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Talking the Amazon with James Cameron

Recently, I got an invitation to attend an interesting panel dealing with indigenous issues on Earth Day.  The talk, held at the Paley Center for Media in midtown Manhattan, would host a number of Native Americans but also James Cameron, creator of the blockbuster movie Avatar as well as other hits such as Terminator and Titantic.  What, you might ask, was a Hollywood director doing at such an event?

If you’ve seen Cameron’s movie you know that it deals with a fictional tribe of humanoid creatures called the Na’vi who inhabit the rainforest world of Pandora.  In the film, the Na’vi must fight to preserve the forest from a mineral corporation backed up by the U.S. military.  Avatar, a true technological feat, brought the Pandora rainforest to movie-going audiences in 3-D.  Though Avatar doesn’t attempt to teach anything to the audience per se, it does convey a sense of moral outrage.

To his credit, Cameron has sought to address not only fictional struggles in the virtual world but also the real life plight of indigenous peoples fighting to preserve their ancestral lands from hydropower development.  Recently, the Hollywood director toured the Brazilian rainforest in association with Amazon Watch, a Washington, D.C.-based NGO which is performing valuable environmental work in South America.

After meeting with the Kayapo Indians, “real life Na’vi,” as Cameron put it, the director got inspired and has been campaigning for indigenous peoples.  Cameron says the Belo Monte boondoggle dam planned for the Amazon is a “quintessential example of the type of thing we are showing in ‘Avatar’ — the collision of a technological civilization’s vision for progress at the expense of the natural world and the cultures of the indigenous people that live there.”

On a tear in New York, he spoke before a United Nations committee on aboriginal rights and even launched an environmental scholarship at Brooklyn Tech high school.  Not content to stop there, he updated the Avatar website to keep fans informed about environmental issues and sponsored the planting of a million trees around the world as part of Earth Day.

Cameron’s Cinematic Plans

As a writer and author of the recently released No Rain in the Amazon: How South America’s Climate Change Affects the Entire Planet (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2010), I was eager to ask Cameron a number of questions.  I wanted to know for example how he saw his political role moving forward, and what he might do to stop hydropower for example.  I was also interested in addressing Cameron’s future film projects.

Reportedly, the Hollywood director based Avatar on the Brazilian rainforest and the struggle of indigenous peoples inhabiting the jungle.  However, up until his recent trip he had never stepped foot in the Amazon.  Amidst conflicting news about Cameron’s future cinematic projects, with some reports even suggesting he might shoot part of a future picture in the Amazon itself, the director recently remarked that Avatar was produced through skillful use of computer graphics out of fear that filming within the rainforest would harm the environment.

Cameron adds that any future film wouldn’t be shot in the Amazon, either. Indeed, he has declared that a large part of his next movie will take place in the teeming oceans of Pandora.  “Part of my focus in the second film is in creating a different environment – a different setting within Pandora,” Cameron said.  “And I’m going to be focusing on the ocean on Pandora, which will be equally rich and diverse and crazy and imaginative, but it just won’t be a rainforest. I’m not saying we won’t see what we’ve already seen; we’ll see more of that as well,” he added.

Whatever the case, I wouldn’t be surprised if Cameron inserts an environmental message concerning the rainforest in his future films.  What kind of movie are we likely to see in future from the blockbuster director?  Reportedly he wants to shoot an Avatar sequel and not some kind of environmental documentary.  While that’s not entirely what idealistic folk such as myself might have hoped for [click here to see my earlier piece describing the history of earlier films dealing with the rainforest], the reality is that Cameron has done more than many other Hollywood directors to bring environmentalism into the mainstream.

For the left, Avatar is not suitably politically correct as the leading protagonist Jake Sully is a white man taking up the burden of Na’vi savages.  But reading the left blogosphere sometimes, I wonder what planet people are on: Mars…or Pandora perhaps?  At the risk of stating the obvious, in Hollywood you can’t produce pictures without financial backing.  In order to achieve said backing one must frequently rehash familiar themes.

Avatar is a rather skillful composite of earlier movies like Alien, Dances with Wolves and Platoon.  But even after he adopted familiar formulas Cameron found it difficult to get Hollywood on board.  Indeed, the industry proved resistant to any environmental content.  “It’s not like the studio said, ‘Jim we want you to make a movie about the environment,’” Cameron has declared.  “No. … They said, ‘We really like the big epic science fiction story, but is there any way we can get this tree-hugging crap out of it?’ ”

Hollywood Director’s Future Role

Having prevailed over the conventional logic and directed a mega hit with an environmental message, the real question now is how Cameron sees his role moving forward.  When he made Avatar, Cameron didn’t imagine that people would interpret the movie as a call to action.  In fact, he remarked, “I figured I’d be on vacation right now. I figured I’d make my big statement with the movie and let everyone else sort out what to do. Turns out there aren’t that many people figuring out what to do….I think we’re facing [an environmental] crisis and I’m not going to stand around and leave it to someone else to deal with it.”

