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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Green Thoughts in a Green Shade
by Donald Levit

On the low jungle Amazon and closer to Brazil, Colombia and Ecuador than to Lima, Iquitos is at the heart of 140,000 square miles of rainforest, roughly the size of California. Each wearing various hats for their first film, Christian Chapman, Paul Jason Hoffman and Cody Troyer spent four months in and around this Department of Loreto capital and surrounding jungle and waterways for La Selva Tranquila, the title untranslated because it “sounds good and, besides, that adjective is used often by inhabitants.”

In their post-screening Q&A at Maysles Cinema in Harlem, the young filmmakers indicated that their intention at least was apolitical, that outlook for the area was a mixed bag of trade-offs, that rural indigenes were open to freebie interviews while wary city dwellers wanted cash to talk, and that given lack of refrigeration their own diet went heavy on rice and pasta.

Racked by the corruption, inefficiency, foreign debt, insurgencies, banditry and multinational domination that hamper the nation and its neighbors, the government nevertheless has taken steps to protect both the poor native peoples and the rich flora and fauna. But enforcement has been another matter in the dozens of national parks, reserves and sanctuaries added to historical, forest and reserve zones. The film focuses on the Allpahuayo-Mishana National Reserve, which also encompasses what are denominated Private Reserves, i.e., those in individual or company hands licensed to make certain restricted uses of land and resources.

At fifty-two minutes the documentary is too short for theatrical release and better suited for the school circuit or the television screen on which it will unfortunately lose the contributing sense of boundless horizon. In compensation, on the other hand, is the concept of shrinking horizons: while, say, in many places soggy land precludes roads to bear heavily laden logging trucks, and while pristine acreage is still enormous, indigenous people voice their realization that the selva is not inexhaustible as once imagined. “Only recently did we realize what we are losing.”

A non-fiction like this obviously invites shots of nature, but although close-up insects like a spectacular pink-trimmed beetle scaling a man’s back and largely caged or pet animals and cuddly children do add spice, they take up minutes of the limited run time that should have gone elsewhere.

That “elsewhere” is two-pronged. First there is the departure of young adults from the villages, propelled by boredom and lack of work and money. Some leave for military service, others for towns and cities; most never come back permanently, while some like Bernardino return for good to their roots and peaceful way of life, poor in money but rich in experience.

Most, however, are not content to live by bread alone, fish and yucca, so they bring their natural resources to Iquitos markets, where single-mother Chepa, fined for illegal sales of animals like sloths and monkeys, is raising three children and supporting parents forced from the jungle by her father’s disability from snakebite.

More to the point is the career of Katu. Setting out to build an eco-tourism lodge long days’ travel from anywhere, this fluent English-speaking Brazilian finds that land must be cleared for access roads if customers are to be coaxed and that resources must be sold to pay taxes and workers like Segundo.

This cleft stick of ecology versus economics, “natural” as against “manufactured,” is nicely hinted without belaboring. No “blame” is laid, neither at the doorstep of government nor of foreign demand for hardwood furniture. Nor does ST dilute its necessarily truncated consideration by ranging afield into the burning of virgin tracts for cattle ranching nor into issues of rubber, minerals, drugs, petroleum or charcoal and the escalating commercial-interest violence against environmentalists.

Underdeveloped nations are pillaged that the First World may enjoy their wealth, the poor are exploited for a pittance. Prescott has Pizarro goad his sixteenth-century adventurers that “there lies Peru and its riches. Choose, each man.” Youthful and enthusiastic, La Selva Tranquila does not editorialize that can of worms.

(Released by Resonator Films; not rated by MPAA.)

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