Sunday 11 September 2016

Amazon primed: "When Two Worlds Collide"

Heidi Brandenburg and Mathew Orzel's When Two Worlds Collide documents yet another example of slow, insidious corporate creep. The two worlds in question are identified in the opening instants. First, we're shown around one of the Amazon's leafier stretches, still home to small groups of natives in the year 2007; we then cut indoors to Alan Garcia, then-President of Peru, as he jovially invites visiting representatives of the American Chamber of Commerce to invest in his country - which, even at this early stage in the film, sounds a little like inviting the Esso tiger round for tea. The effect this intervention would have on the environment over the next few years is made startlingly obvious via the kind of images the cinema excels at: what at first appeared fresh and green is soon turned sticky and black, a consequence of the pipeline plumbed in alongside the river to carry local oil deposits north. Legal threats - noting that the free-trade agreement Garcia struck with the US directly contravenes UN rulings on the rights of indigenous people - are overwritten by a more immediate health threat: a quick tour of the local emergency wards finds doctors and nurses concerned by the increased levels of toxins being found in the water supply. It's almost as though accelerated heavy industry isn't very good for communities such as these.

If the directors are picking over issues that have been amply rehearsed in several dozen recent docs, their concerns are no less valid or disturbing when revisited in close-up. WTWC finds its specific focus in the fightback that got under way in 2009, when the tribespeople first organised themselves into a grassroots resistance movement under the leadership of one Alberto Pizango, blocking throughroads, encircling key buildings, and persuading the engineers to close the pipelines. Pizango is the kind of figurehead oft described as "outspoken", but it may just be that his voice needed to be heard louder than most, given that there are no indigenous representatives in the Peruvian congress. What follows is the uneasiest of standoffs, as Pizango gives the greenlight for insurgency, while the well-fed Garcia uses every means at his disposal to break this impasse and ensure business goes ahead as usual. It gets grim: that blackened ground will turn another shade - crimson red - as bodies fall upon it, and the directors have assembled plenty of horrific/gripping footage as this industrial zone is reconfigured into a crime scene. Even those with experience of tooth-and-claw capitalism probably won't believe how far the situation was allowed to go before the arbitration option was floated - but this, Brandenburg and Orzel suggest, is how merciless and violent landgrabs have become in the 21st century, when governments and corporations simply have many more media outlets through which to spin and launder their actions.

The film, clearly, picks its side - but it does so in part to counter the position of the Peruvian mainstream media, whose reports frame the natives as revolting peasants holding the rest of the country to ransom by threatening the nation's prosperity and energy reserves. (The excerpts Brandenburg and Orzel grab from nightly news bulletins provide the sharpest examples of structural bias that I can think of in recent cinema.) Congress, too, plays its part in shutting down the debate, deflecting all responsibility for the pivotal bloodbath onto Pizango, and eventually sending him to fleeing across the rooftops - literally - and into exile. The film benefits from taking a longer view, working to a clear and vindicating arc; it is, also, one of those docs that can usefully focus our attention, consolidating a decade's worth of patchy, inside-page press coverage into one single, punchy, 100-minute briefing from the punchline. Brandenburg and Orzel can show us the impact of corporate aggression and governmental oppression on faces and bodies in a way a photograph tucked deep within the International Herald Tribune couldn't quite, while doing much else to keep the flame of resistance alight: their film explains, with perspicacity and an admirable patience, how long it might take and what it might cost for a people to stand up and make themselves heard - and why doing that might be more important than ever in this day and age.

When Two Worlds Collide is now playing at London's Picturehouse Central.

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