The Human Cost of an Environmental Disaster: ‘Guarding the Forest’ at the Native Spirit Indigenous Film Festival
Charlotte Rawlings

Max Baring’s new documentary film recounts the struggles of the indigenous peoples who live in the Amazon, after the burning of the rainforests gained international attention.

The 13th Native Spirit Film Festival will be running between 12 and 20 October 2019. This event deserves far more support and recognition as a platform for Indigenous cinema. Native Spirit works to champion and promote this unique category of filmmaking, and their chosen films delve into significant social and political issues with an artistic flair guaranteed to attract any cinephile.

One of the films being screened at this year’s festival is Max Baring’s revealing documentary Guarding the Forest, which couldn’t have been more timely. The summer of 2019 brought to light the severe ecological threat faced by our planet, as a social media storm highlighted the environmental crimes being committed in the Amazon rainforest. Although natural forest fires are not uncommon during the dry season, the sheer degree of destruction showing an increase in fires of more than 80% points towards illegal deforestation through slash-and-burn methods. The reason for this deforestation lies with the agriculture industry creating land for their produce, and although this form of demarcation is illegal in Brazil, President Bolsonaro has famously little concern for the planet’s wellbeing.

The recent international outrage is primarily concerned with the long-term environmental implications, but it is important not to lose sight of the people who are also battling the social fallout. Indigenous communities are losing homes and having their land destroyed for economic gain: if you thought climate action wasn’t getting enough media coverage, the human rights element of this atrocity certainly isn’t either. Max Baring’s festival film makes this issue known, giving a voice to the rainforest’s people.

Filmed in the Guajajara Indigenous territory within the depths of Brazil, Guarding the Forest holds a magnifying glass up to the devastation spreading through the Amazon rainforest due to the all-too-common prevalence of loggers. We are all aware of the impact deforestation has on our planet, but this documentary digs deeper into the direct social impact these atrocities have on local Indigenous populations and how members of the Guajajara community are fighting back.

The Guajajara Task Force call themselves “Guardians of the Forest” and view themselves as warriors serving to protect Mother Nature, aiming to negotiate with those who threaten her. The documentary exposes the politics surrounding the issues of deforestation and the eternal conflict between ecology and economy affecting the lives of so many. It highlights what used to be a lush beacon of greenery that provides us with 20% of the world’s oxygen, and that many justify its destruction because of the realities of a money-driven world. It is a film which surveys the fight between “individual, economic, private interests versus interests of the collective rights of Indigenous peoples” as Brazil’s first Indigenous congresswoman Joênia Wapichana puts it.

Following the election of President Bolsonaro and the power over land demarcation being transferred to the Ministry of Agriculture (an organisation whose main priority lies with farming) as opposed to the original organisation FUNAI (a foundation which aims to protect the rights of Indigenous people) logging has become far more of a cultural, as well as an environmental, threat.

Filmmakers put themselves on the front line as they utilise footage of fire, explosions and chaos to accentuate the destruction that the Guajajara Guardians are frequently facing. This serves to make the documentary all the more shocking, as it provides a melancholic reminder of the war we have declared on our own planet and its people. A simple yet effective use of Google Earth helps the audience visualise the severity of demarcation as vibrant green fades to lifeless brown in a fear-inducing image. The film runs for less than half an hour, but nevertheless offers viewers an intimate relationship with the Guardians, as cameras follow them through darkness and barren forests illustrating the reality of their fight. It effectively presents a more personal connection to environmental issues to strike the viewer on a human level.

This documentary does indeed emphasise the environmental crisis we all face, but its main focus is the Indigenous people of Brazil and the threats to their lives and homes. It also quite rightly sheds a light on the heroes putting their lives on the line to protect this precious ecosystem, something mainstream media channels have been failing to do. Using an environmental issue which inevitably impacts on the entire globe the documentary is a genius way of educating audiences (especially western) on cultural matters which would otherwise remain unexplored, bringing lesser known issues concerning Indigenous communities to the surface. As one of the Guardians so poignantly notes, “Our culture is our life, it’s in our blood, and nature is always part of our life” – and this thought-provoking documentary illustrates how deforestation is not only destroying land, but also destroying historical culture and human rights.

Guarding the Forest shows on 12th October at the Native Spirit Indigenous Film Festival at 2-4pm at The Court Room, First Floor, Senate House, Malet Street, London WC1E 7HU. Register here.

Charlotte Rawlings

Charlotte Rawlings


Charlotte Rawlings is a University of Southampton film graduate and blogger with a passion for all things cinema.

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