Reappreciation Society: The Emerald Forest


Before Avatar, before Dances With Wolves, heck, even before Ferngully (!) there was The Emerald Forest, an adventure tale based on the real life story of a Venezuelan engineer’s 10 year quest to find his young son, spirited away by a mysterious tribe from the “civilised” encroachment on their land, and raised in the wonders and danger of the Amazon rain forest.

Director John Boorman had always keenly felt the pull of nature, and examined this somewhat through his films, especially Deliverance and Excalibur. Namely his belief that, strip away the layers of civilisation that bind us, and a spiritual, unifying bond with nature lies beneath – our animal spirits long dormant, ready to awaken. The Engineer’s story was an ideal springboard to take this theme further.

The Emerald Forest is an anthropological adventure of the kind rarely made these days – a juxtaposing of modern man’s arrogance against the natural world, and a bittersweet awakening of conscience and understanding. The journey is two-fold: tough Texan engineer Bill Markham’s (Powers Boothe) stubborn, dangerous quest: and his son Tommy’s (Charley Boorman) separated upbringing as “Tommè” amongst the “Invisible People” – subtitled, strange to our eyes, intoxicatingly free and content.

When Markham first shows his young son the land clearing being done in preparation while the dam he is helping to build becomes operational, he remarks the tree roots are so shallow “the bulldozers can knock ‘em right over.” But it is not physical roots that bind the inhabitants of the rainforest together – theirs is a spiritual connection, fluid, in tune with the ebb and flow of the world around them, an entropic heartbeat. With their chief dead in a conflict not of their making, Tommè will come to lead his people deeper into the jungle, a more vigorous embodiment of the Tribal spirit. His father must let him go, realising how fully assimilated he is. The double –edged sword of his search had brought Tommè’s people to the attention of the more violent “Fierce people”. These warriors become exposed to hard liquor and kidnap the Invisible People’s young women for prostitution in the town, and demand modern firepower, having captured Markham’s rifle. From escalator of conflict, Markham becomes saboteur and enabler, helping Tommè to rescue their women, and finally destroying the great hydro-electric dam, thereby cutting off The Invisible People from Western eyes, at least for a while. To paraphrase Paul Atreides in sci-fi ecological epic Dune, “The sleeper has awoken.

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The making of The Emerald Forest was akin to a National Geographic expedition. To research and prepare, John Boorman set off in August 1983 for the Upper Xingu in central Brazil, where the Xingu River meets the Amazon. He recorded his experiences in a book, The Emerald Forest Diary. Talking of the jungle he described it as:

“rampant, spiteful, tangled in angry knots. Barbed thorns, spiked leaves, resins that burn, poisonous fruits, grasses that clutch you, huge ants that sting like snakes, caterpillars whose hair brings welts up on the skin, tarantulas a foot across wearing mink coats.”

The area is so dense and isolated, anthropologists believe its Neolithic level of peoples went undiscovered by outsiders for over 10,000 years. Boorman flew up in a light plane, accompanied by the photographer Maureen Basilliat. After the plane sprang a fuel leak, a village with a Government Indian-affairs outpost landing strip miraculously appeared amidst the jungle canopy (On their return flight, a bat flew into the same plane and bit the pilot. Boorman ended up landing the plane himself).

Slogging further into the interior, they reached the Kamaira village they had been invited to stay in. Boorman stayed in the home of Takuma, the tribal shaman, a 90-by-40-foot structure of crossbeams, branches and vines. The only light came from the central cooking fire and two ventilation holes in the roof. After three weeks of joining in the daily routine of the tribe, he was invited to witness a special ceremony of the dead, painted with the emerald dye that made their people “invisible”.

“The Indians, with their music, dance and ritual, are constantly striving to escape their material lives into the spirit world. In making a movie we take the material elements of our society and transmute them into a stream of light flowing on to a wall, hoping that it will contain something of our spirit.”

Having soaked up a feeling for the rituals and customs of these people, he felt it would be too intrusive and damaging to utilise them in his film:

“When the shaman asked me what I did, I found it very difficult to explain what film was to someone who had never seen television or film. And I said, “You can see someone very close in their face, or you could be very far away. You could see a great landscape. You could travel forward in time, or you could travel back.” And he said, “Oh, you do the same work as I do. That’s what we do in trance.” Maybe in kind of an atavistic way, film connects us to a past of trance.”

Instead, he used those who had left the tribal interior behind for life in Rio De Janeiro, teaching them Kamairan rituals: how to hunt with bow and arrow, paddle a canoe, initiation rites – holding a mirror up to their own ancestral past. The matter of who should play the teenaged Tommè was more vexing. The part required a complex blend of youthful naivety and directness: an open trustfulness, yet inner steel. 40 youths were screen-tested until Boorman reluctantly put his son Charley, who had only acted years earlier in a small part in his father’s Excalibur, into the mix. This caused a major rift between Boorman and his long-term screen writing partner on the film, Rospo Pallenberg, who felt he was just wrong, too inexperienced, even going so far as to voice his concerns to backers Embassy Pictures. “I felt betrayed,” said Boorman “It was terribly damaging because Embassy executives lost even more confidence in the project, and I was under constant harassment right up to the time of the previews.”

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In the end he had Charley’s screen-test submitted anonymously with three others to Embassy, who backed his choice of Charley. For the younger Boorman, it was a formative stage in growing up. His father saw his dyslexia as a boon to his performance:

“Because of his reading difficulties he was in some ways more immature than many kids his age. Yet in a curious way that made him more like the boy in the film. Charley can relate much more to a non-literate society.”

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It was Charley who may have saved Booth’s life when, in an action scene, after they both tumbled over a waterfall to escape the Fierce People, the older actor’s lungs filled with water. Charley kept him afloat and yelled for help over the roar of the falls until safety divers were able to get to them. It was hours before Boothe could get to his feet, having to receive oxygen after the ordeal. Boorman does like to put his actors through the wringer…

Certain notions once held as fact about the nature of the rainforests in such documents as the film are now somewhat open to question. For instance, that 40 percent of the world’s oxygen supply is generated by them. ‘‘It’s one of those enduring myths,’‘ Thomas E. Lovejoy, vice president for science at the World Wildlife Fund, told the NY Times. ”Tropical forests, through decomposition and animal respiration, consume as much oxygen as they give off.”

But that doesn’t mean rapacious land reclamation can go on without checks. Deforestation on a massive scale is adding exponentially to the level of greenhouse gases. 53 percent of all forms of life can be found in the rainforests. The conservation message of the film is still a strong wake-up call.

However, In spite of the notion that stronger ties should be made with the tribes of the forests, giving them more of a say in shaping the environment around them, Boorman retained a certain wariness, despite his enlightening stay. After filming, Charley was invited to spend some time in a real village, as his father had done. “Those tribes exert such a powerful influence, I was worried that we might never see him again,” his mother Christel told People magazine in 1985, Boorman adding wryly, “We weren’t prepared to risk life imitating art.”



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