When Two Worlds Collide, the debut documentary from Heidi Brandenburg and Mathew Orzel, arrives in theaters a few months after Ciro Guerra’s similarly Amazon-focused fiction feature Embrace of the Serpent. The stories these filmmakers tell are, on the surface, quite different: Guerra tells an Aguirre, the Wrath of God-style adventure yarn about an Amazonian shaman who leads two European scientists, 40 years apart, on a quest for a sacred healing plant, while Brandenburg and Orzel chronicle the true-life struggle between indigenous Amazonian Peruvians and the government that is actively encouraging multinational corporations to encroach on their land. And yet, a similar feeling and theme underpins them both: a sense of sorrow verging on anger toward the colonial forces of modernization that threaten to destroy an older culture.
Brandenburg and Orzel’s film is an activist documentary, and at its center is Alberto Pizango, a genuinely magnetic revolutionary who organizes and leads the Peruvian Amazonians against President Alan Garcia, the we see in television footage encouraging American corporations to come and invest in Peru’s natural resources—especially in oil and wood. The filmmakers are clearly taken with Pizango, and it’s easy to see why. Despite his fiery passion for the cause he trumpets, he exudes humility at his core, completely befitting a man who, as he explains at length early on in the film, was taught as a child to respect the land he lived on and the people he lived among. With this context, it makes sense that the lack of consideration Garcia and the rest of the Peruvian government give to the indigenous countrymen deeply offends him. Not once, according to him and other Amazonians interviewed, did government officials consult them about the corporations now cutting down trees and digging for oil, causing environmental and even human damage as a result.
Though the filmmakers don’t necessarily hide their partisan sympathies in this David-and-Goliath fight, When Two Worlds Collide eventually becomes more even-handed in its gaze, willing to look unflinchingly at the costs on both sides as the Amazonian rebels and the Peruvian government dig themselves even deeper into their respective positions. Pizango’s refusal to compromise on his hard-line stance of asking the government to fully repeal laws passed without Amazonians’ input is admirable, but Brandenburg and Orzel aren’t above suggesting that this strategy might be a tad too extreme, especially when some of the Amazonians band together to take over certain local industrial sites, thus threatening to singlehandedly bring Peru down to its knees economically. On the government side, the filmmakers are at least fair-minded enough to bring in Yehude Simon, former prime minister of Peru and one of the few who sympathized with the Amazonians when most of his political compatriots consistently demonized them.
The film’s centerpiece lies in its harrowing depiction of a violent riot that burst forth in the town of Bagua in June 2009 after Peru’s Congress quickly passed a motion to table a previously suggested motion to repeal a forestry law, thus acting in a way that indigenous Peruvians understandably interpreted as the government’s clear refusal to take them seriously. Brandenburg and Orzel present this burst of tragic violence primarily through video taken by protestors on the ground. As such, the result is startlingly immersive in its immediacy, but also so chaotic that it’s never entirely clear, moment-to-moment, where our sympathies should lie. At one point some of the police officers are seen trying to rally each other into completing their mission to disperse the crowd—with one officer heard shouting, “Never surrender, goddammit!”—but there are also occasional suggestions that some of the protestors themselves have engaged in excessive violence of their own. What isn’t in doubt during this sequence, however, is that Pizango—who explicitly preaches a gospel of nonviolent protest—is nowhere close to this bloody scene. This only makes the government’s subsequent efforts to turn him into a scapegoat, claiming that he encouraged protestors to attack the police, even more deplorable.
The fallout of the Bagua tragedy haunts the rest of When Two Worlds Collide, which makes time to feature footage from the funeral of one of the fallen police officers, including a tearful eulogy from his wife that transcends politics and brings into heartbreaking focus the human costs of this conflict. Brandenburg and Orzel’s most potent move in this humanistic regard, however, lies in its inclusion of a narrative thread revolving around Felipe Virgilio Bazan Caballero, the father of the one police officer who was never found in the midst of the Bagua battle, and his quest to discover the truth of his son’s fate. It’s Bazan, rather than Pizango, who offers the film’s sharpest condemnation of the political conflict on both sides. He mournfully wonders aloud in voiceover, “What’s wrong with the world when gold or a piece of land is worth more than a human life?”
Director: Heidi Brandenburg, Mathew Orzel
Starring: Alberto Pizango, Yehude Simon, Mercedes Cabanillas, Felipe Virgilio Bazan Caballero
Release Date: August 17, 2016
Kenji Fujishima is a freelance film critic, contributing to Slant Magazine, Brooklyn Magazine, The Playlist and the Village Voice. He is also Deputy Editor of Movie Mezzanine. When he’s not watching movies and writing and editing film criticism, he’s trying to absorb as much music, art, and literature as possible. He has not infrequently been called a “culture vulture” for that reason.