Following the success of The Colorado, National Sawdust’s second project to examine major watersheds from social
and ecological perspectives will be The Amazon.
“The largest river in the world runs
through the largest forest… a forest
which is practically unlimited”
This is how the fabled botanist Richard Spruce described Amazonia in 1851.
Fifteen million years ago, the Andes Cordillera rose to form a prodigious arch along the Pacific coast of South America. Countless tributaries tumbled down the eastern slopes of the newly formed mountain chain, collecting in the heart of the continent and forming Earth’s largest and longest river, the Amazon, which reaches the Atlantic Ocean 4,345 miles from its most distant Andean source.
Natives have inhabited the region for more than a dozen millennia, learning the potential of myriad plants for food, medicine, and building materials and perfecting their knowledge of living sustainably in the forest.
Europeans began arriving in the sixteenth century. For them the forest was mainly a source of frustration, quashing every
hope, whether for finding cities of gold or for farming or ranching in the manner to which they were accustomed.
Nevertheless, the Europeans and their progeny pressed on, and over the next three centuries, through conquest, colonization, and forced labor—and despite periodic and ineffective religious objection—some of them accumulated great wealth. Their enrichment meant immense cultural destruction and suffering for the natives.
During the decades bridging the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the prospect of large-scale rubber production raised hopes for the industrial potential of the forest. A small class of flamboyant rubber barons prospered, while the natives who tapped the rubber trees suffered abject misery.
Through year after year of human turbulence the forest, lofty and imperturbable, survived. But in the mid-twentieth century new threats arose. An onslaught of road building, logging, farming, mineral extraction, and oil drilling began to change the land in fundamental ways. Since then, a portion of the forest roughly equal to the size of France has been lost to deforestation.
The Amazon remains the largest river in the world, and it runs through the world’s largest forest. The vast area it drains still harbors a dizzying number of species, some still waiting to be identified, and numerous un-contacted native groups still dwell in its recesses. Other indigenous communities live in varying levels of contact with the outside world, speaking no fewer than three hundred and thirty distinct languages.
Yet the future of Amazonia abounds with foreboding questions: will the destruction of its forest continue unabated? Can its diversity, both cultural and natural, be preserved? Might some tipping point, soon to be reached, push the pace and scope of change past any prospect of mitigation? The Amazon seeks to put the history of this singular region in perspective. We have entered the Anthropocene, an epoch of irreversible, human-driven change, which will require new relationships between humans and the land and water that sustain them. The Amazon seeks to inspire the search for those relationships through an immersive and sensorial experience of images, words, and music.
The mission of The Amazon is to cultivate a holistic understanding of the Amazon River Basin and, by exploring the intersection of art, ecology, and history, to contribute toward better stewardship of its resources. Conserving the land, water, and cultures of the region will require knowledge, love, and perseverance. In bringing art and research together, The Amazon seeks to share that knowledge, inspire that love, and encourage action on the region’s behalf.
The Amazon is conceived as both a documentary film for theaters and a live cinematic event. Three composers are being commissioned to write music for the film. The film will be structured in successive sections, each with its own music and subject matter, which will be united as a whole through the exploration of central themes. This approach represents a departure from the traditional documentary format in that large sections of the film will be edited to the music. The performed live or screened in theaters, will be a fully immersive and sensorial experience of music, lyrics, and imagery within the context outlined above. During the live versions, performance will be synced to the picture, with portions of the music improvised. The Colorado, which is a prototype for The Amazon, has been performed live to sold-out audiences at such venues as New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, Stanford University, and the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC.