Exotic and perverse

by Howard Davis and Dilwyn Jenkins

from Jump Cut, no. 30, March 1985, pp.
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1985, 2005

Fitzcarraldo has returned to his long sleep and Herzog's passions and pockets have been temporarily replenished, but the Peruvian jungle still hasn't recovered from the director's latest cinematic extravaganza. As a film, FITZCARRALDO has been hailed by some critics as a masterpiece, a beautiful idea visualized in a magnificently exotic landscape. Only the clichéd messianic quality of the protagonist's personality (which unfolds jerkily in a brittle, plastic fashion) remains preserved on celluloid to remind us of the otherworldly realities that underlie this epic production. In fact, several different realities are inextricably tangled together in Herzog's perverted bricolage of events, some which actually occurred almost a century ago, the rest a complete fantasy. Both the historical figure of Fitzcarraldo and Herzog himself were brutally motivated aliens penetrating deep inside a strangely vibrant environment. It is not accidental that the maps of the region, shown in close-up three times during the course of the film, suggest fertility symbols, nor that Fitzcarraldo is given precisely nine months to exploit the jungles natural resources.

Within this territory, still beyond the ultimate control of Western civilization, dwell a number of indigenous groups, including some 35,000 Campa-Ashaninka and Matsiguenga Indians who live in a relatively free and harmonious state in close spiritual contact with the tropical rain forest. Their own self-defined culture is a unique social reality, utterly foreign to the world of the commercial cinema.

Having already made AGUIRRE, WRATH OF GOD in the Amazon, Herzog was aware well in advance how difficult clashes between different cultures could become: film crews sweating in a remote jungle location, thousands of native extras completely ignorant of production techniques, very few of them having even seen a film, and an environment that the Peruvians themselves describe as el infierno verde. Brave, insane, or both, Herzog returned, determined to force his way in and carve out his dreams vision, and stealing thousands of Indian souls in the process.

Before filming could begin, Herzog was immediately faced with the problem of finding an alternative location when the Aguaruna Indians in northern Peru violently ejected the entire film crew, protesting against the arrogant attitude of the filmmakers and the manner in which they had walked into villages and attempted to take control. The Aguaruna are the most politically unified native group in the entire Amazon, with a strong and often militant tribal council that has reacted quickly to outsiders who once again tried to take without giving back in return, or even asking first. Some of the council-members were jailed and a German aid-worker, who had been helping the Indians plant rice, was almost drowned by the film crew. After six months of argument, during which Herzog ordered soldiers to intimidate a village assembly by firing over their heads, the Aguaranas had had enough. They burnt down the film crew's camp and bundled its workers and equipment into three canoes, forcing Herzog to look for another playground in which to realize his fantasies.

Then Jason Robards, Herzog's original leading actor, contracted amoebic dysentery and was forced to quit the production. The consequent delay meant that co-star Mick Jaggar also had to leave due to prior engagements (i.e., a commercially lucrative tour of North America). A new location was found on the lower Urubamba River at the foothills of the Peruvian Andes. An unfortunate airplane accident, injuring four Indians and the pilot, again delayed the film. Later, another Indian, his wife, and daughter were attacked near the film site by an unfriendly local tribe, the Amahuacas. The man was shot through the neck by a five-foot arrow and his wife was badly wounded in the hip.

Herzog fatuously claimed that the Indians were lucky that he had a doctor on set, failing to realize (or at least to admit) the fact that his policy of relocating diverse tribal groups in alien territory was bound to create inter-ethnic friction. The Indian extras, almost 1,000 in total, were housed in barrack room conditions. The food was appalling and medical supplies limited. There were not enough women to produce the Indians' staple, a drink made from manioc. The only diversion possible was soccer until the ball burst. One native died of malaria, sparking off a period of heightened tension. Some extras worked on the film for six months, their official rate of pay being around two dollars a day. The majority of them had been relocated hundreds of miles from their homes, families, and most importantly, their gardens. When the extras agreed to work on the film, they were unaware of two facts. First, that the project would take twice as long as Herzog had promised them. And second, that for most of this time the extras would work as laborers, clearing forest slopes and trying to haul a 365 ton ship up a 40-degree incline — a ship that was ten times larger than the original.

There are a number of disturbing similarities between Fitzcarraldo and Herzog's relations to Indian affairs. They both used the Indians to drag a ship over a hill. They both took Indians from a variety of areas to work a long way from home. They both paid the Indians very little. In short, they both exploited the indigenous people for personal gain.

