With the Oscars upon us, many eyes will be on James Cameron and his sci-fi digital adventure, Avatar, which has already grossed $2.5 billion worldwide. It will win best special effects and may win for best director, best film, and six other awards for which it is nominated. But amid the clever jokes from lovable entertainers, the behind the scenes look at its making, the armfuls of awards and lists of people to thank, the actual message of the film may well be lost in the fray. How to preserve it? Put the money made from the blockbuster where it’s needed most: into indigenous communities struggling for the conservation of their land and livelihood.
All critiques acknowledged, it is fair to say that Avatar is a good, if not great, movie. The profit alone, earned in just over two months, speaks for itself. The film is the highest grossing in history in North America and in 25 other countries around the world. And don’t forget the merchandising, TV licensing, DVD sales, video games and, of course, the sequels. Let’s just say there are little slot machines flashing dollar signs in the eyes of everyone who has managed to get a cut of the Avatar jackpot.
And what a jackpot! The film has everything going for it: action, romance, more action, and a three-dimensional digital world that is stunning. Of course it has the obligatory Hollywood plot line — white guy somehow becomes hero of native tribe and saves them from extermination – that continues to be dependably appealing and problematic.
Beyond the blockbuster formula, the film has captivated and even inspired people worldwide, thanks to its timely and lamentably applicable message for this world. Loudly, clearly, and convincingly, it’s a message of conservation, environmentalism, the rights of native peoples to life and land, and one hell of a case for communities to organize and defend both. In other words, it’s about the vital flow and interconnection between all life, be it plant, animal, or 10-foot blue alien.
Where on Earth could James Cameron have come up with such a unique storyline? Oh, right.
Not so sci-fi
Though it doesn’t glow in the dark or have neurons growing out of trees, Earth has an uncanny resemblance to the fictional planet of Pandora. The forests of the film are as thick, lush, and in danger as those of the Amazon, the Congo Basin, or the Greater Sunda Islands of Southeast Asia, all of which have fascinated scientific researchers for years. It is said that more than half the world’s estimated 10 million animal, plant, and insect species live in tropical rainforests, and that the number of species of fish found in the Amazon exceeds the number found in the entire Atlantic Ocean. Avatar creators confess that the looming granite peaks of the Huangshan mountain range of southern China directly inspired Pandora’s floating “Hallelujah Mountains.” It is no fantasyland, but our very own planet, perhaps after a few hallucinogens.
The central conflict of the film – the invasion of a foreign corporation and army, the killing of innocent civilians, and destruction their way of life for the sole purpose of extracting a high-priced natural resource – also strikes a familiar chord. Haven’t we seen this film before, somewhere in the Middle East, circa 2003? This time, however, we are aligned with those civilians who are resisting (and winning), and no one is buying the humanitarianism shtick. Avatar has even been dubbed “anti-imperialist” by some reviewers, and Bolivian president Evo Morales went so far as to call it a “profound show of resistance to capitalism and the struggle for the defense of nature.”
How poignant. Great message. Don’t forget to drink Coca-Cola Light.
A small reclamation
As a dweller of the planet that inspired such a film, I want to register a complaint. Having been overwhelmed with the seemingly sincere message of biodiversity and resistance to injustice, I can’t escape feeling morally cheap when then encouraged to collect all the Avatar characters in McDonald’s Happy Meals. After selling our heartstrings for over $2 billion, don’t we earthlings deserve a bit more?
Beyond generalities, we might do well to take a closer look at the parallels between this film and this world. For instance, who are the Na’vi of this planet, those protagonists of the story we are brought to root for, believe in, and admire? They are those who, as you read this, are embattled in struggles for their land and livelihood.
They are the Cofán, Siona, Secoya, Kichwa and Huaorani of the Ecuadorian Amazon who are knee deep in a landmark lawsuit against oil-giant Chevron for the dumping of more than 18 billion gallons of toxic wastewater into rainforest rivers for more than 26 years. Dependent on the forests and rivers for survival — fishing, hunting, and small subsistence agriculture — the more than 30,000 inhabitants of the region now face high levels of cancer and birth defects, and many have been completely forced off their ancestral land.
