Sunday, February 22, 2009


Amazon posterAmazon (1990), which begins with an aerial camera shot of an indigenous hut nestled among the trees and then flashes to a pitiful landscape of deforestation stretching as far as the horizon, should be commended for its sense of authenticity as such scenes were accurately filmed in the paradox that is the Brazilian rainforest.

The movie opens by introducing Kari (Kari Väänänen) and his two pre-adolescent daughters traveling the dusty road of the Trans-Amazonic highway through Brazil. Flashbacks show that Kari used to be a successful and happy businessman living Finland, until his beloved American wife was put in a coma due to a car crash. The accident devastates Kari who disconnects his wife’s breathing machine in an act of love; thus prompting him to escape to Brazil with his daughters in order to evade the authorities. The promising new life in Rio de Janeiro is dashed when Kari realizes that he can’t possibly find work without knowing the right people, which leaves him and his family surrounded by theft and shady characters. His friend Fransisco offers him a job as a driver, but they are stopped en route by police. Fransisco makes a break for it, obviously indicating that they are transporting illegal materials, and he is shot dead. After Kari avoids the same fate by claiming to be an American, he ushers his daughter onto a long road trip in search of employment and a better life, which brings us back to the Trans-Amazonic highway: a “skinny, black line through an endless wall of green” on the map, but in reality a “red dusty nightmare headed for nowhere”. The three travelers run out of gas and inadvertently meet Dan (Robert Davi), a selfish and rude American pilot whose plane has also run out of gas. After filling the car’s gas tank with alcohol, the group tows the plane to an abandoned highway construction site housing an old bulldozer which they use to siphon some gas into the plane. Here Dan tells Kari that he plans to mine for gold in the north, and when Kari pleads for him and his daughter to go as well, Dan reluctantly agrees.

They arrive in the mining town of Cerapalata, meaning ‘naked mountain’ but feeling like “Dante’s Hell where condemned miners look for nonexistent retribution”, and Kari immediately sets out to make a buck by doing the strenuous hard labour of carrying bags of wet soil out of huge mining holes. One night after Kari collapses in his hammock from exhaustion, his daughter finds a large diamond in his shoe. Kari thinks that this is his fortune at last, but Dan knows better and after he has the flawed stone appraised, he offers a partnership to Kari in the northern town of Tapacan where they will pan in a river for real diamonds. The plan is to make enough money by doing flying errands to eventually tow the abandoned bulldozer from the Trans-Amazonic highway up to north; but this plan is upset when Kari becomes enchanted with an educated and beautiful woman living in Tapacan named Paola (Rae Dawn Chong). She likes Kari as well, but disagrees with the plan to bring huge machines in order to mine the mythical diamonds because this will cause the greedy banks to sweep in on the free land and use it for their own purposes. Kari is torn on what to do as he examines the reality of selfish foreigners who disturb the balance of the Brazilian environment.

The situation is soon thrown into disarray when Dan and Kari crash the plane into the jungle and Dan dies due to a broken neck. Kari is alone and injured in the plane and dreams of him and Dan bringing the bulldozer to the mine which then causes all the indigenous people to disappear. Suddenly Kari wakes up and is surrounded by a tribe Indians who take him back to their village and tersely nurse him back to health. Kari coexists among them as a silent tribe member, until one night they are distracted and Kari escapes down the Amazon in a canoe. After days of barely surviving in the wilderness, he comes across a town on the river and immediately hitches a ride back to Tapacan, his girls, and Paola. The experience of living alongside the indigenous tribe has changed Kari and he is happy once again for the first time since his wife died. He tells Paola that he realized she was right about the devastation the bulldozer would bring to the land; despite this, however, Kari recognizes that greed and power always win when in the last scene everyone looks up to see a ominous black helicopter carrying a bulldozer to the peaceful panning river.

Amazon is a film which was clearly made to bring awareness to the public about the conflict over land in the Brazilian rainforest. The movie incorporates an almost poetic speech to discuss the situation surrounding the indigenous peoples: “The Indians say the Amazon is as long as life…you’ll never reach the end.” The indigenous culture is an ever-present, yet hidden aspect of this lush forest; more of an afterthought to greedy foreigners and officials than an actual community of people. This is demonstrated when Dan off-handedly mentions to Kari that the panning river in Tapacan was government land until 3 years ago when they decided to give it back to the Indians; however, they didn’t make it official and it has ended up being free land for anyone to use. And so it is that the Indians are living “in the stone age, but sitting on treasures of a modern world.” Dan confides to Kari before the plane crashes that he doesn’t think anyone should have any right to tell them how to live. He states that “they’ve got nothing better to do on their reservations but sit around and wait for the next white man’s disease.” Then Dan’s past is divulged about a time when he had an Indian wife and he had supplied guns to the whole village in hopes of being their saviour, but he instead became their burden when white men came with machine guns and murdered the entire community. This is the modern world of technology encroaching upon the indigenous territory. This is the thousands of hectares of abundant and thriving forests being chopped down into a wasteland in order to make to-go coffee cups in a distant country. Just as Kari declares that Rio de Janeiro looks like a paradise in the brochures but in reality it may as well be Hell, the rainforest also looks verdant and fertile until the ugly side of the conflict is illustrated. The movie ends with a note about cultural and environmental awareness saying that 40 million hectares (or roughly the state of Washington) are being destroyed annually which will lead to the final and complete devastation of the Brazilian rainforest within this generation. The words are simultaneously overwhelming and inspiring, yet as we saw with Kari, realization is only the first step, and even with this awareness the bulldozers continue to arrive. Amazon shows that a true sense of change and fervent determination are needed in order to stop the relentless loss of rainforest and indigenous culture.

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