The full moon illuminating the jungle on the night that the Molly Aida finally reaches the hill's summit emphasizes the sublunary relationship between man, water, and madness, like the captain who navigates by tasting the river water. Nevertheless, we aren't led to believe that Fitzcarraldo is completely irrational. Indeed, he is arguably Herzog's least insane protagonist. Compared to Aguirre, Kaspar Hauser, and Woyzzeck, Fitzcarraldo's efforts are relatively successful. He may fail to acquire enough capital to create his dream of an Opera House in Iquitos. However, he does manage to sell his ship (which has assured a talismanic value of symbolic exchange from its passage through the rapids) and hence, finance the transportation of an entire Opera Company dressed as New World Protestant settlers to this outpost of "civilization."

Fitzcarraldo seizes on the idea of a close link between the oneiric world of opera and that of the dream state, a separate reality achieved through the ritualized Campa-Ashaninka Indians and communal use of hallucinogens. As the Molly Aida proceeds upstream from Iquitos, it anchors at a mission post where two longhaired Christian monks speak of the difficulty of converting the Indians because of the local people's belief in the reality of dreams. Fitzcarraldo reveals an excited understanding of this through his passion for opera, comparing the visionary belief system of a hunting and gathering culture with the relative decadence of a bourgeois art form. Opera for Fitzcarraldo, film for Herzog! Fitzcarraldo wanted to bring culture to the jungle. Herzog wanted to bring the jungle to the "civilized world. Both fail to bridge two different realities.

An ingenuous combination of dramatic fiction and ethnographic documentary, FITZCARRALDO demonstrates Herzog's desire to record the traces of a unique event that would never have taken place had it not been for the presence of the camera in the first place. As a former conceptual/performance artist, Herzog ignored an anthropological trend which suggests that the ideal ethnographic film would involve an invisible camera running twenty-four hours a day with the film left unedited. Instead Herzog stressed how the process of filming was an almost superhuman task under such arduous conditions. This claim is reinforced in all the extra-textual materials preceding the film's commercial release in the United States (articles in Film Comment, American Film, Rolling Stone, and Les Blanc's BURDEN OF DREAMS.

This kind of publicity can hardly have escaped the attention of even the most casual of filmgoers. It created a myth around the film that was subsequently converted into a marketing strategy. We were constantly reminded how Herzog himself underwent the hazards faced by his protagonist, sharing the same mental and physical agony. Herzog appealed directly to a Bazinian fascination with the filmed event, with the ontology of the photographic image, creating for us the proof that this Herculean task was indeed performed. The filming of Herzog's adventure was thus transformed into a happening, which was in turn "documented" by Les Blanc's film.

The centerpiece of this spectacle, in which vision is displayed as a guarantee of truth, is the Molly Aida's torturously slow progress uphill. Using a classic suspense structure, Herzog created a specifically cinematic tension with a series of shots showing only fragmented parts of the ship. The spectator remains unsure whether the ship was actually moving upwards or mere camera trickery. Herzog saved a long shot of the entire ship as final evidence that the image was not achieved by some special effects department. In reality the ship was allowed to slide down the same slope that the Indians had just pulled it up — a fact which BURDEN OF DREAMS fails to mention, remaining totally complicit in perpetuating the illusion of capturing some sort of definitive, unmediated reality on film.

Although cast and crew soon learned how soul-destroying prolonged location shooting could be, they remained unaware of film's devastating potential for stealing souls. Unlike the former, the natives were never shown a script nor a contract. Within the diegesis itself, they are displayed as a threatening force, first announced by the sound of dreams not even indigenous to the area, suggesting instead an African origin. The Indians are termed "bare-asses" by the subtitles and linked with a view of nature that can be traced at least as far back as Rousseau. The first time we see them is when they blockade the river with their canoes, an impossible feat without tying the canoes together, a highly improbable tactic. When the Molly Aida crushes an Indian to death, the natives disappear into the forest, leaving Fitzcarraldo and his crew anticipating an imminent attack. But when the natives reappear, it is only to drag the ship to the very top of the hill.

Without scripts or cutting-room access, the Indians souls are literally stolen in the sense that their image can now be flashed onto a screen anywhere in the world without their knowledge and without them having any say in how they are portrayed, or even how their occasionally subtitled speech is interpreted. Their appearance from the bowels of the jungle associates them with a mysterious, magical, mystical existence; only two Indians become recognizable characters within the fiction. As actors, they are stunningly successful, considering that they had nothing more demanding to do than stand around, clear jungle hillsides of dense undergrowth, look in the right direction at the right time, and above all, just "be themselves, i.e. astonishingly natural performers whose clothes and face-paint blends with the jungle backdrop.

