Activist Filmmaking

The Amazon rainforest, the sweaty locale of many films, both entertainment and documentary, has many connotations: mystical, dangerous, exotic, native, prehistoric, medicinal, potent, endangered. It is constructed, often as an important area of concern to ecologists and anthropologists, in both news and entertainment media. Some examples of the latter, like Anaconda, have little to offer to society beyond cheap entertainment; others, like Fern Gully, are blatantly pro-environmentalism and conservation (“hippie propaganda,” as one of my more cynical friends puts it). The Amazon certainly deserves special consideration and protection: it is not only a garden of extreme biodiversity, but an important medical and bioregulatory source, and, of course, the home of many peoples.

The Amazon’s size and wealth has called itself to the attention of both those who would exploit it and those who would exoticize it. A prime subject for the curious ethnographer, the Amazonian natives live off the land, showing great mastery of their complex environment, and moreover have shown remarkable political interest and talent. Terence Turner is hardly the only ethnographer to explore the latter; in the early 1990s Joe Kane lived among the Huaorani in Ecuador, and gave voice to one named Moi, who traveled to Washington, D.C. with Kane to speak for the Huaorani whose homes had been devastated by oil development and spills. (Incidentally, Moi also visited my university by request of my professor, who had met him through a colleague.)

The documentation of the problems of damming, deforestation, oil extraction, poaching, and drug trafficking in the Amazon has been shared by anthropologists, biologists, human rights activists, and journalists; yet this essential information, while well-distributed, seems to have not yet supplanted the dual exoticization of and disengagenement from the Amazon. From informal observation of my conversation partners, even people who identify as “eco” or “concerned” aren’t aware of much going in the Amazon besides “deforestation” and “it’s big.”

Although the eco-minded family movies of the 90s and early 00s (Fern Gully, Free Willy, Finding Nemo, to name just a few) have given way to disaster and apocalyptic movies with an ecological twist (The Core, The Day After Tomorrow), the impact of either type of film is something to consider. The label of “hippie propaganda” might not be inaccurate (and I certainly wouldn’t consider it a bad thing).

From a post by Turner:

[I]n a march in Brasilia on April 12 [2010] that targeted all the government ministries implicated in approving the plan for Belo Monte [a new dam in the Kayapo’s region], and called for the cancellation of the project […] they were joined by James Cameron, the producer of Avatar, and members of the cast of the film.

There are clear parallels between the battle of the fictional indigenous people against the attempt by a giant corporation to extract precious minerals from their planet, modeled on the Amazon rain forest, and the struggle of the inhabitants of the Xingú valley against the damming of their rivers to generate power, much of which is intended for the production of minerals such as aluminum for export. In both cases, the collateral damage of the extractive projects threatens to destroy the ecosystem and way of life of the native people, and in both cases, they resist.

Cameron visited the site of the planned Belo Monte dam, and some of the indigenous villages that it would affect, in March of this year, and was so struck by the similarities in their situation with that of the Navi of his film that he committed himself to support their movement against the dams. His return to Brazil with members of the cast on April 12, 2010, to take part in the march in Brasilia, was a public affirmation of his support for their cause. Sigourney Weaver, of the Avatar cast, later led a similar march in New York against the Xingú dams.

One might dismiss the stars’ involvement in such causes as mere face time, an attempt to shine their images, but that Cameron borrowed from generic struggles of the Amazonian people, and then found his (very heavy-handed) eco-propaganda film validated to the point that he was moved to further action, is a very nice conflation of life and art. Avatar, once linked with a real-world corollary, moved from an alien fantasy to a de-exoticized pseudo-documentary (a similar treatment was more intentionally given to District 9, a human rights parable and pseudo-documentary of South African apartheid, wearing the skin of a sci-fi flick).

Cameron’s involvement, as well as Weaver’s, can only help the cause, even if it cannot stop Belo Monte (the construction of which was just reinstated by the Brazilian Supreme Court). As for would-be eco-propagandists, a good rule is to get as close to the real-world while being as unreal as possible, because I’m guessing it sometimes takes talking animals and giant blue people to get people out of their head.

