'Avatar' in the Amazon

The World

Indigenous viewers are impressed by the 3D graphics in Avatar for many, it's their first time in a movie theater.

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If there were ever a place that came close to the magical world of Pandora in James Cameron’s new film "Avatar," it would be the Amazon. There may not be butterflies that look like flying squid, but in the Amazon can you eat giant worms and lemon-flavored ants for dinner in a forest that is home to both the jaguar and the pink dolphin. Reporter Melaina Spitzer joined a group of indigenous leaders from the Amazon in Ecuador’s capital, Quito, to see "Avatar" on the big screen in 3D.

The Supercines Theater is on one of the busiest streets in Quito. On this afternoon it’s filled with indigenous leaders bussed in from the Amazon. They’re decked out in their plumes, feathered crowns and jewelry. Some of them look a little overwhelmed but that’s not too surprising.

These women say this is the first time they’ve ever been to a theater. Some have never seen a movie.

As we pass into the theater, a few look confused as ushers hand out thick dark 3D glasses. The seats fill up so people sit on the steps and in the aisles. And then the lights go down.

The movie tells the story of a planet called Pandora, home to the indigenous Na’vi. They’re fighting to protect their forests from a company set on mining a rare mineral called “unobtaneum.”

When it’s over, I speak with Mayra Vega. She’s 24 years old and head of the Women’s Association of the Shuar Nation. She says "Avatar" hit home for her people.

“It left a huge impression on us. For example, the movies are almost real. It’s an example that makes us think a lot because the indigenous are defending their rights. We have to defend, just as the indigenous so clearly defended in the movie. We had an uprising; we had a confrontation with gases. It’s the same as what we just saw in the movie.”

Vega says just like in "Avatar," the Shuar are fighting to protect their land from mining companies. And they’re not the only ones.

The Kichwa Community of Sarayaku took on CGC, an Argentine Energy company. Marlon Santi is president of the National Indigenous Confederation of Ecuador and a Sarayaku native. He sees the Sarayaku case as a real life "Avatar" story, where the indigenous triumphed over the oil company. But unlike in "Avatar," they didn’t use violence.

The Sarayaku Case is one of the emblematic cases in the struggle for territorial and environmental defense, and for human rights.

Another case involves the Waorani: beneath their territory in Yasuni National Park lie 846-million barrels of oil. Yasuni is a biodiverse hotspot that’s often referred to as a grand lung of the earth. It is also one of the few places left on earth where uncontacted indigenous groups live in isolation. Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa has offered to forgo drilling in this pristine environment… if the international community will pay Ecuador more than $3.5 billion dollars, about half the value of the oil. But Correa has recently questioned the deal, causing an uproar at home.

At a reception after the film Marlon Santi says he hopes the president will ultimately bow to public pressure and keep his commitment to preserve Yasuni. And he thinks "Avatar" could help with that.

“Honestly, this is the first time I’m seeing this movie, and it’s reality, what’s happening now just in another dimension.”

Others say there was at least one thing in the movie that veered from their reality. Achuar leader Luis Vargas says it’s where the white guy sweeps in to the rescue. But he says that’s to be expected.

“This is a Hollywood movie, so it’s practically a given that a mestizo comes to the defense and leads [the people] to triumph in the end.”

Still, he liked the film, and his fellow Achuar leader Ernesto Vargas says he hopes another group will get a chance to see it.

“Think of how much better it would be if we showed this film to people who actually want to exploit petroleum. I think it would serve them very well, even more than us.”

As for Ecuador’s President Correa, he saw the movie with his children the day after it premiered in Ecuador. No word yet on what he thought of it.

PRI's "The World" is a one-hour, weekday radio news magazine offering a mix of news, features, interviews, and music from around the globe. "The World" is a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH Boston.