When Avatar (creator) meets Amazon (tribes)…

James Cameron in the Amazon - Photo by André Vieira for The New York Times

This encounter was bound to happen: Hollywood movie director James Cameron, creator of the blockbuster movie Avatar, meets a group of indigenous tribes in the Brazilian Amazon.

But this wasn’t part of a movie plot or promotional stunt: Cameron took time off to make his first ever visit to the Amazon because of a real world environmental cause.

He was visiting Volta Grande Do Xingu last week to discuss the Belo Monte dam being planned by the Brazilian government. According to The New York times: “It would be the third largest in the world, and environmentalists say it would flood hundreds of square miles of the Amazon and dry up a 60-mile stretch of the Xingu River, devastating the indigenous communities that live along it. For years the project was on the shelf, but the government now plans to hold an April 20 auction to award contracts for its construction.”

Map courtesy The New York Times

The dam 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,” the newspaper quotes Cameron as saying.

Cameron had derived inspiration from decades long struggles to save the Amazon, but he didn’t know of this specific project until recently. Apparently he first became aware of the issue in February 2010, when he was presented with a letter from advocacy organizations and Native American groups saying they wanted Mr. Cameron to highlight “the real Pandoras in the world”.

Read the full story in The New York Times, 10 April 2010: Tribes of Amazon Find an Ally Out of ‘Avatar’

As I noted in my first comments on Avatar in January 2010: “It looks as if Cameron has made the ultimate DIY allegory movie: he gives us the template into which any one of us can add our favourite injustice or underdog tale — and stir well. Then sit back and enjoy while good triumphs over evil, and the military-industrial complex is beaten by ten-foot-tall, blue-skinned natives brandishing little more than bows and arrows (and with a little help from Ma Nature). If only it works that way in real life…”

A few days later, I followed up with another post I titled Avatar unfolds in the Amazon – a comparison with an investigative documentary, Crude: The Real Price of Oil, made by Joe Berlinger, which chronicles the epic battle to hold oil giant Chevron (formerly Texaco) accountable for its systematic contamination of the Ecuadorian Amazon – an environmental tragedy that experts call “the Rainforest Chernobyl.”

And now, within weeks, the Avatar-maker and Amazon-savers have joined hands!

Watch this space…

See also October 2009 blog post: Adrian Cowell and ‘The Decade of Destruction’: A film can make a difference!

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‘Avatar’ unfolds in the Amazon: Find out the Real Price of Oil!

This is no Avatar: It's Real!

A few days ago, reviewing the blockbuster movie Avatar, I wrote: “Film critics and social commentators around the world have noticed the many layers of allegory in the film. Interestingly, depending on where you come from, the movie’s underlying ‘message’ can be different: anti-war, pro-environment, anti-Big Oil, anti-mining, pro-indigenous people, and finally, anti-colonial or anti-American. Or All of the Above…”

Indeed, an Avatar-like struggle is unfolding in the Amazon forest right now. The online campaigning group Avaaz have called it a ‘Chernobyl in the Amazon’. According to them: “Oil giant Chevron is facing defeat in a lawsuit by the people of the Ecuadorian Amazon, seeking redress for its dumping billions of gallons of poisonous waste in the rainforest.”

From 1964 to 1990, Avaaz claims, Chevron-owned Texaco deliberately dumped billions of gallons of toxic waste from their oil fields in Ecuador’s Amazon — then pulled out without properly cleaning up the pollution they caused.

In their call to action, they go on to say: “But the oil multinational has launched a last-ditch, dirty lobbying effort to derail the people’s case for holding polluters to account. Chevron’s new chief executive John Watson knows his brand is under fire – let’s turn up the global heat.”

Avaaz have an online petition urging Chevron to clean up their toxic legacy, which is to be delivered directly to the company´s headquarters, their shareholders and the US media. I have just signed it.

Others have been highlighting this real life struggle for many months. Chief among them is the documentary CRUDE: The Real Price of Oil, made by Joe Berlinger.

The award-winning film, which had its World Premiere at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival, chronicles the epic battle to hold oil giant Chevron (formerly Texaco) accountable for its systematic contamination of the Ecuadorian Amazon – an environmental tragedy that experts call “the Rainforest Chernobyl.”

