[Marxism] James Cameron in the Amazon
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Mon Apr 5 07:55:36 MDT 2010
Counterpunch April 5, 2010
James Cameron in the Amazon
By NIKOLAS KOZLOFF
Fresh off his huge blockbuster success with Avatar, James Cameron
is taking a commendable stand on indigenous issues in the
rainforest. Flying down to Brazil’s Amazonian city of Manaus
recently, the film director criticized the Belo Monte hydro
electric dam project. “For people living along the river, as they
have for millennia,” he said, “the dam will end their way of life.
I implore the Brazilian government, and President Lula, to
reconsider this project.”
To his credit, Cameron did not simply pop up in Manaus impromptu
without getting the full inside story behind hydro-power. With the
help of hardworking and dedicated organizations such as Amazon
Watch, Cameron toured the Xingu River and attended a gathering of
over 100 indigenous leaders from dozens of communities. Not to be
outdone, he also visited Altamira, a local town which stands to be
flooded by the Belo Monte dam.
Having tackled the thorny problem of environmental destruction in
Avatar, Cameron is now adding his own high profile voice to the
cause of rainforest preservation. No doubt, the film director has
already sensed the disturbing parallels between the virtual, 3-D
world of Pandora and the Amazon jungle: just like the fictional
Na’vi people, who fight against an earth-based, mining consortium,
the Kayapo Indians are fighting to preserve about 500 square miles
of their lands threatened by flooding.
Amazonian indigenous peoples, like the Na’vi, maintain intimate
connection to the land, rivers and forests. If they are displaced
by mega projects such as dams, they lose their culture, history
and sense of identity. Belo Monte would be particularly damaging
to the environment: if constructed, the project would divert 80
percent of the flow of the Xingu River along a 60 mile stretch,
drying up the lifeline of tens of thousands of people who depend
on the local water supply.
Despite widespread opposition, the Brazilian authorities recently
approved Belo Monte's environmental license and consortiums will
bid on the project in April. Not only is the project an ecological
boondoggle but it makes little sense from an energy standpoint.
Indeed, Belo Monte would constitute one of the most inefficient
dams in Brazilian history.
“There are always other solutions, when good leaders put their
will to a problem,” Cameron declared in Manaus. “A WWF [World
Wildlife Fund] Brazil study showed if Brazil were to invest a
fraction of the cost of the dam in energy efficiency it could
generate 14 times the energy of the Belo Monte Dam and have
electricity savings of up to US$19 billion,” the director added.
I hope that Cameron will take his activism to the next level and
shoot a film about the Amazon, situating hydro power within the
larger environmental context. As I reveal in my book No Rain in
the Amazon: How South America’s Climate Affects the Entire Planet
--- now hot off the press from Palgrave-Macmillan --- hydro power
is just one piece of the overall jigsaw puzzle.
In Brazil a nefarious web of soy planters, cattle ranchers and
hydropower interests shunt indigenous peoples and others aside
while fostering deforestation in the rainforest.
In years past, many in the Global North viewed the Amazon dilemma
as an important, but somewhat abstract, environmental issue. That
attitude must change: deforestation threatens to unleash a massive
carbon bomb while hydropower will lead to dangerous methane
emissions, thus exacerbating our climate change conundrum.
Despite the gravity of the situation, some may conclude that the
Amazon is a largely Brazilian or Peruvian problem which
northerners have little to do with. Think again: it is Europe, the
United States, and even China which now consume many of the
tropical commodities from the Amazon. Meanwhile, American
companies are cashing in on the agribusiness boom in Brazil while
large financial institutions backed by the U.S. fund backward
Now is the time for Hollywood to take up the vital issue of the
rainforest, and Cameron is the ideal director to undertake the
project. While a number of Hollywood movies have dealt with the
Amazon over the years, none of them have been runaway box office
smashes. Given his environmental activism, I think it likely
Cameron has at least considered doing a film about the rainforest
but publicly there’s been no mention of such a move.
If Cameron were to launch a movie about the tropics, what previous
work might he build upon? Hopefully, Hollywood will not seek to
rely on the same tired and clichéd plot lines. The analog to
Cameron’s Jake Sully, a white man who goes native on Pandora, is
Mendoza, a debased slave trader who becomes a Jesuit priest in the
1986 film The Mission. The movie is set in the mid eighteenth
century in what is today northeastern Argentina and western
Paraguay as Mendoza, played by a horribly miscast Robert De Niro,
fights to defend the Indians living in missions from nefarious
Portuguese imperial interests.
Writing in the New York Times, Vincent Canby lauded the film for
its stunning natural beauty: “the film's most riveting sequence,”
he remarked, “comes at the very beginning, when we see a crucified
Jesuit missionary being tossed - cross and all - into the river
and carried over the spectacular Iguassu Falls.” On the other
hand, Canby was critical of the film in other respects. “The
Indians,” he declared, “about whom the film seems to care so much,
are condescended to as mostly smiling, trusting, undifferentiated
aspects of Eden - innocents with sweet singing voices and a lot of
Other filmmakers such as Werner Herzog have eschewed Hollywood
sentimentalism in favor of a more mannered and quirky style.
