By Elias Savada.
Investigative documentaries have been a cranky, yet effusive growth industry (thank you, Michael Moore) over the last couple of decades, more so with the improvements in technology that allow anyone to become a self-designated filmmaker. While these films still comprise a subgenre in search of a wider audience, anyone with a digital recording device, some crowd and foundation funding, and a lot of time can fashion a noteworthy effort that can help sway public opinion. First-time filmmakers Heidi Brandenberg Sierralta and Mathew Orzel have thus brought us When Two Worlds Collide, an award-winning feature that garnered a special jury prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival (Best Debut Feature: “This film impresses us because of the tenacity of the filmmakers in staying with the story of many years. This film was beautiful, raw and had incredible tension.”)
The creative duo, joined by producer Taira Akbar, began working on the film back in 2007, on the tail end of their studies in England at the University of Newport, Wales. Sparked by a scholarship, they angled for some time in Peru (Brandenberg Sierralta’s birthplace), which was about to become embroiled over the Free Trade Agreement soon to be adopted by the governments of Peru and the United States, opening the Amazon River’s door to big oil exploration. One little problem: the authoritarian polticos neglected to inform the many indigenous people that big multinational companies were about to wreak havoc on their simple, jungle existence.
Much like the Native American struggles in the United States, the film focuses on the battle for truth, justice, and the South American way by Peru’s ethnic citizens. While giving lip service to both sides of the conflict that came to a head in 2009, it’s obvious where the film’s sympathies are. There are Ugly (South) American politicians that catch most of the blame, especially former President of Peru Alan Garcia and Yehude Simon, the country’s former Prime Minister, who provides a post script on his government’s “right to exploit” during the conflict.
The underdogs are led by Alberto Pizango, defending the ancestral lands from the cruel hands of “progress.” His looks and nature are unassuming, whether stripped down to his skivvies as the filmmakers introduce his oneness with the Amazon wilderness, or as a public voice asking for a fair shake. He speaks with a determination as a spokesperson for the Association for the Development of the Peruvian Rainforest (AIDESEP), which collectively represents the various tribes that populate the Amazon River region. Yet, in the final third of the film (its weakest part) – while meeting with a father seeking news of his son, a policeman abducted by the protesters during a hot-blooded battle in Bagau in 2009 – Pizango seems distant. No doubt he yearns to return to the simple life and the pleasantries of friends and family enjoying their small piece of the world.
Brandenberg Sierralta and Orzel shot the film themselves, often embedded in the rising conflict, and they unabashedly build up the protesters’ side, beginning with nasty views of black oil oozing into waterways along the North Peru pipeline, with contamination affecting the locals in both mental and physical ways. Who wouldn’t fight for clean water and clean health?
As for the lunatics running the castle (Garcia, Simon, and former Minister of the Interior Mercedes Cabanillas), they refuse to budge as the demonstrations take a heated, bloody turn during two months in 2009, when well over a thousand communities band together to fight the government and force them to repeal the laws that started the problem. Although they may be carrying spears as part of their native costume, this protest does seemingly start as a peaceful outing.
Eventually the police attack and the ensuing chaos is captured from news and digital camera/phone footage. Pizango is accused of murder, sedition, and conspiracy. He receives political asylum in Nicaragua, returns a year later to face trial. And while the government finally backtracked, Pizango’s future is apparently still at the mercy of the country’s court system.
The information scrawl at the film’s end appears dated (mentioning that dethroned President Garcia is thinking of running for office again, in 2016). News travels slowly along the river. When Two Worlds Collide is quite informative for those not familiar with the events that unraveled in Peru, now hopefully better off, despite the oil, gas, and timber interests angling for a piece of the Amazon action. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the horror film German Angst and the new documentary Nuts! He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (the revised edition will be published in 2017 by Centipede Press).