Those are energetic words, but when I saw Cameron speak in New York I got the impression that the director was a little overwhelmed by his new role.  When one man stood up and asked Cameron if the director would help to save tribes from going culturally extinct in Colombia, the director frankly admitted he was suffering from “cause fatigue.”  Later, when Quichua indigenous women got up and offered Cameron a ceremonial scarf, the director looked slightly taken aback.

Cameron’s political role could prove particularly thorny in Brazil.  There, the director not only met with native peoples but also participated in an indigenous rally in the capitol of Brasilia and urged top political leadership to halt hydropower development.  Determined to halt Belo Monte in its tracks, Cameron believes the project “is a very, very important, pivotal battleground” as it will set the stage for the development of 60 additional dams.

The director has gone straight to the top, writing personally to President Lula in an effort to persuade the government to reject any policy which harms forests.  In a letter, Cameron requested a meeting with Lula and declared, “This is an opportunity for you to be a hero, a visionary leader of the 21st century, and modify Brazil’s path in such a way that you have sustainable economic growth instead of economic growth that has serious consequences for certain sectors of the population.”

In an effort to plunder the Amazon, Brazil’s governing elite likes to fan hyper nationalist hysteria by claiming that foreigners are trying to get their hands on the rainforest.  It’s a bogus argument, but international campaigners must nevertheless tread lightly lest they fall into a political booby trap.  Judging from his letter to Lula, Cameron is certainly aware of this pitfall.

“I suspect you will consider me a meddling outsider who does not understand the political realities of your country,” Cameron wrote.  “But I care deeply about the future for all of us, and feel compelled to speak, nevertheless.”

If Cameron was hoping that Lula would come to his senses, the president seems to have dashed any such hopes.  Lula, an ostensible leftist from the Workers’ Party who supports Belo Monte, recently declared that Brazil did not need advice from foreigners.  “No one is more worried about protecting Amazônia and the Indians than we are,” he said.

Talking the Amazon with Cameron

I hoped to bring up some of these touchy issues with Cameron at the Paley Center, but unfortunately other journalists like Geraldo Rivera monopolized the director’s time.  At long last, however, I was able to share a car ride with the director as he made his way to a midtown screening of Avatar.  Cameron knew of my work and we had a brief conversation about Brazilian politics [needless to say, if he had contemplated the notion of casting me as Indiana Jones in Avatar 2 he made no mention].

Cameron expressed some frustration that Lula had not seen fit to answer his letter.  I then joked that the director might offer his support to Marina Silva in Brazil’s upcoming presidential election in order to advance a more environmentally-friendly agenda.  Silva, whose story I recount in my current book, is an extraordinary woman who worked as a rubber tapper and later served as Lula’s Minister of the Environment.  Currently, she is running as Brazil’s Green Party candidate.

As we made our way through traffic, Cameron expressed great admiration for Silva.  But thinking about it, I wondered whether a well known foreigner endorsing a particular candidate would be a wise political move.  When I said as much in the car, Cameron chuckled and seemed to register my point.  Indeed, the director must surely be aware by now that he’s treading on eggshells.

Amazon Watch, which helped to coordinate Cameron’s trip, is surely aware of the dynamics too.  According to Christian Poirier, who works as the group’s Brazil Program Coordinator, Cameron’s presence in Brazil proved controversial amongst certain political sectors.  In an e-mail, he told me there had been a “predictable backlash” against the trip.  Some of the Brazilian media, he said, had characterized the director’s trip as so-called “naive meddling.”  Many editorials, Poirier added, were harshly critical of Cameron and some even labeled the director an ignorant outsider intent on “saving” the Amazon.

On the other hand, Cameron has some momentum on his side.  Avatar did quite well at the box office in Brazil, which could complicate elite attempts to demonize the director amongst the public.  What’s more, Poirier says some media outlets recognized that Cameron had indeed done his homework about Belo Monte and as a result tended to treat him fairly.  Some news coverage, he adds, even cast Cameron “as a concerned world citizen rather than another misguided Amazon crusader.”

Volatile Situation Calls for Humility

What will Cameron do if all his efforts come to nothing?  That’s no longer an abstract question since a Brazilian court recently gave the green light to proceed with construction at Belo Monte.  Indigenous peoples, who say Belo Monte will devastate wildlife and their livelihoods, have alarmingly warned of bloodshed.  With the situation headed towards confrontation, hopefully cooler heads will prevail.

Within this volatile mix, Cameron should take a backseat to the indigenous struggle and make sure that he does not eclipse the Indians with his high public profile.  I am sure that environmentalists in the U.S. are aware of this pitfall and, in light of what I saw at the Paley Center, the director himself is willing to take a step back.  Indeed, time and again during Cameron’s panel discussion at the Paley Center the director deferred to other Indians on the panel hailing from the Onondaga, Chipeywan, Mikisew Cree and Wayuu Nations.

In the car later, I was impressed at one point when Cameron said he was touched by the Quichua Indians who had presented him with a ceremonial scarf.  For a man who has racked up the highest movie sales in Hollywood history, this director struck me as remarkably un-puffed up with himself.  Judging from what I saw in New York, indigenous peoples may have a good champion in James Cameron.

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, http://www.nikolaskozloff.com/

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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 website, senorchichero.

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