Film Shows The Amazon Through Children’s Eyes


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By E.Q. Lam
May 10, 2012

BERKELEY, CA — In 1987, early in her career, Denise Zmekhol (ZD Films) joined filmmakers on a trip to Brazil to look at the impact of two major roads being built through the Amazon rainforest.

“And that’s when I started photography on the side,” says Zmekhol, who is based in the San Francisco Bay Area, but originally from Brazil.

Years later, she dusted off those negatives for some class presentations in California, and then decided to find out what happened to the subjects of her photos: the children of two Amazonian tribes. The result is the documentary Children of the Amazon (2008), a look at the environmental impact of these roads and other developments on the rainforest, the Surui and Negarote tribes who live there, and the rubber tappers who make their living there (and Chico Mendes in particular). The roads that the Brazilian government built invited more settlers into the Amazon. Mendes was a rubber tapper who became an international advocate and environmental hero for leading the call to protect the Amazon from development such as clearing the land for ranching.

Zmekhol wants her film to inspire a certain reaction from viewers: “I want to have them get inspired to take some action and create some change, but mainly to realize that we’re all connected. So whatever happens in the Amazon is going to affect us here, and whatever we do here contributes [to their conditions].”

She cites hardwood floors as an example. Many people now pay attention to the source of hardwood floor products they buy to ensure that they not come from trees illegally logged in the Amazon.

“And even choosing to turn off the lights is supporting less, taking less from life,” Zmekhol adds.

Zmekhol, who narrates the film in addition to having produced and directed it, had not originally intended to make a documentary focused on environmental aspects.

“First, it was very simple. I was just going to go back and check up on the kids,” Zmekhol says. “But how do you tell what is happening with these kids if you don’t go back to tell how they were impacted by these roads? So I started kind of going back in time, and it was such a rich story.”

Children of the Amazon is Zmekhol’s first full-length documentary. Besides the origin for the story that began two decades earlier on a trip into the Amazon, the film work itself took six years to complete.

“It was a very hard story to tell,” she says. “It was a lot of effort to make it clear so that people wouldn’t get lost or confused.”

The film shows Zmekhol’s storytelling chops. For instance, it tells about the enchanting “forest time,” a phrase used by one tribal girl in the film.

“It’s the time when the forest was everything they had, and they lived harmoniously like they had forever,” Zmekhol explains, “before the time that the roads were built and they suffered.”

After her time photographing the tribal children in 1988, Zmekhol also spent time with Mendes. For the film, she also wanted to catch up with his daughter and son.

“I had taken probably the last photos of Chico, because it was the last month before he died,” she says. “I was reminded of Chico Mendes’s favor, which I never kept.”

The favor Mendes had asked of Zmekhol was to film his funeral, as he had a price on his head for his vocal opposition to ranching in the rainforest. Mendes’ premonition was realized in 1988 shortly after Zmekhol left Brazil, yet she was not able to quickly pull together a film crew from the United States for the funeral.

“I didn’t have all the resources to get to the Amazon in one day,” Zmekhol recalls. “Because in Brazil, we bury our dead very fast.”

Including Mendes in her film was appropriate: “His daughter said to me once [that] she was very happy that I didn’t make a film about his funeral, but that I could tell the story of his life,” Zmekhol says.

Still relevant—or perhaps even more relevant than ever—after three years of being shown at film festivals and special events in various countries such as Nepal, Spain, Taiwan, and Belgium, Children of the Amazon has won numerous awards, been featured at a United Nation’s film festival, as well as drawn the attention of Britain’s Prince Charles for his rainforests project.

Zmekhol says showing the film at indigenous film festivals in particular is rewarding.
“You’re connecting with the people who have the same history, being colonized. They recognize the same story.”

A home and education DVD release is in the works, and Zmekhol says it is slated for wide distribution in 2013.

For related articles, see:
Sundance Film Festival Highlights Best-In-Class Green Docs
SF Ocean Film Festival: Meet You at the Oysters

© 2012 SCGH, LLC.

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