Film Review: ‘When Two Worlds Collide’

A potent chronicle of the fight between indigenous tribes and government-supported business interests in the Peruvian Amazon.

'When Two Worlds Collide' Review: Heidi
Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

“When Two Worlds Collide” offers a vivid if unabashedly partisan depiction of the clash between indigenous Peruvian minorities and government interests bent on “opening up” protected tribal lands to multinational-corporation mining, drilling and clear-cutting. That conflict flared into contentious, highly publicized strikes and violence in 2009, which are depicted here in alarmingly immediate on-the-ground footage shot by participants on both sides. Winner of a World Cinema documentary competition prize for best first feature at Sundance, Heidi Brandenburg Sierralta and Mathew Orzel’s film will be primarily of interest to specialty broadcasters and streaming distributors.

After showing some of the ruinous pollution left behind by industrial “progress” in Amazonian rainforest areas, destroying both the environment and the local residents’ traditional ways of life, “When Two Worlds Collide” commences its chronological narrative with then-president Alan Garcia’s 2007 invitation to foreign (especially American) companies to invest in Peru’s natural-resources riches. Trouble was, most of those resources (steel, natural gas, oil, etc.) required extraction from constitutionally protected lands belonging to native peoples who have lived there long before the arrival of Europeans. Garcia and his allies pushed through legislation that auctioned off such rights without even consulting the occupants of those “communal lands.” Unsurprisingly, those occupants were furious.

The principal figure here is Alberto Pizango, a leading advocate of Peruvian Indigenous Amazon self-determination who became chairman of the umbrella group AIDESEP (Assn. for the Development of the Peruvian Rainforest). He steered a hard-line stance that demanded the government not merely revise but wholly repeal laws passed without input from native groups, at which point related negotiations could begin afresh.

When that request was ignored, locals began blocking roads to industrial sites, then seized control of two privatized facilities. As police and then military were sent in to disperse the protestors, violence broke out that resulted in injuries and fatal casualties on both sides. There’s hair-raising footage here that puts us right in the middle of the June 2009 armed conflicts, shot by not only the filmmakers but also indigenous and uniformed state personnel as well.

While Pizango and company insisted the locals retaliated only after being fired upon, Garcia’s coalition and allied national media outlets painted the Indios as bloodthirsty “savages” mindlessly opposed to any economic progress on lands that belonged not just to them, but to the entire populace. Ultimately Pizango was forced into (brief) Nicaraguan exile. While some concessions finally were won (and Garcia left office, at least for the time being), the pic suggests the government has gone on skirting around its own laws, selling mining and other rights to offshore concerns on native lands.

Pizango aside, the pic finds another sympathetic figure in Felipe Virgillio Bazan Caballero, a retired Lima police officer who proves surprisingly conciliatory toward indigenous interests even when his quest to discover what happened to his son (the lone cop unaccounted for after 2009’s mayhem in Bagua) ends in a horrific discovery. By contrast, the high-ranking political figures interviewed here (including former Garcia cabinet members) seem all too inclined toward inflammatory rhetoric in justifying government putdowns of protests and commercial exploitation of rainforest lands. No doubt they’d think “When Two Worlds Collide” a slanted view of events whose details (especially where violent acts are concerned) remain a source of some confusion and angry debate. Yet the film makes its case powerfully, and the myriad parallel situations in which private commercial interests continue to trump environmental ones worldwide makes that viewpoint easy to accept as valid.

Shot over several years’ course, “When Two Worlds Collide” maintains a raw verite feel despite its narrative, temporal and geographic sprawl. Among other well-turned contributions, the editing by Carla Guitierrez (“Kingdom of Shadows”) is key in shaping a coherent narrative from what was doubtless a daunting mountain of material on a complicated subject.

Film Review: ‘When Two Worlds Collide’

Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (World Cinema — competing), Jan. 23, 2016. Running time: <strong>102 MIN.</strong>

  • Production: (Documentary — Peru-Qatar) A Yachaywasi Films production, in association with Ford Foundation. (International sales: the Film Sales Co., New York.) Produced by Taira Akbar, Heidi Brandenburg Sierralta, Mathew Orzel.
  • Crew: Directed by Heidi Brandenburg Sierralta, Mathew Orzel. Camera (color, HD), Brandenburg Sierralta, Orzel; editor, Carla Guitierrez; music, H. Scott Salinas; sound, Taira Akbar, Orzel, Brandenburg Sierralta; supervising sound editor/re-recording mixer, Tom Paul.
  • With: Alberto Pizango, Felipe Virgillio Bazan Caballero, Mercedes Cabanillas, Alan Garcia, Yehude Simon, Felipe Bazan, Jose Quispe, Victor Garcia Belaunde. (Spanish dialogue)