July 6, 2012

Brazil's Original Sin: New film declares war on Belo Monte dam

Brazilian film maker André D'Elia has declared war on the controversial hydroelectric dam along the Xingu river in the new film "Belo Monte: Anúncio de uma Guerra."

The 104 minute film premiered at a free public showing in São Paulo on June 17 -- timed to coincide with the "Rio +20" Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro -- and was immediately released for free viewing on Vimeo. An English translation was posted on YouTube last week.

The production team took advantage of the new landscape of online social media, funding the project entirely through web-based contributions by 3429 donors totaling over 140,000 Brazilian reais (about $78,000) and distributing the film freely on the internet.

Belo Monte: A Declaration of War
Photo source: Belo Monte film FaceBook page

The film is built around a series of interviews with indigenous leaders, non-indigenous Xingu inhabitants, NGO representatives, writers and representatives of the Brazilian government including ombudsmen, politicians and FUNAI Indian Agency employees.  

If Raoni -- a charismatic Kayapó leader who has led the protest movement against Belo Monte since the 1980s -- is the film's hero, its villain is Nicias Ribeiro, the smooth-talking Special Secretary for Mines and Energy of Pará state.

What the film lacks in subtlety and depth, it makes up for in breadth and urgency.

One of the most intriguing interviews in the film is with anthropologist Marcio Meira, who was president of Brazil's Indian Agency, FUNAI, from 2007-2012. Portrayed in the film as a Faustian figure, Meira provides a surprisingly candid assessment of the historical context surrounding Belo Monte.

He characterizes the colonization of the Amazon, and the concomitant conquest of its indigenous inhabitants, as Brazil's "original sin." And he appears to acknowledge -- whether in irony or resignation -- the role of FUNAI and its predecessor, the Indian Protection Service (SPI), in facilitating this conquest over the past century.

Other prominent voices in the film include Marcelo Salazar of Instituto Socioambiental, Renata Pinheiro of Xingu Vivo, journalist Luis Flavio Pinto and federal prosecutor Felicio Pontes Jr.

In one especially powerful scene a Xinguano chief berates the camera as if it were some captured enemy, and then his formidable wife swings a war club directly at it, entreating the film-makers to take their war-cry against the dam across the globe, but especially to Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff.

Video still: Xinguano warrior woman swings a club at the camera

The interviews are mingled, not altogether successfully, with breathtaking but sometimes gratuitous vistas of rivers and forests, vignettes of indigenous life and historical footage showing the international protest movement that successfully halted the original Belo Monte dam project in the late 1980s.

Shunned by international banks ever since, the Belo Monte dam was shelved for two decades until it was finally approved in 2010 by the Brazilian government and heavily funded by Brazil's development bank, BNDES, despite protest by local indigenous groups, repeated national legal challenges and concerns raised by international bodies including the Organization of American States.  

"Stop Belo Monte": Protestors occupy the causeway
Photo source: Atossa Soltani / AmazonWatch

Celebrities like Sting, James Cameron and Bianca Jagger have supported a renewed protest movement that gained traction and visibility in recent weeks during the Rio +20 Summit with street protests in Rio de Janeiro and an ongoing occupation of the construction site on the Xingu River.  

D'Elia's film, with its crowd-sourced funding, viral marketing and audacious "declaration of war" makes for a timely and innovative documentary about this movement, as well as a provocative contribution to it.