Herzog’s early films dealing with the Amazon, Aguirre: Wrath of
God, about a sixteenth century conquistador on the search for the
legendary city of El Dorado, and the later Fitzcarraldo,
concerning an opera loving madman determined to drag a boat
overland from one river to another, were too eccentric to appeal
to a mass audience.
On the other hand, White Diamond, Herzog’s recent documentary, is
not as overwrought as his earlier movies. It’s about an English
aeronautical engineer who designs a balloon which he pilots over
the Guyanese rainforest. The film includes breathtakingly
beautiful images of the jungle and a dazzling waterfall. Unlike
The Mission, White Diamond is not driven so much by narrative than
ideas and impressions. The film features occasional voice over by
Trying to get people to the theater to take in a serious and
political environmental documentary is a difficult sell, but with
the model of White Diamond in hand an enterprising filmmaker could
pack in the crowds. Imagine flying over the Andes and down into
the jungle, all the while taking in the jungle canopy as in White
Diamond. Now imagine taking the same trip, but with 3-D technology
as in Avatar.
A 1983 film, Koyaanisqatsi: Life Out of Balance, about man’s
mastery over the earth, was visually stunning. Since then,
however, 3-D has taken movie-going to a whole other level.
Ten years ago for example I saw a film about the Galapagos
featuring marine iguanas at an Imax theater. Today, we have high
definition and National Geographic TV has exploded, so much so
that the network now plans to launch an additional network called
Nat Geo Wild.
The problem for Americans is that they are cut off from the
rainforest, which is abstract and far away. The vast majority
isn’t adventurous and will never go to Peru or Brazil to stay in
an eco-friendly jungle lodge. That doesn’t mean, however, that
northerners aren’t interested in the Amazon. I think if given the
chance, they would want to swim with a manatee, even if it were
just in the virtual world.
One of the most outlandish creatures on the planet, the shy and
retiring manatee is my favorite Amazonian animal. First described
as a cross between a seal and hippo, the manatee has a wonderfully
round body, mostly black skin the texture of vinyl, a bright pink
belly, a diamond-shaped tail, a cleft lip, and a unique sixth sense.
Living life in the slow lane, manatees are fond of doing nothing
much at all. However, the manatee does eat a lot of aquatic
vegetation. An exclusive vegetarian that feeds on water lettuce
and hyacinth, the animal eats 10 percent of its body weight in a
single day. Not surprisingly manatees are robust—they can grow up
to ten feet long and weigh nearly a ton.
As a recent documentary about the Ecuadoran Amazon entitled Crude
demonstrated, you can be political about environmental issues and
make your point without hitting people over the head. Crude, shot
in cinema vérité style, was compelling without resorting to
Crude, however, did not concentrate very much on wildlife and it
is here where future filmmakers could make their mark. Those who
do undertake the arduous trek to the rainforest may have dreamt
all their lives about seeing certain animals. For me, the primary
objective was to see a manatee and in Iquitos I finally got my chance.
At an installation belonging to the Institute of Peruvian Amazon
Research outside of town, I saw a couple of caretakers throwing
lettuce into open-air tanks. In the first tank, a pint-sized baby
dolphin was scratching its back against a wood pole. Walking
further, I spotted another tank full of juvenile manatees, and, in
a third, a baby manatee all on its own.
By the look of it, the infant was not doing too well. One of the
staff explained that the caretakers found the animal in a severely
malnourished state. While seeing the manatees was certainly one of
the highlights of my trip, it was disappointing to observe the
infant in such a poor state of health.
In 2005 observers were saddened by the sight of dying manatees
lying in local rivers. According to the Brazilian environmental
agency, more than one hundred of the rare aquatic mammals could
have died as a result of a drought thought to be linked to warming
currents in the Atlantic.
In addition to climate change, the manatee faces a number of other
daunting threats including rainforest destruction, dam building,
and accidental drowning in commercial fishing nets. If that were
not serious enough, the manatee is hunted for its meat and oil,
which has taken a toll. It’s impossible to say how many manatees
are left, perhaps fewer than 10,000 in the Amazon region.
Americans want to see all the wonders of the Amazon and to feel
connected to exotic wildlife.
New cinematic technologies now make that possible. However, the
audience needs to be brought inside the corporate board rooms and
high up government offices where lasting decisions are made about
the rainforest’s future and the plight of the manatee. A cinema
vérité film, particularly if it is pushed by a high profile
director, could raise consciousness in the Global North without
necessarily being overly didactic or preachy.
Nikolas Kozloff is the author of the upcoming No Rain In the
Amazon: How South America’s Climate Change Affects The Entire
Planet (Palgrave Macmillan, April 2010). Visit his web site,
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