Here’s the official blurb: Three years in the making, this cinéma-vérité feature from acclaimed filmmaker Joe Berlinger is the epic story of one of the largest and most controversial legal cases on the planet. An inside look at the infamous $27 billion Amazon Chernobyl case, CRUDE is a real-life high stakes legal drama set against a backdrop of the environmental movement, global politics, celebrity activism, human rights advocacy, the media, multinational corporate power, and rapidly-disappearing indigenous cultures. Presenting a complex situation from multiple viewpoints, the film subverts the conventions of advocacy filmmaking as it examines a complicated situation from all angles while bringing an important story of environmental peril and human suffering into focus.

Watch the official trailer of Crude: The Real Price of Oil

According to Amazon Watch website: “With key support from Amazon Watch and our Clean Up Ecuador campaign, people are coming together to promote (and see) this incredible film, and then provide ways for viewers to support the struggle highlighted so powerfully by the film.”

They go on to say: “A victory for the Ecuadorian plaintiffs in the lawsuit will send shock waves through corporate boardrooms around the world, invigorating communities fighting against injustice by oil companies. The success of our campaign can change how the oil industry operates by sending a clear signal that they will be held financially liable for their abuses.”

While Avatar‘s story unfolds in imaginary planet Pandora — conjured up by James Cameron’s imagination and created, to a large part, with astonishing special effects, the story of Crude is every bit real and right here on Earth. If one tenth of those who go to see Avatar end up also watching Crude, that should build up much awareness on the equally brutal and reckless conduct of Big Oil companies.

Civilisation's ultimate addiction?

Others have been making the same point. One of them is Erik Assadourian, a Senior Researcher at Worldwatch Institute, whom I met at the Greenaccord Forum in Viterbo, Italy, in November 2009.

He recently blogged: “The Ecuadorians aren’t 10-feet tall or blue, and cannot literally connect with the spirit of the Earth (Pachamama as Ecuadorians call this or Eywa as the Na’vi call the spirit that stems from their planet’s life) but they are as utterly dependent—both culturally and physically—on the forest ecosystem in which they live and are just as exploited by those that see the forest as only being valuable as a container for the resources stored beneath it.”

Erik continues: “Both movies were fantastic reminders of human short-sightedness, one as an epic myth in which one of the invading warriors awakens to his power, becomes champion of the exploited tribe and saves the planet from the oppressors; the other as a less exciting but highly detailed chronicle of the reality of modern battles—organizers, lawyers, and celebrities today have become the warriors, shamans, and chieftains of earlier times.”

Avatar: Blockbuster film as socio-political and green allegory?


“Pictures are for entertainment, messages should be delivered by Western Union.”

Those words by American film producer and studio founder Sam Goldwyn (1879-1974) sum up Hollywood’s attitude to movie-making for the past many decades.

As I watched James Cameron’s latest blockbuster movie Avatar, I kept wondering how the master film maker managed to subvert this so completely. Beneath the 3D, special effects and riot of other worldly colours, the movie is one long (2 hrs 40 mins) and powerful commentary on why might is not right when it comes to exploiting resources — belonging to other countries, people, or as in this case, other worlds.

This is not just another worthy indie movie made by an idealistic movie maker defiant of Hollywood traditions and big money. James Cameron is one of the most commercially successful directors in the mainstream film industry – and perhaps one of the very few who can get away with this kind of stunt. At a budget of over US$ 300 million , Avatar is one of the most expensive films ever made, and the costliest ever for 20th Century Fox.

The big gamble is certainly paying off. On 26 January 2010 came the news that Avatar has surpassed Titanic as the highest-grossing movie worldwide. According to the studio, worldwide box office total for Avatar at that point stood at US$1.859 billion, beating the US$1.843 billion racked up by Cameron’s romantic drama in 1997-98. Avatar broke that record in a little over six weeks.

Part of the reason for such appeal is the extraordinary special effects: it’s an action-packed thriller where good and evil battle it out on another planet. The strange landscapes give it a video game like feel, but no small screen can match the theatrical experience, especially if you watch it in IMAX 3D (I didn’t). And for a change, this time the aliens inhabiting planet Pandora are benign, while it’s the humans who are ruthless invaders and brutal killers. Well, at least most of the time…

Here’s the official blurb: “Avatar takes us to a spectacular world beyond imagination, where a reluctant hero embarks on an epic adventure, ultimately fighting to save the alien world he has learned to call home. James Cameron, the Oscar-winning director of Titanic, first conceived the film 15 years ago, when the means to realize his vision did not exist yet. Now, after four years of production, AVATAR, a live action film with a new generation of special effects, delivers a fully immersive cinematic experience of a new kind, where the revolutionary technology invented to make the film disappears into the emotion of the characters and the sweep of the story.”

