AFI Documentary Review: ‘When Two Worlds Collide’

Development is messy business. In Peru, former president Alan Garcia gleefully opened up his country’s natural resources to multi-national corporations who were invited into the Amazon to mine, drill, and clear-cut significant sections of the rain forest. Never mind the environmental cost—which, as Heidi Brandenburg and Mathew Orzel’s “When Two Worlds Collide” shows, includes water turned into a thick black sludge from oil run-off. And certainly never mind that indigenous peoples actually live on and use much of this land. And mind even less that this land belongs to those peoples according to the Peruvian constitution and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Garcia did not consult with Peru’s indigenous peoples before begging corporations to come pillage the land, but these peoples made their voices heard in mass protests led by charismatic leader Alberto Pizango. While the Peruvian government did eventually agree to meet with Pizango and other indigenous representatives, little was accomplished, and one of the peoples’ primary demands, that a forestry law allowing for the private sale of the rain forest—a plan that should horrify even detached Americans whose closest contact with the Amazon is visiting a Rainforest Cafe—was undone by parliamentary gamesmanship.

This, it turns out, was the breaking point. Shortly after word of the forestry law reached the movement, there were mass protests that erupted in violent confrontation with the police, leading to nine dead protesters, eleven dead police, and one missing cop. Some protesters kidnapped and executed police officers in Bagua. Pizango was blamed for the killings and forced to leave the country under threat of prosecution for inciting violence. Protestors were painted by the government as backward savages afraid of progress. But the funny thing about resistance movements is that no one cares until someone dies, and as much as the indigineous peoples were vilified for the violence, they did eventually extract concessions.

Brandenburg and Orzel, who labored for about seven years on this project, lay this all out in a clear, chronological narrative. The protests are illustrated with vivid on-the-ground footage. The directors are particularly attuned to the strategy and tactics of the protesters, lucidly detailing their strategies in similar fashion to Diane Obomsawin’s legendary documentary “Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance.” Like that film, “When Two Worlds Collide” is unabashedly on the side of the protesters, though it does open up a bit in the second half, sensitively capturing the grief of the slain police officers’ families. (Interestingly, the father of the one missing cop turns out to be quite sympathetic to the protesters’ cause.)

Also like “Kanehsatake,” “When Two Worlds Collide” is not exactly a fun watch. It can even feel a bit like homework, especially for those of us with little prior knowledge about Peru. It’s an admirable film more than a great one, sprinkled with moments of beauty (courtesy of the breath-taking Amazon) and a healthy dose of righteous anger. But, perhaps inevitably, it all becomes a bit pedagogical. Still, it should be of interest to anyone interested in Peruvian politics or resistance movements. “When Two Worlds Collide” ably demonstrates how movements develop and how they win. And how “winning” doesn’t always mean winning. Even though the protesters “won” some concessions, development in the Amazon has continued apace.

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