They are the people of Cabañas province in northern El Salvador, who in 2008 successfully prevented Pacific Rim Mining Corp. of Canada (homeland of director James Cameron) from continuing their gold mining operation in the area. Organizations like the Environmental Committee of Cabañas say that the consequences of gold extraction, which requires the use of toxic materials like cyanide and 30,000 liters of fresh water per day, could be drastic in a country where merely a third of the water is safe to drink and thousands die each year from waterborne diseases. Pacific Rim is now suing the Salvadoran government under the Central America Free Trade Agreement for $100 million, and anti-mining organizers have been met with violent threats and assassinations. Last year three leading organizers were shot and killed: the first found in a well, the second killed in front of his daughter, and the last eight months pregnant. Though fearing for their safety, residents of Cabañas continue to protest the company’s actions, some holding signs that read simply “Yes to life.”
They are the Dayak villagers of Landak in the Indonesian rainforest and the people of Kararata in the pristine forests of Papua New Guinea, both facing displacement due to the spread of palm oil plantations. They are the indigenous Penan of the Malaysian island of Borneo, fighting industrial logging on traditional burial sites; sacred land like the gelatinous forest of the Na’vi’s Tree of Souls.
The list, unfortunately, goes on.
And in a time of dramatic climate change, swine and bird flues, and food and water scarcity thanks to the pollution and other consequences of the mining, logging, and agricultural industries, we might remember that this world’s Na’vi have been history’s greatest conservationists. Maybe they don’t ride dragons and their aesthetic appeal didn’t go through test audiences, but the indigenous of this planet have long understood the providing and regenerative nature of the Earth when treated with care.
Last July, after a preview of the film at Comic Con, San Diego’s annual comic book convention, director James Cameron told the audience that “the Na’vi represent something that is our higher selves, our aspirational selves, what we would like to think we are” and that the Avatar humans “represent what we know to be the parts of ourselves that are trashing our world and maybe condemning ourselves to a grim future”. An insightful yet defeated reflection from Avatar’s talented creator. (Then again, the future might not actually look so grim from a $4.5 million home on the Malibu coast.)
But why the defeat? If anything, the $2.5 billion (and the billions to come over the next few years) presents a unique and poignant opportunity to put the money where it, well, belongs.
For the indigenous of the Ecuadorian Amazon, it could go a long way in helping plaintiffs win their class-action lawsuit against Chevron, by publicizing and pressuring the company to pay the $27 billion in damages, implement a clean-up and provide communities with health care and water. This would be a historic victory that would set an important precedent for the behavior of oil giants and other extractive industries. The US-based organization Amazon Watch that is working with the people of the region on the campaign would gladly accept a check, tax-free of course.
El Salvador, which now faces a lawsuit from the Pacific Rim Mining Corp. for its refusal to grant further mining permits, won’t be able to hold off the company for long if it can’t pay the potentially huge cost of arbitration and settlement. Could be nice gesture. Or maybe a call to Barbara Henderson, vice president of investor relations at Pacific Rim Mining Corp, asking her to forget the lawsuit and kindly leave the people of Cabañas in peace. The number is 1 (888) 775-7097. Then press ‘1’.
This is not a rhetorical statement or some moral exercise. It’s a proposal. Shouldn’t Avatar be associated with organizations that don’t also happen to be international emblems of obesity, diabetes, and overall poor health, not to mention their legacies of water pollution and human rights abuses against workers, such as Coca-Cola and McDonalds?
I won’t hold my breath for 20th Century Fox to have a change of heart; they are busy saving their pennies to bring us such classics as Alien Vs. Predator or Wrong Turn 3: Left for Dead. But as director and co-producer, Mr. Cameron could make some better marketing choices and also directly lend a hand. According to one source, when Avatar had made just $830 million, Cameron had taken home $50 million; now that the film has reached $2.5 billion, he may be looking at over $150 million. Multiple that by three (for the sequels to come) and add a percentage of the merchandising and DVD sales which will be around $500 million for each film, and you’ve got a rough and conservative total of $700 million for Cameron himself.
With money clearly not an obstacle, all Cameron might need is the will and some courage to truly stand with the protagonists of his film by offering support to the indigenous of this world.
On “Oscar Sunday” there will be red carpets, best and worst dressed, stunts by performers, envelopes, awards, and surprises. We are told in ads for the event that we have “never seen the Oscars like this.” But in the end, nothing will be all that moving. Because to most people of the world, Nicole Kidman in Versace and George Clooney in Armani are more alien than the fictional protagonists of Avatar. And after all, maybe the Na’vi are not the beings we aspire to be. Maybe they are the beings we are.
So how about it?
Francesca Fiorentini is a freelance journalist based in Buenos Aires. She is also co-editor of Left Turn magazine, www.leftturn.org. She can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.