Amazonas Film Festival: Great Films, Greater Venue

No other South American fest can boast a venue like the city’s old opera house built in 1896 and featured in the Werner Herzog classic, “Fitzcarraldo”

Last week I had the good fortune of being invited to the 8th Annual Amazonas Film Festival in Manaus, Brazil. This city of 2 million in the heart of the Amazon was the venue for hundreds of feature films and shorts from countries as diverse as Iran, Kenya, France, Argentina and of course, Brazil.

There are more prominent film festivals in South America, but none can boast a venue like the city’s old opera house built in 1896 and featured in the Werner Herzog classic, “Fitzcarraldo.” Opening night drew hundred of fans to the red carpet where luminaries like Alfonso Herrera, a Mexican telenovela star, drew squeals of delight from the local girls.

Fernando Meirelles (“City of God,” “The Constant Gardener”) was on hand to help initiate the proceedings and introduce the jury including filmmaker Randa Haines (“Children of a Lesser God”) and Cao Hamburger whose “Xingu” opened the festival.

“Xingu” is about the real-life Villas-Boas brothers who worked for over 25 years to create a homeland for the indigenous peoples of the Amazon. Produced by Meirelles, the movie received a standing ovation by the mostly Brazilian audience.

“We had an invitation to show the film at Rio film festival, which is much bigger with buzz and international press,” said Meirelles. “But we said, ‘No, we want to go to Amazon because of the subject matter.”

While filming “Xingu” there was squabbling among cast members that overwhelmed the director so he called Meirelles to help put out the fire. Little did he realize when he arrived on location he would be confronted with a real fire.

“They have really huge farms and the winds — they set fire and it wipes the whole place,” he said. “After two or three months, when it starts raining and the new green grass comes, they put the cattle to it.”

The production nearly lost a set but eventually put out the fire without injury to cast and crew. “The guy who set the fire was next to us and said, ‘Yeah, I lost control.”

“Xingu” was originally financed by Universal International but they pulled the plug during development amid leadership changes. The production scrambled to put money in place and eventually made the movie for about $8 million, a big budget for the region.

Meirelles has little hope the film will be seen outside of Brazil. In fact, he has little hope for Brazilian movies in general on the world stage. “We can be more present in some festivals and art houses but we don’t have a place in the world,” he lamented. “We speak Portuguese, c’mon, who cares?”

He told me he is hopeful that dubbing movies instead of using subtitles might bring some welcome changes. “This dub trend is getting bigger and if this gets bigger it’s better for Brazilian films because the language won’t matter anymore.”

Manaus Secretary of Culture, Roberio Braga shares Meirelles’ enthusiasm as he tries to build the region’s profile internationally. “We don’t want to be the first or the best or the largest because we already have the first and the second largest rivers,” he laughed. “We just want productions to come here but we also want the festival to be a catalyst for promoting tourism, training, job generation and income generation.”

As incentives, Braga is considering tax exemptions but is concerned that the region lacks tech-savvy crews and support which might further reduce costs for shooting there.

“I learned that with $20 million we can set up a structure with money from oil taxes,” said Braga who is banking on the region’s unique forests and wildlife to draw productions. “As long as the forest stands we’ll have this very rare location to offer and we want to add to that a better structure for production.”

“We have the most beautiful opera house in the world,” boasts Braga. “But what we really want is to have a good quality festival.”