Eli Roth Faces Off With Tribal Rights Campaigners Over Cannibal Film
by Aaron Gell
August 11, 2014
The Business Insider
Torture-porn auteur Eli Roth’s new film, “The Green Inferno,” follows a crew of college-age activists as they attempt to protect an Amazon tribe from the effects of deforestation, only to be eaten alive by the very people they’re trying to help. Though long slated for a September 5 release, the film has quietly been pulled from the schedule.
The cancellation, which may signal a straight-to-video release, is attributed variously to the production company’s financial difficulties or to cold feet on the part of the distributor, though a source close to the production maintains that a dispute between Worldview Entertainment and Open Road films is to blame for the delay and that a wide release is still the plan.
In either case, for the Matsiguenga, the Nahua, the Nanti, and other indigenous tribes living in the jungles of Peru — people Roth portrays as fearsome savages — the development is very welcome news.
Not that they follow the news.
Anthropologists tend to divide these groups into two categories: those living in “voluntarily isolation” (intentionally avoiding the dominant society) and those in “initial contact” (having had no peaceful interaction with the outside world). According to Survival International, an NGO that advocates on behalf of tribal people, there are around 100 such groups left in the world — tiny hunter-gatherer societies, many speaking languages known only to themselves.
One uncontacted tribe was filmed by the BBC for a recent program.
Several weeks ago, Brazilian officials confirmed that members of one such tribe contracted influenza after emerging from the forest following a dispute with a rival group, and although they were immunized, health workers fear they may have infected the rest of their tribe. In the 1980s, a similar flu epidemic devastated the Nahua after they came into contact with oil workers, killing half of population. Another tragedy befell the Manunahua a decade later, when loggers entered the area.
There have been some successful efforts to protect isolated tribes, but they tend to be halfhearted. In one glaring example, the Peruvian government recently announced an expansion of the massive Camisea gas project in an area known as Lot 88 in the Cusco region of South East Peru.
Unfortunately, concession overlaps with the Kugapakori-Nahua-Nanti Reserve that was established to protect indigenous tribes in 1990.
Initially, it seemed like the project would be impossible. A July 2013 report by the Peruvian government stated that at least one tribal group could be “devastated” by the expansion and others might well become extinct. But the report was quickly rescinded and several of key staff members were forced to resign shortly thereafter. A follow-up report that was more favorable to the oil producers, which include Pluspetrol and American company Hunt Oil, was then issued in its place.
Some energy executives have boasted of further planned expansion, which would bring gas exploration into the Manú National Park, perhaps the most biodiverse area in the world, though these plans have not been confirmed.
Camisea has since drawn condemnation from the UN and numerous NGOs. Now, apparently, it has inspired a horror movie.
The film was not made available to Business Insider for review, so we’ll reserve judgment on the final product. Fans of Roth’s earlier films (“Cabin Fever,” “Hostel”) know that he has a knack for layering his schlocky exploitation flicks with unexpectedly sophisticated political themes, and he tells Business Insider he's done the same here. While the success of that effort remains to be seen, early festival reviews tended not to focus on such subtleties. Most seemed to agree with a writer for Badass Digest, who raved that it was “a relentless machine of gory fun.”
We reached out to Rebecca Spooner, the Peru campaign director for Survival International, to ask what she thought of the trailer. She had a less favorable impression.
“We were obviously disturbed by it,” she tells Business Insider, speaking from the group’s London headquarters. “Effectively, it seemed to be depicting us.”
Like the idealistic young victims in the film, Spooner, 30, and her colleagues have actively protested the Camisea project and other threats to Peru’s indigenous groups. Last year, she traveled to the remote area near Cusco to view the effects of development first-hand.
Unlike Skye Ferriera and the other activists in “The Green Inferno,” she was not shot with blow darts, tortured, forced to endure female genital mutilation, disembowled, impaled on a spike, or eaten alive. She did not have her eyes gouged out or pieces of her flesh sliced off.
But “The Green Inferno’s” depiction of activists like herself as naive and sanctimonious is not the problem, she says, nor is the gruesome punishment to which they’re subjected.
