Two films featured in this year’s Atlas Awards International Film Festival were shot on-location in Central America: the French feature film Defenders of Life, shot in Costa Rica, and the American short film The Jungle of Jules Levine, shot in Panama.
Defenders of Life is directed by Dana Ziyasheva, the first-ever international civil servant from Kazakhstan at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization in Paris, and tells the story of an American youngster and his candid anthropologist mother in the hills of Southern Costa Rica, where the Ngäbe indigenous community is blowing on the last flames of an ancient civilization.
In The Jungle of Jules Levine (recipient of this year’s Atlas Award for Best Visual Effects), from American filmmakers Michael Mileham and George Clayton Johnson (of Star Trek, Oceans 11, and The Twilight Zone), just as the U.S. invasion of Panama is about to happen, an intrepid Smithsonian scientist embarks on a research mission, delving deep into Panama’s Rainforest — only to find that nature is the true enemy.
Both films explore the interaction between well-meaning westerners and the societies and environments they encounter in Central America. Feb (played by Arman Darbo) in Defenders of Life accompanies his mother, anthropologist Pamela Salazar (played by Beatriz Brenes) to Costa Rica, where he encounters a world that he never knew existed. Salazar has been studying the Ngäbe indigenous community for years, but by her own admission still does not understand them. She idealizes Ngäbe culture, yet chastises its carriers for transgressions perceived from her own cultural lens. The question of the film is one of the interaction of cultures and their moral judgements: Are some of the practices of this community criminal — or do they constitute a noble battle for survival? Defenders of Life opens conversations about indigenous identity in Costa Rica and has become central to debates on indigenous rights.
Jules Levine (played by John Denos — of General Hospital, The Young and the Restless, and Dreams of Glass) is an American scientist on a mission to study the insects of Panama’s rainforest, but like anthropologist Pamela Salazar, his understanding of his subject is more theoretical than practical. While Dr. Salazar’s study of the Ngäbe society does not prepare her for the challenges of their daily life — survival within a hegemonic westernised society, its market economy, and its legal institutions — Dr. Levine’s vast knowledge of insects does not prepare him for life amongst his own academic subject. He does not heed the warnings of the locals (personified by Elliott Gould — of MASH, Ocean’s Eleven, Ocean’s Twelve, and Ocean’s Thirteen), and survival in the depth of the rainforest becomes ever more precarious. Their distinct attempts to control with their knowledge attained through western education — the trajectory of an ancient culture in a modern age on the one hand, the natural environment of the rainforest on the other — are forms of interference, however well-meaning. Dominion of the environment is an old theme in western cultural history, as is the imposition of western values, the devaluation of other cultures, and their colonisation. Both films show the failure of their protagonists in their modern attempts to control their subjects: societies that have held their own for centuries continue to do so; and nature fights back.
Latin American films featured in the Official Selection at the Atlas Awards in the past include La maldita ilusión (The Bloody Illusion), La maldita presa (The Bloody Prey), Terraqueos: vestígios de uma era digital (Remains of a Digital Age, or literally, Earthlings: Remains of a Digital Age), and Soy Ringo (I’m Ringo). Last year, 12% of films in the Official Selection were Latin American, and La maldita ilusión won the Atlas Award for Best Editing. The director of that film, Sergio Bonacci Lapalma, is a member of this year’s jury. ■
For the full 2016 festival schedule with film synopses, visit this year’s festival page.
For more information about the Atlas Awards, visit our Awards page.