Colombian helmer Antonio Dorado Z. ventures forth to retrace the 1942 journey of famed American botanist Richard Schultes through the Amazon jungle in “Apaporis.” En route, he samples aquatic vistas of savage, rugged beauty, ongoing civil wars and ecological disasters, and age-old rituals and shamanistic explanations of the world’s origins. The result is, quite literally, overwhelming — a tidal wave of information and imagery from different places, times and cultural contexts, all clamoring to be processed within 74 minutes. Pic is playing as part of IDA’s DocuWeeks, showcasing 17 films for Oscar consideration in Los Angeles and New York.
A fascinating newsreel clip of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s impassioned speech about rubber’s crucial importance to the war effort places Schultes’ original Amazonian trip in context. Sent by the U.S. government to research durable rubber strains, Schultes wound up staying 12 years, documenting rare psychotropic plants and recording the unique beliefs and lifestyles of people he encountered along the Apaporis River.
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Armed with photographs from Schultes’ expedition, Dorado Z. sets out to discover what happened to the natives in those photographs, curious to see if their cultures and languages survived the exploitation of the rainforest and the decades-long wars that have ravaged Colombia. As the party embarks, ancient warnings of cannibals now compete with cautionary tales of guerrilla and paramilitary forces.
During his travels, the helmer actually finds an old man who identifies certain youths in Schultes’ photos, one of them the man’s own (now dead) brother. A shaman is profoundly moved by the pictures of his ancestors, while Schultes’ legend, rekindled by those black-and-white evocations of the past, leads to invitations to witness sacred rituals. The camera documents a shaman shooting a bird with a poisoned arrow and then resuscitating it with the very substance that first poisoned it.
When not declaiming the disappearance of unique, powerful natural and human resources wiped out by stupidity and greed (pic alerts viewers that every 15 days, a language is lost forever), the film strains to reproduce the awesome might of nature and the spiritual magic of those communing with its power. Crashing thunder and sky-splitting lightning accompany native ceremonies, while Alejandro Ramirez Rojas’ sweeping, fully orchestrated score vies with the rushing rapids and towering waterfalls of
Pic admirably crams volumes of material into a short-running package but makes no attempt at orderly exposition, seemingly opting for more mystical continuity. Disembodied voices succeed one another; a shaman’s imagistic description of the beginning of the universe is promptly followed by an English voice, expounding on the untapped wisdom of tribes who have divined secrets of survival in nature.
The English voice belongs to Wade Davis, Schultes’ student and the author of a seminal book on the Apaporis River, whom the helmer interviewed prior to his trek. Somewhat disorientingly, direct quotations from Davis or cutaways to him are apt to pop up unexpectedly, part of the stream of unfiltered experience Dorado unleashes.