The Amazon is a place many people have seen only in the movies, such as Werner Herzog’s films Aguirre, the Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo. These films present the South American jungle as an ancient, exotic destination, a place of imagination and wonder. But it is a real place, and it is very much a part of the modern world. Manaus, the capital of Brazil’s Amazonas state, is a metropolis of over two million people, and one of the main hubs of Brazil’s booming tech industry. It is where the U.S. Men’s National Soccer team will play its group matches in this month’s World Cup.
The Arena da Amazonia is Manaus’ newest landmark, but to find the city’s most famous building, we can look in Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo. The Teatro Amazonas was built in 1896, back when Manaus was the richest city in South America thanks to a booming rubber industry. The city’s nouveau riche wanted to show the world that even in the jungle, they could enjoy class and culture. And so, in the middle of the rain forest, an opera house was built. But when the rubber industry collapsed, the businessmen fled, and the opera house fell silent. Seventy years would pass before it opened its doors for Werner Herzog to film inside it, and another twenty years before operas would be performed there again.
But now it has a new and vital connection to the movies, as home to the Amazonas Film Festival. Having celebrated its tenth year, the festival brings films from around the world to promote a richer cinema culture in the Amazon capital. This year the festival featured films from the Phillipines (Metro Manila) Afghanistan (Wajma: An Afghan Love Story), and India, whose film The Lunchbox won the festival’s top prize. My two favorite films were from South America: Pelo Malo (Bad Hair), a complex drama about a boy who’s innocent playful explorations of his identity lead to his mother’s questioning of his sexuality. Sexual tension is even thicker in Tatuagem (Tattoo), about the exploits of a cabaret burlesque troupe in Brazil in the late 1970s.
The festival also gives generous awards to young local filmmakers as a way to promote filmmaking in the region. My favorite among these local efforts was Strip Solidão by Flavia Abtibol, a simply stunning film that blends documentary with fiction, gritty life in a Manaus strip club with flights of Amazonian fantasy. Genuine and brilliantly observant, it captures a darker side to the realities and dreams of young women trying to make a living in the city. And it adds another layer to understanding a part of the world that’s long been held captive by its own exoticism, captivating as it may be.
Kevin B. Lee is a filmmaker, critic, video essayist and founding editor of Keyframe. He tweets at @alsolikelife.