Roth calls this idea “absurd.” In a statement to Business Insider (quoted in full below), he adds, “The fear that somehow a movie would give them ammunition to destroy a tribe all sounds like misdirected anger and frustration that the corporations are the ones controlling the fates of these uncontacted tribes.”
The film's real target, he says, is “slactivism.” And the cannibalism in the film is “a metaphor for how people are shamelessly consumed by their vanity and need for validation on social media.” As for Survival International’s goals of saving uncontacted tribes, he writes, “You're doing something that all of us believe in and many of us secretly wish we were a part of. I applaud you.”
Meanwhile, if the director has his way, the indiginous peoples of the Amazon basin may be in for more unfortunate media depictions. Roth, who recently released a mobile Green Inferno game for iPhone and Android, has spoken of his intention to reinvigorate the cannibal genre, a subclass of splatter films that flourished in Italy in the 1970s and 1980s. (“The Green Inferno” is, in fact, an homage to the most notorious of these, the widely-banned 1980 film “Cannibal Holocaust.”)
Even with the theatrical fate of “The Green Inferno” up in the air, a sequel, “Beyond the Green Inferno,” is already said to be in the works. As Roth commented to the Hollywood Reporter, “We want to take the story to a darker and scarier place on all levels.”
Below, Roth’s full statement to Business Insider:
The idea that a fictional movie about a fictional tribe could somehow hurt indigenous people when gas companies are tearing these villages apart on a daily basis is simply absurd. These companies don't need an excuse — they have one — the natural resources in the ground. They can window dress things however they like, but nobody will destroy a village because they didn't like a character in a movie, they'll do it because they want to get rich by draining what's under the village. This fear that somehow a movie would give them ammunition to destroy a tribe all sounds like misdirected anger and frustration that the corporations are the ones controlling the fates of these uncontacted tribes by manipulating the governments into changing the laws. It's like saying movies cause violence, which if that were true then violence would not have existed before the Melies Brothers.The sad part is, these companies don't need a movie — they're already doing it. I've been following this very closely, both in Peru and what's happening with the recent law changes in Brazil. It's tragic. My film, however, is about bandwagon activism, or "slacktivism," which is people jumping in on social media and retweeting causes they actually know nothing about (something these activists seem ready to do with my film). The whole idea of the kids saving the rainforest only to be eaten by the tribe they saved is a metaphor for how people are shamelessly consumed by their vanity and need for validation on social media. These kids in the movie care, but they care more about getting recognized for caring. If anything, The Green Inferno shows the beauty of Peru, where I took cameras farther than anyone has taken a film crew before to shoot a narrative feature, so audiences globally could feel for the jungle every time a tree gets ripped up. What these real-life activists do not know is that the film is actually on the side of the villagers. They can fear whatever they like about how these people are portrayed, but you know who loved the portrayal? The villagers I filmed. They thought it was hilarious, and they understand the difference between real life and movies even though we showed them cameras for the first time. Everyone knew it was pretend, and they also understood that tribes don't get displaced by gas companies because someone made them look scary in a movie. If this film, or any film, truly had that kind of power I'd be able to make a movie and save the rainforest in 90 minutes. In short, if you want to save the uncontacted tribes in Peru, you're doing something that all of us believe in and many of us secretly wish we were a part of. I applaud you.My small contribution to Peru was to put roofs on every hut in the village where we filmed, something the villagers had wanted their whole lives, and we gave them nearly a year's pay for three weeks of work. The people who seem to publicly care how these people are portrayed are people who want to be portrayed as caring people. If you don't like my film that's fine, but everything in the film is based on real research of how natives live, dress, paint themselves, defend themselves, and the rituals reserved for intruders they see as enemies. You don't have to like it, and the story is fictitious, but all the rituals came from my research on tribes around the world and how they treat intruders. But if you're really nervous about a movie fueling fire for people attacking villagers and taking their resources, then don't see the movie. If everyone stopped their ideas because they were worried about offending people or sparking discussion then there would be no stories to tell. In short, take your cause seriously, but take my film for what it is — a movie.