By Eric Kohn | Eric Kohn November 16, 2010 at 1:56AM
In case you missed my somewhat lengthy dispatch for indieWIRE on Friday, I spent the past week in Brazil, attending a film festival in the middle of the Amazon rainforest. Of course, the Amazonas Film Festival loves to play up the exoticism of its locale, which isn't actually engulfed by trees and wild animals. The city of Manaus, two million strong, has been a pretty civilized place for decades. But the logline and the truth were always pitted against each other at this impressive gathering, which I attended thanks to a generous invitation from the state of Amazonas. Some people think that letting a festival cover your expenses immediately compromises one's ability to report the facts and speak publicly about the event in question. For a lot of festival coverage, this is probably some truth to this, but I try to work around it and carve my own path.
Anyway, I wasn't the real guest of honor at the festival, nor were my close-knit group of journo pals. Wherever the red carpets showed up, the soap opera stars followed. Sustained by Brazil's massive Globo television conglomerate, Brazilian soap operas exit in a self-contained industry with its own flashy star system, not unlike the behemoth known as Bollywood. Their faces meant nothing to me and my American peers, but the crowds went batty for them. At FishbowlLA, publicist Sylvia Desrochers, who was hired to shepherd us around during the festival, explains the camera-ready function of an overnight trip we took the Amazon Jungle Palace, where some happy-go-lucky Brazilian TV personality chased a handful of soap stars, mic in hand, like a giddy schoolboy on a field trip. The stars, like us, trudged through the mud to get to their rooms -- but you shoulda seen those outfits! Before the mud, I mean.
I keep thinking back to the toucan. This frantic, beautiful little creature we encountered on an island somewhere along the river, ostensibly the pet of an "Indian tribe" that performed some inscrutable ritual for us. The bird was an awesome thing to behold up close, but getting close to the little guy proved to be no easy task. When those beady eyes locked onto you, Toucan Sam of the Amazon would go into full-on attack mode, literally hopping toward his oppressors with a cold stare that would make anyone's blood run cold. (I got my yellow fever shot, but what protects you from a rabid toucan?) Later, I figured out why this seemingly innocuous creature had such a mean streak: His wings had been clipped.
A few feet away, where the "Indians" (visibly wearing underwear beneath their loincloths) greeted their favorite TV personalities (yes, they watch the soaps), a bird had been ensnared to greet the tourists. You don't have to work hard to do the math on this one: He was a slave of a lucrative business that abused his mystique. I guess it beats burning the trees. Right?
Everywhere I looked at the festival, such false advertising threatened to overshadow an incredibly unique and legitimately promising showcase for Brazilian cinema in the state of Amazonas. That parrot flying through a waterfall on the festival's poster? That was just one part of the equation. As Sylvia points out, the real stars in attendance were actresses Dale Dickey (of "Winter's Bone") and Ursula Pruneda (of "The Good Herbs," which will hopefully make the cut at Sundance in January). Both women managed to take home awards by the end of the festival (see Jason Guerrasio's write-up of the closing ceremony, which makes me envious since I had to leave early), but only after a long week of spin.
Having been unfamiliar with Dickey (although I remembered her from "Winter's Bone," she has an impressive list of credits as a character actor) and Pruneda, one of the triumphs of my time in the Amazon was happening upon their talent. Another nice discovery: Short filmmaker Kleber Mendonça Filho, whose quasi-apocalyptic dark comedy "Cold Tropics" demonstrated that cracking jokes about climate troubles need not negate the seriousness of it all. ("Cold Tropics" is not available online, but you can watch Filho's other shorts here, and I understand he has a feature in the works.)
I also happened upon a remarkably driven film activist named Junior Rodrigues, whose Amacine collective travels to rural communities and teaches filmmaking workshops for free (anyone in the States want to give that a go?). And then there were the ambitions of Aldemar Matias, Jr., a charming young documentarian with dreams of attending American film school. Right now, he's working on a documentary that he calls "the project of my life" about indigenous sexual behavior, and has captured images of Indians touching condoms for the first time, among other things. "I want to work on projects that can affirm the self-worth of the Amazonians," he told me, "and also projects that reveal what's behind the biggest Amazon myths." Like, say, that poor toucan.