The Amazon in film Stereotypes and realities

"Ailleurs: Soacha" by Jose Luis Bongore. Commissioned work for the exhibition "The Nature of Things: Humboldt, Kommen und Gehen" 2019 in the Art Museum of the National University of Colombia, co-produced by the Goethe-Institut Colombia.
"Ailleurs: Soacha" by Jose Luis Bongore. Commissioned work for the exhibition "The Nature of Things: Humboldt, Kommen und Gehen" 2019 in the Art Museum of the National University of Colombia, co-produced by the Goethe-Institut Colombia. | Photo: Halim Badawi

Usually portrayed as a mythical, exotic location, the Amazon is now also being depicted in the cinema as a place with multiple indigenous identities and a region of cultural diversity – especially in local productions.

By Camila Gonzatto

A region explored by travellers from various epochs, such as the Germans Alexander von Humboldt and Carl Friedrich Philipp von Martius, or Alexandre Rodrigues Ferreira from Portugal, the Amazon has long inhabited popular fantasy – and not only in “Western” countries. According to Professor Selda Vale da Costa, coordinator of the Centre of Visual Anthropology at the University of the Amazon, construction of the “Amazon concept” begins in Europe in the 16th century. “There was a deliberate invention of the Amazon, with the aim of looking after the economic and political interests in the cities. And on the other hand the fantasy world also reflects the level of knowledge about the region from the viewpoint of other parts of the world, such as Africa or Asia.”
 
The same applies to the way the Amazon is depicted in film. “Right up to the 1970s and 80s, the Amazon – regardless of the origins of the film-makers – was viewed as an exotic, mythical place, as an unknown but also as a territory of primitives and monsters. Films about cannibals, head hunters, giant ants and murderous snakes were the most common representations of this part of the planet, which has sometimes been called the last theatre of myth,” says da Costa.
Gustavo Soranz, documentary film-maker and film/TV producer, references The Lost World (1925) by Harry O. Hoyt, an adaptation of the eponymous book by Arthur Conan Doyle (1912), as a notable example: “The film unites the usual elements included in this genre of fiction movie: the region is an exotic and dangerous travel destination for a team of scientists or conquistadors; the journey turns out to be an adventure full of secrets and risks, in a hostile natural environment and surrounded by primitive, wild inhabitants. We find practically the same formula in Anaconda directed by Luis Llosa in 1997,” explains Soranz.

Colonisation twice over

“It’s as though the Amazon had no history, or was set outside of history. As ever, it is a mythical place where we can discover all the features of colonial fantasy. The Amazon as a counterpart to the West,” is how Soranz describes it. According to da Costa, it is not just in films made by other countries that this perspective can be found, but in Brazilian cinema too. “The country is not familiar with the Amazon, and worse still it thinks it does and produces distorted images that often serve to maintain the status quo. Alongside an ignorance of history and how the population lives, in some of the Brazilian productions a kind of colonialism with regard to images from foreign films and TV shows is occurring, and this is reproduced in the production of documentaries and feature films. This constitutes colonisation twice over, in both visual and political terms,” notes da Costa.

Shift in perspective

As a result of a growing awareness of environmental themes since the 1980s, films that focus on the Amazon have been made, but according to Soranz they continue to show an idyllic image of the region. Costa does not believe that this change has arisen as a result of increased ecological consciousness, but because of the social and cultural movements that came about during the democratisation of Brazil, and the revival of the Brazilian film industry. “In the state of Acre for instance, it wasn’t just environmental awareness that caused film-makers to sit up and take notice, it was the fight of the rubber tappers, such as [activist and union representative murdered in 1988 by landowners] Chico Mendes,” the professor explains.
 
For them it was documentaries such as the one made by British film producer Adrian Cowell (The Decade of Destruction) or Jorge Bodanski from Brazil (Iracema, Projeto Jari), as well as the other film-makers from the region who attempted to capture the Amazonian “realities”: “Realities in the plural, the native populations, the river dwellers, rubber tappers, gold prospectors, fishermen, Babassu nut breakers.” We are starting to see new perspectives from film critics, like those introduced by Brazilian anthropologist Eduardo Viveiro de Castro. “However that all still belongs to the field of academic film analysis. I can’t imagine that Viveiro de Castro’s ideas will actually be translated into film production,” says Soranz.

Local production

Recently, film-makers from Manaus and Belém have started to make films from a completely new angle. Sérgio Andrade for instance, whose second feature-length film Antes o tempo não acabava – which was co-directed by Fábio Andrade and premiered at the Berlinale 2016 – is about a young Ticuna tribesman who decides to go to Manaus, which raises some questions of identity.
Para ter onde ir (2018), the first full-length film by director Jorane Castro from the state of Pará, also brings some new sounds and landscapes to the screen. “This viewpoint seems to be completely different from the typical way of looking at this region. A feminist road trip, if you like,” says Soranz, adding: “This production is undergoing a maturity process and might stimulate the potential to rethink the relationship between Nature and culture, thereby contributing to a more complex view of the Amazon and its population.”
Productions from other Latin-American countries throw new light on the Amazon. For instance the Columbian film Embrace of the Serpent (2005) by Ciro Guerra is based on the diaries of travelling researchers Theodor Koch-Grunberg and Richard Evans Schultes. Shipibo, la película de nuestra memoria (Peru, 2011) on the other hand is a documentary on the Schipibo people that follows in the footsteps of North American anthropologist Harry Tschopik Junior, the protagonist of an earlier film, Shipibo, Men of the Montaña (1953). Under the direction of Fernando Valdivia, the film addresses issues with the natives themselves, for example their identity and cultural changes to which they have been subjected over past decades.
Space for interaction and trust

Space for interaction and trust

Valdivia, who had already been responsible for other films with native themes, such as La travesía de Chumpi (2012) or Iskobakebo. Un difícil reencuentro (2014), is also director of the Escuela de Cine Amazónico. This school was established in 2014 in Pucallpa (Peru) and its objective is to train young townspeople and natives in audiovisual production, and additionally to portray the Amazon from the perspective of the native population. “Independent film in countries with such rich and vital cultures as Peru needs to decolonise its concepts and processes. Our ancestors have spent centuries practising solidarity on a daily basis, in the form of [traditional community work] Ayni in the Andes or Minga in the forest. In the school of Amazon film we are trying to revive this mysticism to promote works in which the different cultures of our Amazon and their narratives become protagonists in a cinema that we consider representative of the people, diverse, democratic and nourishing to the soul,” says Valdivia.


 
 

The Video nas Aldeias project has been a source of inspiration for audivisual projects by a variety of native people in Brazil since 1986. The films are shown not just at festivals but in the villages too, and they contribute to an exchange of cultures and ideas. For André Brasil, who lectures in the department of Publicity and Communication at the National University of Minas Gerais, projects like this are part of a style of film-making that often sees the picture as a space for relationships, interaction, conflict and common ground, in contrast to the Western tradition, in which the picture is often understood as something “captured”, the acquisition of knowledge about others, based on the approach of isolating the subject from its objects. “What is important is the way in which every film comprises the process of self-attribution and autonomy of all people, not just in terms of documentary or dramatisation, but by becoming involved with them,” explains Brasil. In this respect, these relatively new films can be viewed as a means of “expanding highly reduced fantasy worlds about the diversity of indigenous peoples”.