How Does Avatar Play in the Amazon?

‘Avatar’ in the AmazonPublic Radio International

Somebody set up an event where indigenous leaders from the Ecuadorean Amazon were bussed in to Quito to watch Avatar. My first instinct, in imagining that scenario, is to feel a little uncomfortable. I found Avatar to be a grab bag ethically. It’s by no means an intentionally complex story — it’s all pretty black and white in Jim Cameron’s fantasy world — but responding to the narrative might require some mildly tricky ethical parsing on the viewer’s part. This has been pointed out many times now, but to review:

  • on the one hand, the basic plot of the indigenous resisting the colonialist paramilitary forces of the white environmental exploiters is obviously benign, if a little pat. American forces getting whacked by the righteous, in an American film!
  • on the other hand, I can’t imagine a more full-bodied instance of the noble savage myth. I mean, these guys are thoroughly in perfect harmony with their environment, thanks to their untouched uncomplexity, and not having eaten the apple.
  • and most significantly, and as has been pointed out many times, the indigenous are powerless to save themselves until a white leader organizes them.

The good news is that all of these elements are presented in such a heavy handed manner that you can pretty safely ignore them and get on with the business of watching what is, absolutely, an extraordinary 3d spectacle. The writing is too stupid to be insidious.

But what about if it was being shown to some folks from up river in the Oriente? The article points out that some of them had apparently never even been in a movie theatre before. I’ll bet some of them had, especially if they were local political leaders. Then again, a local Hourani headman once asked me if he could try my CD Walkman, and when I let him, he sat in my hammock and listened to Johnny Cash and Willy Nelson’s Story Tellers Live from beginning right through to the end, clapping whenever the audience clapped, and giving the strong impression of never having listened to music on headphones before. Or maybe he just really liked Johnny Cash and Willy Nelson (who wouldn’t?).

I digress. Point is, I wouldn’t know beforehand exactly how a room full of Ecuadorean indigenous leaders would respond to Avatar. In 3d no less. According to whomever prepared the article/audio/video, apparently pretty well:

“Honestly, this is the first time I’m seeing this movie, and it’s reality, what’s happening now just in another dimension.”

Others say there was at least one thing in the movie that veered from their reality. Achuar leader Luis Vargas says it’s where the white guy sweeps in to the rescue. But he says that’s to be expected.

“This is a Hollywood movie, so it’s practically a given that a mestizo comes to the defense and leads [the people] to triumph in the end.”

Still, he liked the film, and his fellow Achuar leader Ernesto Vargas says he hopes another group will get a chance to see it.

“Think of how much better it would be if we showed this film to people who actually want to exploit petroleum. I think it would serve them very well, even more than us.”

Also very interesting:

As for Ecuador’s President Correa, he saw the movie with his children the day after it premiered in Ecuador. No word yet on what he thought of it.

Correa is a smart guy, it’s going to be pretty clear to him that Ecuador and the petroleum and mining struggles there are an obvious surrogate for Pandora in the western mind. Many, many western minds have now imbibed Avatar. Western perception, and Correa’s perception of western perception, counts highly in the outcomes of those struggles.

As well as the full text at the link, there’s audio:


and this video:

Re: Los Cedros Reserva

A while ago I was contacted by someone who was considering spending some time in Reserva Los Cedros in Ecuador, asking what my general opinions of that place might be. I made the website for the reserve and they found my email there. I finally got back to them today, and in case it might be useful for others thinking of spending some time up there, here’s what I thought to say.

Hey Jody, sorry for the long wait,

OK, Los Cedros.

What it isn’t: professional. There is no managed tourist program or sophisticated conservation apparatus at reserva Los Cedros. It’s really just a whole lot of cloud forest sitting on a mountain top. Occasionally some scientists go there, but that’s not especially common as far as I can tell. The guy who runs it is a crotchety old coot.

What it is: a whole bunch of cloud forest sitting on a mountain top. And if there’s anything better than that, it would be a whole bunch of cloud forest sitting on a mountain top without a bunch of smarmy professionals running the show. My experience with Ecaudor is that professionalism has a hard ceiling, and that the best thing that can happen there is for people not to screw things up too much. Conservation is mostly a matter of deliberate inaction. In that sense, Los Cedros is a conservation machine.

It’s also a treefort paradise. You can do practically whatever pleases you, live how you wish to live. They’ll probably expect you to cut some trail and tend the garden and if there are any active science programs going maybe you can census some monkeys or some orchids but I haven’t heard that there are any such programs at the moment. Ask Jose (crotchety old coot), he’ll know. It’s a lot of swinging in hammocks and watching the toucans break from canopy to canopy through the cloud mist and listening to the howler monkeys and occasionally trekking out for a dunk under the cascada. If I went back I’d probably try to repair the water line to the old middle house and set up my homestead there. And I probably could, it’s a very do-you-own-thing scenario.

One major variable is: who else will be there at the same time? There’s no guessing what other “volunteers” will be around, and it makes a difference. I’ve spoken with people who were practically alone for their entire stay, which could be lonely or marvelous depending on your inclinations. When I was there there was good little crew and we had a fine time.

Last time I was up was 3 (?) years ago and nothing much had changed since 2001 when I first went, which suited me fine. Some people would hate the experience as pointless and vague. Whenever I get too busy, I imagine a month in the cloud forest.

As for the cloud forest itself: I’ve spent a couple months in the jungle basin doing science stuff, and it is incredible. But the cloud forest has 80% of the biological incredibleness of the jungle (which is to say, more than I can imagine, even having been there), and %10 of the discomfort, and much better views into the canopy and into the valleys. It’s a mind blower.

If all of that doesn’t sound like your kind of thing, do not go at all. It’s not a standard tourist activity. Nor is there any shame in not wishing to be bored and listless after walking 6 hours through the mud uphill. If that does sound like your kind of thing, I highly recommend it. I wish I was there now.