Fifteen years ago, Brazilian photographer Denise Zmekhol traveled deep into the Amazon rainforest to photograph the children of the Surui and Negarote tribes. At that time, these communities were still mostly isolated, still nearly completely cut-off from the outside world. Zmekhol returned to document how the lives of these young adults, today in their late teens and early twenties, have changed.
Children of The Amazon is more, however, than a cinematic tour of a group of Amazon children. The story of Surui and Negarote children growing into adulthood is the story about their tribal communities and the Amazon rainforest. Equipped with film camera, Zmekhol has made an important documentary that includes her personal account of these adult children and the broader picture of this critical region.
The Amazon has the largest forest and largest fresh water supply in the world. Its vegetation and trees are the source for 20 percent of the world's oxygen. It has the greatest number of species in the world and the greatest plant diversity and is rich in medical plants. The Amazon rainforest is important not only to those who live there but also to us.
Change came to the Amazon big-time in the 1960s when a simple footpath was made into a dirt road for vehicles. That road eventually became an asphalt highway that sliced 2,000 miles through the very heart of the rainforest and the Surui and Negartoe tribal lands. This was a time when destruction of the indigenous was called progress, and progress was unquestioned. The road brought rubber barons, cattle ranchers, loggers, and violence and murder. And the road brought people with diseases that decimated the indigenous population, especially elders. When elders are suddenly gone, the myths and customs that keep a traditional society strong are soon gone.
As the 1960s gave way to the end of the century, modernity's cultural assault on the Surui and Negarote tribes picked up steam. There was the arrival of priests and the building of churches and the reading of the Christian bible and the watching of television -- the great transmitter of values.
The "opening" of the Amazon with the building of the road brought environmental destruction for economic profit and cultural assault to dislocate and eventually transform a people.
The children that Denise Zmekhol photographed 15 years ago were isolated in their "Forest Time." Today they are not. Today they live in two worlds, "between two worlds" as one said expressing the alienation. They speak Portuguese as well as their native tongue. They go to government schools instead of being educated by their traditional culture. They adapt the God of Jesus Christ and participate in the cash economy, instead of following their native religion and and living in "Forest Time."
Children of The Amazon is a coming of age story about youth and region. The story is about children living in an indigenous culture as teenagers and then as young adults living in two cultures -- not always harmoniously, sometimes in conflict. Zmekhol tells this complex story well. The interviews and commentary are nicely woven; she meshes together the intimate and the larger with transitions that are smooth. The cinematic images are crisp, and archival footage furnishes history and context.
Although the Amazon deforestation proceeds at an alarming rate -- some 150 million acres have been deforested -- and environmental degradation marches forward, the story is not hopeless. Children of The Amazon also carries a hopeful note. With the government establishing Protected Areas for indigenous people, some tribal leaders are organized and resisting the continued onslaught of their lands and culture.
Yet cultural penetration of the Sureui and Negarote tribes is already significant. The indigenous people of the Amazon have now become a major problem in the destruction of their own land and culture. As they live on the precarious line of two worlds, needing money for the cash economy while yearning for the pristine forest, nothing is simple in this tale of traditional society battered by the modern forces of economy and culture. Children of The Amazon handles this complex story with subtlety and charity. Hope is tempered with realism as the children of 15 years ago become the Amazon tribal leaders of today.
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