VENICE (Reuters) - A new Italian film brings to the screen the clash between Amazon Indians and wealthy Brazilian ranchers, exploring the collision of two worlds against a backdrop of land disputes, shrinking forests and poverty.
"Birdwatchers," which is in competition at the Venice film festival, was warmly applauded at a press screening on Monday, lifting domestic hopes that one of four Italian movies in the main competition may scoop the Golden Lion top award.
Set in Mato Grosso do Sul state, Brazil's bread basket, the film focuses on a group of indigenous Guarani-Kaiowa with no prospect other than working in slave-like conditions for rich farmers and posing for tourists' cameras for a little cash.
Pushed by hunger and recurring suicides in their community, the natives decide to leave their reserve and camp outside a sugar-beet plantation to claim their ancestral land back.
Half documentary and half fiction, the film features 230 Guarani people on their first outing as actors, alongside an Italian and Brazilian cast in supporting roles. The actors speak local languages with subtitles.
Italian director Marco Bechis, who has a Chilean mother and grew up in Brazil, said his was a film about the "survivors of one the greatest genocides in history."
The Indian population numbered an estimated 5 million when Portuguese explorers first landed in 1500 in what would become Brazil. Over the centuries, they have suffered enslavement, extermination campaigns, disease and neglect.
They now number about 460,000 in about 230 tribes, according to campaign group Survival International.
The main Guarani characters, who traveled to Venice for the premiere of the film, described their plight at an emotional press conference.
"It makes me cry to know that so many children are dying, that so many of us are dying ... We are all human beings, we are not just Indians, we have thoughts and ideas and culture and our language, we just want a possibility to continue to live," said Eliane Juca da Silva, fighting back tears.
"You white people, we wear your clothes, we eat like you, and why is that? Because our land, our forest which was full of trees is no longer there," she added, speaking through an interpreter. "We just want a piece of land to be able to plant our crops and hunt."
The film shows the ravages of alcohol and depression on the indigenous community, with a growing number of suicides among youths frustrated at living in special reserves, unable to feed their families and confused by the different world around them.
"Suicides occur because there is no justice, the only justice is for entrepreneurs who invest billions," said Ambrosio Vilhalva, who plays Nadio -- the Guarani chief heading the revolt over land -- in the film.
Bechis said his film showed the natives' culture had not yet disappeared, even if they often dressed as Westerners.
"Maybe we are too used to seeing them with feathers and arrows, when they are only dressing like that for us to take a picture. I think the intensity of their religious, spiritual and cultural traditions has remained almost intact."
The film is one of four Italian titles in the main competition. The two which have screened so far, Pupi Avati's "Giovanna's Father" and Ferzan Ozpetek's "A Perfect Day," have received mixed reviews.
Editing by Matthew Jones