And here’s AVATAR – Official International Launch Trailer (HD)

Film critics and social commentators around the world have noticed the many layers of allegory in the film. Interestingly, depending on where you come from, the movie’s underlying ‘message’ can be different: anti-war, pro-environment, anti-Big Oil, anti-mining, pro-indigenous people, and finally, anti-colonial or anti-American. Or All of the Above…

It looks as if Cameron has made the ultimate DIY allegory movie: he gives us the template into which any one of us can add our favourite injustice or underdog tale — and stir well. Then sit back and enjoy while good triumphs over evil, and the military-industrial complex is beaten by ten-foot-tall, blue-skinned natives brandishing little more than bows and arrows (and with a little help from Ma Nature). If only it works that way in real life…

But the multi-purpose allegory is apparently working well. Take these two from opposite sides of the planet:

Thomas Eddlem wrote in The New American: “Avatar, is a visually stunning epic that is a perfect allegory for any of a dozen or more Indian wars in American history. From King Philip’s War in New England to Tippecanoe in Indiana to Horseshoe Bend in Alabama — and all the way across the American continent, for that matter — the story was the same. Colonists simply take land from the natives, as the Sully explains: ‘This is how it’s done. When people are sitting on something that you want, you make them your enemy so that you can drive them out.’

Mayank Shekhar wrote in The Hindustan Times newspaper: “Between a green worldview and the globe’s war over a natural resource, James Cameron’s twin analogies of present-day politics are fairly complete. They lend his science fiction ‘event picture’ a certain soul, even if not much of a story line.”

So did Cameron set out trying to send a message? Or was it all an incidental byproduct? Listen to the director himself in these two online video stories:

James Cameron’s Vision Featurette

CBS Interview with James Cameron: From Titanic to Avatar

The most compelling social commentary on Avatar I have so far read comes from Naomi Wolf, the American political activist, author and social critic. In an op ed essay written for Project Syndicate, she sees two revealing themes in Avatar: “the raw, guilty template of the American unconscious in the context of the ‘war on terror’ and late-stage corporate imperialism, and a critical portrayal of America – for the first time ever in a Hollywood blockbuster – from the point of view of the rest of the world.”

She adds: “In the Hollywood tradition, of course, the American hero fighting an indigenous enemy is innocent and moral, a reluctant warrior bringing democracy, or at least justice, to feral savages. In Avatar , the core themes highlight everything that has gone wrong with Americans’ view of themselves in relation to their country’s foreign policy.”

Does the box office triumph of Avatar make James Cameron one of the most effective campaigners for social justice on the planet (comparable, in some ways, to Michael Jackson having been one of the biggest environmental communicators of his time)?

And is Avatar the most expensive piece of info-tainment or edu-tainment ever made, just like the Lord of the Rings trilogy was one long (even if unintended) commercial for the breathtaking sights and sounds of New Zealand?

Certainly, mixing messages with entertainment is such a difficult and delicate art that most people who dabble in it fall between the two stools. The entertainment value of Cameron’s latest flick is not in question. Granted, it’s not as heart-breaking as Titanic, and the storyline is oh-so-predictable. But 3D and SFX magic alone can’t hold today’s audiences gripped for 160 long minutes. And if the underlying story starts movie-goers thinking and talking about many parallels between the fictional world of Pandora and our own Earth, he’s certainly getting somewhere.

As Naomi Wolf says: “Ironically, Avatar will probably do more to exhume Americans’ suppressed knowledge about the shallowness of their national mythology in the face of their oppressive presence in the rest of the world than any amount of editorializing, college courses, or even protest from outside America’s borders. But I am not complaining about this. Hollywood is that powerful. But, in the case of Avatar , the power of American filmmaking has for once been directed toward American self-knowledge rather than American escapism.”

Perhaps this wasn’t part of the script, but would the executives at 20th Century Fox care as they laugh all the way to their bank?