Even when they are depicted as workers, the Indians remain an anonymous, ant-like crowd whose sole function is to get the ship over the hill. The objectification of their labor becomes abstract. Besides Molly, the Indians are the only ones to have faith in Fitzcarraldo's vision, to believe in the ship's divine ability to survive the rapids. Having dragged it over the hill, they loose the ship from its moorings. Smiling and chanting, they float it down through the Pongo rapids as a sacrifice to the River god. But when they finally reach Iquitos and the ship is sold, the Indians' presence is simply erased. We last see them standing uneasily on the edge of a veranda, stiffly celebrating the Molly Aida's sale with glasses of champagne. At the point of this cash nexus, when the problem raised at the films start is resolved through Fitzcarraldo's financial and symbolic liquidation, the Campa-Ashaninka simply disappear. We can only speculate as to the conditions of squalor that await them on the periphery of Western civilization, as their prophesied promised land assumes a distinctly sinister aspect.

Herzog's view of cinema as a quasi-religious, transcendental experience equates not only the process of filmmaking with supernatural forces, but also the filmmaker with a godlike presence. The Indians' treatment underlines an attitude that the completion of the film was Herzog's top priority. It hints of a kind of crazed loyalty, of madness mixed with devotion, which emerges from comments made by cast and crew in BURDEN OF DREAMS, This pseudo-magical blend of director and protagonist (with Kinski again cast as Herzog's alter ego) may be called into question as much for its mystical underpinnings as for its basic logical flaw. Does a film on Nazi Germany necessitate the actual extermination of six million Jews? Is this really the final filmic solution?

It was precisely this attitude that enraged many Peruvian intellectuals when Les Blanc showed BURDEN OF DREAMS in Lima in September, 1983. It was Peru's first glimpse of Herzog's product (FITZCARRALDO has yet to be released in Peru). But if Blanc were fishing for compliments, he certainly didn't get any from the audience in the Social Science Department of La Católica University. Not that he deserved them. The camerawork was uninspired, alternating between the touristic, the voyeuristic, and the ridiculously serious. The text never came to grips with the story of making the film, nor any other narrative process for that matter. In La Católica the general opinion was that BURDEN OF DREAMS was whitewash, possibly initiated by Herzog himself to excuse his disastrous production record. This isn't that far from the truth. After all, BURDEN OF DREAMS was a film made by gringos for a gringo audience, designed to entertain, rather than enlighten. As such, it didn't linger on the friction Herzog had created. Les Blanc was only in Peru for three months during the two-year period in which the film was shot. How could he be expected to portray such a complicated and unfortunate situation in anything but a superficial fashion? To the Peruvian audience (who were aware of the background details since many of them were anthropologists who had worked with the Campa-Ashaninka) the most interesting moments of Blanc's film seemed to have been shot by Herzog's crew on Les Blanc's behalf.

Fitzcarraldo may be dead. But for the Indians there remains the ever-present threat of colonists, lumber companies, engineers, and government agencies who are still causing permanent damage to both the forest and the Indians' way of life. These people may once have been integrated harmoniously with their environment, but today the plight of the Campa-Ashaninka is almost hopeless as they are forced to change from their traditional, semi-nomadic life to sedentary one. Every time the Indians move, there is another settler waiting to take over their land. The only answer for them is to stay put and keep intruders out, while fighting at national and international levels for their legal land rights. Herzog had promised to help them acquire these legal rights, a promise that he had no power to keep and that clearly came from a man desperate to fulfill his capricious dreams. Not only did he fail to obtain land rights, but also the very act of relocating some 1,000 natives for six months made a large proportion of the tribe vulnerable to invasion by peasants from the mountain regions of Peru.

In 1980 thousands of Campa-Ashaninka Indians made their way on rafts down river and by foot through the forest to reach polling stations in the depths of Peru's central jungle. Almost unanimously, they voted for the return of President Belaunde and his Popular Action Party, which had always expressed an interest in the problems of the jungle and its development. The Indians placed their hopes in this new government as part of a renewed attempt to establish their legal right to territory around the rivers Ene and Tambo, which are the only regions left to them after four centuries of "civilizing influence.

