content. Besides talking about how the village has changed, Fuller enthusiastically re-meets people he saw almost 40 years earlier. He shows the villagers his 1955 16mm film footage on a TV monitor, and they recognize relatives long gone and in some cases themselves as young people. The KarajŠ keep no photos; one man says that seeing his father is like having him back again.
Any excuse to have the garrulous Fuller speak can be fun and we get the whole tale of Darryl Zanuck's plans for Tigrero! from him. Making movies in far-flung corners of the world was a big trend in the 50s but I suppose the headwaters of the Amazon was just too remote for the insurance companies. Unfortunately Jim Jarmusch is there, and his presence seems highly artificial, especially as most of their exchanges are staged, including "candid" conversations in Rio de Janeiro and phony moments where Fuller and Jarmusch are acting themselves visiting the village. Jarmusch prompts Fuller's long speeches with monotone questions like, "What was behind this idea, anyway?" We see Fuller face-to-face with several villagers grinning like a happy kid, in contrast to Jarmusch, who drifts around with his digital camera like Andy Warhol loose among the headhunters. The ending is particularly lame. Jamusch pretends to be staying behind in this idyllic paradise, getting his face painted while Fuller says good bye and toddles off down the dirt pathway. It's a corny and false faux skit.
There's also an absence of translators or any real examination of just how Fuller is communicating with the natives that also adds something artificial to the mix. We can see that Sam's personal encounters are real, but the filming style isn't showing us the whole picture: the filmmakers are inventing a little story to give the movie form. Thus it certainly is not a documentary.
The KarajŠ aren't false and neither is Fuller, which keeps the show on track. It looks as if some of Jarmusch's video footage is included as well as director Kaurismški's film. Clips from Fuller's scratchy 1955 footage are used frequently, and we even jump to a clip from 1963's Shock Corridor to show how Mato Grosso waterfall shots were incorporated as color dream footage in that B&W feature. We see interesting native rituals from 1955 repeated today as well.
The real appeal is of course Fuller, who rolls his cigar in his mouth as he rasps out his ideas - why he thought the derivative-sounding Tigrero! was wholly original; what touches him about the Karaj&a;'s simple worship of nature. Several times he describes his complicated plan for an opening for Tigrero! involving birds, alligators and Piranha fish - an unlikely series of events to be filmed in one take! The shot sounds impossible but the absolute confidence in Fuller's voice is the key to his success.
Fantoma's DVD of Tigrero: A Film That Was Never Made is a good rendering of the 1994 film festival show. The quality of the enhanced image is grainy but colorful and there are removable subtitles for some of the Portuguese spoken.
Extras include some of Jarmusch's photos and a lot of outtakes of Fuller talking that look like they were shot on video. The best item is the original uncut research reel from 1955. It's blown up to fill the frame when it appears in the feature, but is left in its CinemaScope ratio here and looks much better.
An audio commentary by Jarmusch and Kaurismški is a tough go. The Finnish director's English is difficult to understand and Jarmusch is too cool, finding a speaking attitude that's the vocal equivalent of his dark glasses and poker face. He's probably a great guy but he comes off like a post-Punk poseur: "Here I am rowing the boat. I was good at it, I'm from Ohio. We go bowling there too." (paraphrased)
A booklet insert contains some excerpts from Fuller's unfilmed script. Fantoma has done a fine job putting a polish on this filmic document, which will delight Sam Fuller fans.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Tigrero: A Film That Was Never Made rates: