‘When Two Worlds Collide’: Sundance Review

The conflict between government policies promoting resource extraction in the Amazon and native communities attempting to safeguard their ancestral territory is clearly defined in this activist documentary.

Over the past 20 years, resource conflicts in the Amazon have been grabbing international headlines and drawing multiple parties into the debate about striking a balance between natural resource exploitation and conservation. Throughout the vast region, which includes portions of Brazil, Peru, Colombia and a half-dozen other countries, indigenous communities have inhabited the forest for millennia and frequently come into confrontation with both government policies and extractive industries, which are often inextricably linked.

Forest clearing for logging and ranching activities, environmental contamination due to mining, and industrial pollution attributable to oil production have decimated thousands of acres of Amazonian rainforest and severely impacted native peoples reliant on forest resources. Filmmakers Heidi Brandenburg Sierralta and Mathew Orzel undertake an in-depth investigation of these conflicts in the Peruvian Amazon with their first documentary feature in an attempt to convey the fundamental issues involved. Earnest, direct and sometimes surprisingly dramatic, the film could eventually catch the attention of viewers via broadcast or VOD after traveling the international festival circuit.   

The Bottom Line

Effectively clarifies complex social and political issues.

Following the approval of the US-Peru Free Trade Agreement, concluded between the government of President Alan Garcia and the George W. Bush administration in 2006, the Peruvian congress modified existing national laws safeguarding indigenous rainforest territory, opening the region to logging and oil exploration. Native communities protested the new legislation through their national organization AIDESEP, led by the group’s chairman Alberto Pizango. AIDESEP asserted that the laws violated indigenous rights enshrined in the Peruvian constitution and demanded that they be withdrawn.

Rather than considering these concerns, Garcia went on the offensive, claiming that the region’s resources were the patrimony of all Peruvians and declaring his administration’s authority to permit natural resource exploitation throughout the Amazon region. AIDESEP countered by peacefully occupying a state oil storage station in 2009 and blockading roads through the forest, shutting down truck transport and the oil pipeline.

When the protest stretched into a second month, intensifying after the Peruvian congress backtracked on a commitment to consider AIDESEP’s demands, Garcia’s government mobilized the national police force. A two-day armed confrontation erupted in the Amazonian town of Bagua, resulting in deaths and serious injury on both sides. Accused of sedition and murder, Pizango was forced to reconsider AIDESEP’s strategy in the face of national outrage over the deaths of police officers in the Bagua clash.

Shooting the film over eight years, Sierralta and Orzel gained an entree to Peru’s indigenous communities through the relationship that they developed with Pizango following a prolonged period of inquiry regarding their motives and methods for making the film. Their proximity to this humble and charismatic leader provides an insider’s perspective on the development of the indigenous protest campaign, as well as access to local communities and Pizango’s collaborators.

Interviews with key players from Garcia’s political party provide a perspective on the government’s hard-nosed negotiating tactics, while news reports and viscerally shot third-party footage of the Bagua standoff and other key developments fill in continuity gaps as the film shifts focus from environmental to political conflict. The filmmakers’ decision to explore the wider impacts of the government’s policies by profiling the families of police officers killed at Bagua adds a poignant dramatic note that echoes the losses of native communities.

The professionally produced segments shot by the filmmakers contrast with often poor-quality footage from other sources, leading to a sometimes frustrating mix of formats. Early scenes set in the rainforest as Pizango goes hunting and fishing in his ancestral territory effectively establish the stakes involved by illustrating what the native communities have to lose with the incursion of extractive activities and the film would benefit from inserting additional similar footage throughout.

Production company: Yachaywasi Films

Directors:Heidi Brandenburg Sierralta , Mathew Orzel

Producer: Taira Akbar

Directors of photography: Heidi Brandenburg Sierralta, Mathew Orzel

Editor: Carla Gutierrez

Music: H. Scott Salinas

Sales: The Film Sales Company?

Not rated, 100 minutes