Unfortunately, Belaunde's concept of the jungle problems did not coincide with the needs of the native population; since his inauguration, the plight of the Campa and Ashaninka Indians has steadily worsened. Lumber companies have been invited to bid for Campa-Ashaninka territory, and landless peasants have been subsidized to colonize the region. Belaunde's government was only saved from collapse in 1982 by placing seven of Peru's highland provinces under martial law and sending 1,500 heavily armed troops into these regions to try (in vain) to weed out a Maoist band of revolutionaries known as Sendero Luminoso (the Shining Path). While Indians from the Ene River were acting as extras for Herzog, on the parallel, but relatively distant Urubamba River, colonists from the mountains moved on to the best of the land, the fertile banks of the Ene valley. Clandestine activity in the last twelve months has revealed a sinister twist to these invasions: the colonists, sponsored by businessmen, have been growing coca. Armed with machine guns, private boats have terrorized local natives and missionaries while making their connections with light aircraft bound for Colombia (where the basic coca-paste is processed into cocaine for the immensely lucrative U.S. market). Sendero Luminoso also appears to have their main hide-out in the isolated region of the Upper Ene, known as the Apurimac, where five European tourists were embarrassingly arrested as suspected terrorists in 1983. Both of these illegal activities began to flourish in Campa-Ashaninka territory while Herzog was reliving his dream only a few hundred miles away.

It is highly ironic that the filming of FITZCARRALDO should begin at the same time as a revolutionary growth in the political awareness of the Indians and the intellectually-led but popularly-based Sendero Luminoso. While the Indians were being portrayed in the role of natives being exploited by a rubber baron, the urgency of their territorial situation and the intervention of various aid groups brought the tribe to a new level of action. In June 1980 six Indian delegates arrived in Lima to present their case to the new Ministry of Agriculture.

One of the delegates at a press conference asked,

"We cannot wait for the authorities much longer. We are being provoked. Soon even more colonists will arrive to take our land. What will our sons do when all the trees are gone and there is nowhere to move on to?"

The Indians went on to explain that in the Ene region alone the tribe faces competition from six well-organized colonization projects and at least two influential lumber companies. The colonists entered the area in great force during the last months of 1979 in anticipation of Belaunde's electoral success and the ensuing probability of a determined jungle development drive with the high profit incentive of growing coca illicitly.

It is this conflict of interest that Belaunde faces. On the one hand are the Indians who want nothing more than the right to live on the land that they have always inhabited. On the other are the landless peasants and capitalist entrepreneurs who want to exploit the same territory. An additional problem for Belaunde are the claims being made by the lumber company, Forestal Apurimac (FASA), by Carlos Rivera, a former top official in the same Ministry of Agriculture on whose shelves the Indian's land titles have been gathering dust for four years.

FASA is seeking a concession of 89,000 hectares of forest on the left margin of the River Ene, an area that had been previously designated to three Ashaninka communities by an aid group, CIPA, who had registered the claims with the Ministry. More recent reports explain that there are six other lumber companies also seeking concessions in the area. Between them, they hope to obtain 1,100,000 hectares of virgin forest. As long as the Indians are without land titles, this region is officially unpopulated which means that the land can be given to the companies. The situation is absurd for two reasons. First, the population of an officially unpopulated area helped vote the government into power. Secondly, according to the 1974 Law of Native Communities, the communities that do exist should already have been awarded land titles. The Peruvian press, CIPA, and another group, Acotepa, have been suggesting that powerful vested interests are manipulating the Ministry's decisions. Indeed, one of the lumber companies is connected to the Romero Group, Belaunde's most powerful business associates.

It is a disturbing fact that the difficult situation that has developed on the Ene River is dominated by clandestine business interests much more powerful than Fitzcarraldo was or Herzog will ever be. Yet this new invasion is taking away the Campa-Ashaninka land base (their capital), rather than their time and energy (their labor), which has been the traditional mode of exploitation. To a National Human Rights Commission that visited the Indian territories in 1980, one of the village elders complained:

"We are worried about this situation. It is not like the colonists say. They don't know or live better than us. The land is ours; we have lived on it for longer than memory. But now we cannot even visit our relatives and trading partners in safety because the colonists, who have revolvers and dynamite, live between us and them."

When asked what they would do if they were not given land titles, another Indian replied, "We are men and we will do what we have to in the moment."

Although the Commission filed reports with both the United Nations and the Peruvian Ministry of Agriculture, the situation for the Campa-Ashaninka is still undecided. The colonists are still there and increasing every month. The threat of the lumber companies rests heavily while the Indians, now that Herzog has departed, continue with their daily rounds of hunting, fishing, and gathering. They cannot go on strike, nor march en masse to the Presidential Palace. Their present lot is to wait and see which way the politico-legal pendulum swings. Herzog, who took it upon himself to depict the situation of exploited Indians (both in film and in practice), has stolen their souls by giving credence to an imperialistic image of the noble savage. When Les Blanc screened his film in Lime, he informed us that Herzog was now working in Australia … Has anyone warned the aborigines?