The forests of Amazonia continue to be threatened by economic development, the arrival of migrants, and the extensification of agriculture. Thus, it is surprising how few serious films released in the United States focus on this important region. Many of the films available tend to be little more than travel logs, historical exposes (focusing on the exploits of the Ford Motor Company or Theodore Roosevelt), or sensationalist accounts of "deadly" wildlife or strange creatures native to the Basin. Children of the Amazon is a far cry from these cable "edutainment" channel staples, which is immediately refreshing.
Filmmaker and photographer Denise Zmekhol starts the film as an account of her journey to revisit a handful of Surui children she photographed while working with a film crew in Central Rondônia during the early 1990s. This part of the narrative successfully sets the stage for an explanation of the trials and tribulations of indigenous people and their former rivals, the rubber tappers, in their struggle to remain on, and in control of, their traditional lands. Zmekhol uses her wonderful photographs, video footage from the early 1990s, and interviews with the young people she photographed as children to show how life for the Surui people has changed visibly in 15-years.
The initial scenes of Children of the Amazon are both fascinating and heart-warming, but the film itself is more about the ongoing cultural and environmental threats affecting Amazonia today than a story of children in the Amazon. After reconnecting with the children she once spent time with, Zmekhol takes us on a journey along BR-364, the national highway which connects Cuiaba, Mato Grosso with the state of Acre. The narrative of cultural and environmental onslaught starts with some history: the arrival of rubber tappers in the Western Amazon, the striking impact of contact, initiated by the Brazilian National Indian Institute (FUNAI), and the rise of the rubber tapper movement in Acre. These topics make up much of the rest of the film. In one of the most intriguing parts of the film, Zmekhol's personal friendship with Chico Mendes allows her to revisit his wife and children 15 years later, and to discuss the campaign for rubber tapper rights that eventually led to his assassination. The struggle for environmental preservation through extractive reserves continues, and in the face of somewhat discouraging subject matter (the cultural and environmental assault on the Amazon) it is uplifting to see Mendez's survivors and friends enthusiastically continuing the struggle he began more than 20 years ago.
While Children of the Amazon provides a visually striking overview of the challenges politically and socially disadvantaged groups in Amazonia face today, the film is not without its flaws. Its primary tone thoroughly reifies the remnants of the Surui as ecologically concerned and caring rainforest citizens, despite their own admission in the film that they "work together with loggers." In a number of instances, Zmekhol's generally capable narration discusses "untouched" Amazon forest, and presents a view [End Page 175] of the Amazon shared by many outside of Amazonia – that it is an environment that must be preserved at (almost) all costs. The voice of a multitude of Amazonians who struggle daily to produce in this environment, and who want nothing more than a reliable road to get to and from market centers, remains silent in the film. Even the advantages to integration, such as access to healthcare and education, are addressed in a tone that presents them more as a necessary evil than a benefit. A minor difficulty is that some topics in the film are discussed too briefly or superficially to be provided to students without further explanation. For example, the saga of the suspension of international aid for road building in the Amazon, which relates directly to nearly all of the subject...