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Wild Green

Former Utne Reader senior editor Keith Goetzman on environmental issues from climate change to composting.

Avatar Director Turns Green (Not Blue)

 by Keith Goetzman

Tags: Keith Goetzman, environment, indigenous rights, indigenous people, activism, hydropower, Amazon, rainforest, film, James Cameron, avatar, Amazon Watch, Mongabay, New Statesman, The Indypendent,

James Cameron visits proposed Belo Monte dam site

James Cameron is funneling some of his energies into a new role: that of environmentalist and indigenous rights advocate. But he’s finding that this can be tricky territory for a blockbuster director.

Nikolas Kozloff, the author of No Rain in the Amazon: How South America’s Climate Change Affects the Entire Planet (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2010), writes at the rainforest conservation website Mongabay about Cameron’s recent forays into the activist realm:

To his credit, Cameron has sought to address not only fictional struggles in the virtual world but also the real-life plight of indigenous peoples fighting to preserve their ancestral lands from hydropower development. Recently, the Hollywood director toured the Brazilian rainforest in association with Amazon Watch, a Washington, D.C.-based NGO [nongovernment organization] which is performing valuable environmental work in South America.

After meeting with the Kayapo Indians, “real life Na’vi,” as Cameron put it, the director got inspired and has been campaigning for indigenous peoples. Cameron says the Belo Monte boondoggle dam planned for the Amazon is a “quintessential example of the type of thing we are showing in Avatar—the collision of a technological civilization’s vision for progress at the expense of the natural world and the cultures of the indigenous people that live there.”

On a tear in New York, he spoke before a United Nations committee on aboriginal rights and even launched an environmental scholarship at Brooklyn Tech high school. Not content to stop there, he updated the Avatar website to keep fans informed about environmental issues and sponsored the planting of a million trees around the world as part of Earth Day.

Kozloff writes that “Cameron has done more than many other Hollywood directors to bring environmentalism into the mainstream.” This is certainly a more charitable view of the director than many on the left seem to hold. Critical theory heavyweight Slavoj Zizek, for example, recently raked Cameron over the coals in Britain’s New Statesman in a commentary that purported to expose the “brutal racist undertones” lurking under the director’s “superficial Hollywood Marxism.”

Zizek might have been impressed (OK, probably not) to see Cameron checking his allegedly Amazon-sized ego and addressing this sort of critique head-on during his New York tour. Cameron spoke on a panel about indigenous issues at the Paley Center for Media in Manhattan, and Kozloff notes on Mongabay that the director deferred to indigenous representatives in answering many questions.

A smart move, given the climate observed by New York City’s Indypendent newspaper:

While the film was well-received by the largely indigenous audience, Cameron did field some tough questions.

[Mohawk journalist Kenneth Deer] pointed to large Hollywood films, such as Dances with Wolves, Little Big Man, Wind Talkers and Avatar, where the hero who saves the indigenous people is always a non-indigenous person. He asked Cameron why he also chose this narrative, and instantly received a large cheer from the audience.

Cameron responded, “That was one of the backlashes against the movie, that the so-called main character was not an indigenous leader himself.” However, he said that the goal in making the film was not to try to “tell indigenous people how bad things are for them,” but rather to “wake up” people who play the roles of economic oppressors or invaders in real-life. “I understand the white messiah argument,” he said, “but in this movie, I am trying to make everybody a white messiah, for everybody to have the sense of responsibility to help with the problem. I think it is such absolutely courageous how you are fighting for your rights … But it is going to take people from the other side meeting you part way and taking responsibility for what has happened in the past and the way we need to live in going forward.”

Sources: Mongabay, New Statesman, The Indypendent

Image © 2010 Atossa Soltani, courtesy of Amazon Watch.