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Denise Zmekhol: Child of the Amazon
by Don Schwartz
Denise Zmekhol, although Brazilian, didn't get in deep with the Amazon until she came to States and looked back on her country. photo: D. Zmekho
Although born and raised in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Berkeley filmmaker
didn’t go the Amazon rainforest until she’d received her journalism degree in Brazil, lived three years in San Francisco—taking classes in film, broadcasting and photography at San Francisco State University, and working as a news camera operator for a San Francisco television station. She finally made it when she returned to Brazil in 1987 to crew on a couple of documentaries shot in the Amazon.
Afterwards, she spent two months traveling, visiting villages, cities, and towns, taking photographs, shooting her own footage and meeting famed environmental activist Chico Mendes. Then the Amazon became the birthplace of Zmekhol’s multifaceted documentary film “
Children of the Amazon
“I don’t know if anyone can go to the Amazon and not be touched by the power that the forest has," Zmekhol said when asked about her first impressions upon entering the rainforest. "And that magic—it’s just like so present and so intense that, you know, it’s just like, you are just taken by it. It really was a very amazing experience, to be in the forest, the smells, the sounds, the trees."
"This was really something that I felt the first moment that I went inside the forest. It was like—oh my god—the richness, and, of course, the people who live in the forest, who live in a very sustainable way, like the indigenous people and the rubber tappers. It’s just like they are part of the forest. You don’t see them separately because all their cosmology is related to the forest. It’s not like we have everything separate, in departments, like we go shopping for food, have some entertainment, in different places, or we go to church, whatever. We have all these things separate. But they have everything connected to the forest, and each one of these parts is connected to the other.”
The son of a rubber tapper, Chico Mendes became a world famous activist and then martyr after his murder in 1988. photo: D. Zmekho
This experience of “the immediate presence of the forest,” as she described it, sparked her enduring passion for the Amazon, and, of course, the creation of her film. Many of the photographs she shot in 1987 were of children from the Indigenous Surui and Negarote tribes as well as children of rubber tappers—people who tap rubber trees for their sap.
For the next 12 years Zmekhol directed commercial and industrial films in Brazil, and visited the Amazon seven times, filming on each of these trips. She returned to San Francisco in 1998, beginning a new collaboration at Robert Lundahl and Associates, creating and co-producing “Digital Journey” a series of three and a-half minute interstitials for PBS.
During that time she took post-graduate classes at San Francisco’s California Institute of Integral Studies. For a class taught by
in 2001, Zmekhol made a slide-show presentation of her Amazon photographs. Consequently she was asked to provide prints for an exhibition at the school. The slides had never been printed. It was during her custom printing of these slides that Denise was inspired to return 15 years later to find out what happened to the children she’d photographed in 1987.
But there was an additional pull: Chico Mendes. The son of a rubber tapper, Mendes became a regional activist and hero, fighting to protect the rainforest on behalf of the Indigenous peoples as well as the tappers whose work is considered sustainable. Attaining international notoriety, Mendes’ leadership brought indigenous peoples and rubber tappers together to instigate governmental legislation creating large areas of protected land. (In the 1800s and early 1900s, the indigenous and the tappers fought and countless died in struggles fueled by rubber barons.) Not surprisingly, enforcement of this legislation has been lax.
In 1988, Mendes asked Zmekhol to film his funeral. She told him he wasn’t going to die; he had so much to do. Alas, shortly after her return to Sao Paulo, Mendes was assassinated by cattle ranchers. Although not available to film his funeral, Mendes, the man and his legacy, haunted Denise Zmekhol; and she wanted to explore his story and work, to honor his contributions.
Iara, a young girl of the Negarote tribe, which sold their logging rights and live in cement houses. photo: D. Zmekho
Denise filmed in June, 2002, traveling for six weeks in the Amazon, utilizing a Brazilian crew. She visited the Surui and Negarote tribes as well as the Chico Mendes rubber trappers. Arriving home with 26 hours of material, she discovered the story’s many layers—the ongoing destruction of the rainforest, its peoples and their lives in “forest time;” the dramatic changes from “forest time” to towns and cities; the story and legacy of Mendes; and the personal stories of the children she photographed in 1987. The majority of her editing this layered story took place over a period of three years.
“Children of the Amazon” had its world premier at the Mill Valley Film Festival in 2008. It has screened across the United States and Europe, in Taiwan, Brazil, and Cuba. It was broadcast on many PBS stations as well as Link TV, on SKY TV in the United Kingdom, France 5, and TV Cultura in Brazil. The film has educational distribution via California Newsreel, European distribution by Europe Images, based in France, and is still being screened at film festivals.
“My narration guides the audience," Zmekhol responded, when asked about her approach to the film. "But I used the forest people to tell their stories. There’s no politicians, anthropologists, historians, or loggers. I didn’t want to do anything journalistic. I just wanted to let them tell their stories, to give them voice. Because I think most of the films you see about indigenous people, they always have people that are not indigenous talking about them. I didn’t want to do that, I just wanted to let them tell their stories, however they tell them, with their contradictions, or however they feel like telling it.”
In 2008, Denise returned to the Amazon, “more specifically to the Surui tribe, to film the story of the partnership they were creating with Google Earth Outreach (
). I was hired by Google to do that because they had seen the film and they knew I had access to the people, to the leaders. And they liked the film and said, ‘Oh, you know, can you come with us?’ And so we went for two weeks to film that story. Google has been going back every year to do more training, to implement this partnership."
"I haven’t been back, but I have been doing videos about it. And I always think that I can make it a film later, to tell that story from my point of view, not like as a corporate work, but more like an update from “Children of the Amazon”. I’m just waiting for some great outcome to happen. I think that now the Surui are trying to trade the carbon, which is very hard, taking a long time. I’m waiting to see how this is going to develop, to see if there’s an outcome from using all this technology for monitoring and protection of the land. If I have another opportunity to go back, that could be a project.”
Emerging out of this work with Google, Denise produced two short documentaries, “
Trading Bows and Arrows for Laptops
” and “
Trading Bows and Arrows for Laptops: One Year Later
." She continues to do commission work for Google Earth Outreach, and has directed the pilot episode of “Green 21” (
), a planned PBS series about sustainable solutions for the environment. She’s also working on a book of photographs from “Children of the Amazon.” When asked about her next feature, Denise Zmekhol makes it abundantly clear that after the seven years of intense work on “Children of the Amazon”, she’s taking a breather—although it certainly doesn’t read that way. Indeed, she's off to Nepal to show "Children of the Amazon."
Don Schwartz is an actor/writer/producer from Larkspur, California. He has a blog space in CineSource Magazine’s website.
Posted on May 02, 2011 - 07:23 PM