Cross-posted on Confluey.

Videoblog: “Prima Donna”

Here it is… the final cut of Prima Donna, for which I designed and built costumes, did on-set makeup, and decorated the set alongside production designer Josh Warden. Filmed in Tampa, FL, we didn’t get the sun we wanted but the lush woods around Lutz look great. In case you can’t tell by the wear-and-tear on costumes and makeup, it was pretty darn hot. Still, I think everything turned out very well.

[vimeo w=400&h=225]

Prima Donna (2011) from Laurie Thomas on Vimeo.

Linkblog Double Feature: “Bully”

Okay, I admit, I might be a little disappointed that someone beat me to creating a major documentary film on bullying. But truthfully, there can never be too many, and my project takes a different tack than Bully, Lee Hirsch’s devastating portrait of the blind-eye teachers, school administrators, and bus drivers who don’t see the pain and torment within their walls. The film has become a hot topic in Hollywood thanks to Harvey Weinstein’s campaign to overturn its R rating…a debate that has, more clearly than ever, revealed in the MPAA the same stilted values and black-and-white thinking that allows for bullying.

Marlo Thomas writes an impassioned plea for your ticket money:

Adults may be horrified by what they see in Bully, but the kids know this world all too well. Directed by Lee Hirsch, the film captures the wrenching drama of schoolyard bullying — the hitting and harassing, the tormenting and tears, the grave suffering — in unflinching detail, as it zooms in on the daily battles waged by five bullied children, two of whom ultimately commit suicide. But sitting through the film will be worth every harrowing minute, especially to the children, whose only hope against this ever deepening crisis is the visible and vocal support of the adults in their lives.

Consider me convinced of the film’s worth.

Linkblog: Can we stop diagnosing and start solving?

As anyone slightly familiar with psychiatry knows, psychiatrists reference a text called the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders both when diagnosing the source of their patients’  troubles and when determining how to treat them. Among the DSM’s many criticisms is that it enforces cultural stereotypes and its use is subject to the observer’s biases. In addition, the particular sets of symptoms have undergone alteration over the years (the next edition, DSM-5, is to be released next year), and even the names of disorders are cleaned up or rearranged, such that someone diagnosed with multiple personality disorder years ago would be described as having a “dissociative identity” now, and someone termed schizophrenic before may be bipolar, manic depressive, dissociative, or chronically depressed now.

The problems with defining mental problems have been dramatized endlessly in films, plays, and TV shows, and one in particular is the most compelling reason to change or eliminate the method. In anthropology, “labeling” is more than an action; it’s a set of symbolic actions, words, and sociopsychological connotations, in which labeling both produces the label and the associated activity that confirms the label. In adolescents this can both reinforce stereotypes about adolescents, contribute to “typical” adolescent behavior, and, for bullying victims, in particular, be potentially damaging.

Interestingly, the DSM is under attack:

Many [clinicians] will participate in “Boycott Normal,” a demonstration planned for May 5, when the American Psychiatric Association (APA) meets in Philadelphia and is likely to vote to go forward and publish the DSM-5.


Foremost among these advocates is feminist psychologist Paula J. Caplan, a fellow in the Women and Public Policy Program at Harvard’s Kennedy School, and the Joan-of-Arc of the new PLAN T Alliance (Psychiatric Labeling Action Network for Truth). The alliance is a coalition of individuals and organizations formed because of frustration with the unscientific nature of the DSM, the harm done to many people who receive arbitrary diagnostic labels, and the unwillingness of the APA to undertake serious reform.

Imagine being a troubled teenager, bullied, ostracised, and confused, and going to a counselor who recommends a psychiatrist who tells the student that they are A, so take B, and behave like C to “get better.” It frees the tormentors from responsibility because the victim was “just that way to begin with,” frees school counselors and administrators from responsibility to provide a safe, judgment-free school, and it slaps the “crazy” label on a vulnerable person in an overstimulating environment.

Am pressed for time so will continue this topic on my next bookblog, which is on the topic of adolescent culture.