Op-Ed: The Amazon, climate change, and the art of filmmaking

BY: Sabrina McCormick

As part of our digital series Climate Artists with ALL ARTS, which highlights the work of artists that focus on the climate crisis, we asked scientists and storytellers to delve deeper into the connection between science and the arts.

Sociologist and filmmaker Sabrina McCormick has been studying society’s response to climate change and how storytelling can be a vehicle for the climate crisis. She writes about her experiences filming SEQUESTRADA, a feature film set in the Brazilian Amazon where climate change, coupled with a supposedly lucrative energy plan are impacting flooding, pollution and indigenous people’s rights in the area.

I watched in the news as smoke rose up from the trees, bright orange flames lapped at the forest’s edge, and the area where I had been producing a scripted feature film was threatened by not just deforestation, but also the intended efforts of cattle ranchers to clear more land. The Arara, one of the main tribes we had worked with to make SEQUESTRADA, lives in the second-most deforested area of the Brazilian Amazon, an area then surrounded by flames. Deforestation, I had seen many times in real life, was driven by slash and burn in order to cattle ranch, and the indigenous people were fighting to the death to stop it. But, it wasn’t just ranchers they were up against. Our film focused on something most people are not talking about: the development of large infrastructure that was driving even greater in-migration to legally-protected lands. I had studied energy planning and climate change in Brazil for many years at that point, and saw that many large hydroelectric dams were planned for the Amazon, which I was sure would result in catastrophe.

Filming SEQUESTRADA | Source: Sabrina McCormick

Over the next two years, we cast two American stars and many indigenous non-actors to bring a story set in this controversial context to life. The script would be based on the evidence in my research, the scientific literature, and the real-life experiences of the indigenous people we worked with in the Amazon. This was my attempt to meld science and art.

Watching fires from afar was not what I was used to. I spent a great deal of time in the Amazon doing research, and then produced my first scripted feature there. I still remember the first time we went to shoot SEQUESTRADA, how the plane tilted and turned over the grassy green carpet of trees below and knowing, this time, it would be different. Usually, it brought me a sense of peace. A forest this thick, strong, and massive was like a comforting home to me, as I had grown up next to another forest on another continent. That experience, and the Native ancestry of my mother’s side with who I knew lived below is what brought me some sense of kinship with this place.

A forest this thick, strong, and massive was like a comforting home to me

As the plane righted itself and we began our slow descent, we glided over a silver slice of river bending, curving, and twisting through the landscape. This was the Xingu, the largest tributary to the Amazon River. But slowly, dots of orange dirt peeked through the green, signs of roads being built and trees being torn down. As we got even closer, I saw it, the catastrophe I had only ever seen in pictures, the Belo Monte dam. The dam had taken a curve in the river and eliminated it, replacing the curve with a canal connecting two structures that the builders claimed would generate eleven megawatts of energy.

The dams were massive concrete and rock dropped in the middle of the forest. Apparently, there was enough of that in the structure to fill the entire Panama Canal. I had done research in Brazil on large hydro for years, mainly trying to understand the environmental and social risks of these projects and especially the risks in the Amazon rain forest.Early on, I had discovered that the flooding of flora and fauna in the forest made dams release a massive amount of methane, one of the most potent greenhouse gases, turning them into a risk for climate change. This dam had also been built in violation of indigenous rights. The affected groups were meant to have a say in the decision-making, yet every time they voiced their dismay with the project, the courts put a stop to it that somehow got rejected. Such a massive project also requires other infrastructure to be built at the same time – roads, bridges, and sometimes airports – all pivot points for deforestation. As such, a model of supposedly sustainable development centered around dams as ‘renewable’ energy is inaccurate and lacked accountability.

Filming SEQUESTRADA | Source: Sabrina McCormick

As I de-boarded the plan with my co-director, collected our bags, and got in the car with a man from a local organization I’d known from my research who had come to pick us up and help us, the question hanging in my mind was whether or not a fiction film based on real life events could offer some transparency about what was happening there. I had chosen not to make a documentary because I figured fewer people would watch that kind of movie. A fiction film might reach people who didn’t already care.

I had always found that in the United States, where I live, and even in Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, where I spent time doing research, most people conceive of the Amazon and its indigenous inhabitants as far away and irrelevant to their lives. Yet, because of the forest’s role as a global carbon sink, its potential to affect climate change, and its great resource base in many other ways, I knew they were wrong.

The first film I made was a short documentary about people displaced by large dams. While I love documentaries, and could see many of them engaging me as much as a fiction film, I thought it unlikely that I’d get anyone outside Brazil interested in watching a documentary about a dam in Brazil. I wanted to change people’s hearts and therefore, minds, not the reverse order. Research shows it doesn’t work that way. So, we had planned a fiction story line based on real life events, but rough and without dialogue, hoping to work with our actors to shape the project.

I wanted to change people’s hearts and therefore, minds, not the reverse order.

Our contact introduced us to a woman who worked for the local indigenous agency. While we waited to meet her, we began meeting indigenous people in the streets of Altamira, the small town closest to the dam where they came to buy supplies. There were a number of tribes there from up and down the Xingu River. We had stopped through Rio on the way, where we had selected an amazingly talented, trained Brazilian actor who we thought could work with them. He arrived days later. That was our first shoot. After a week of preparing, we just starting rolling, similar to a documentary, but working with the actors to script lines. On that trip, we cast indigenous non-actors to play lead roles. We shot the film over the next two years as the dam continued to be built.

Filming SEQUESTRADA | Source: Sabrina McCormick

At the same time, analyses were being released of the methane that would result from its construction, like that of other large dams in the Amazon. Methane is 30 times more toxic than carbon dioxide, yet the degradation of flora and fauna from the flooding meant that tons of it would be released. This is a lesser known fact. At the same time, the indigenous communities that had lived on the ‘big bend’ of the river that had been eliminated were not being remunerated for their losses, so the dam became a human rights violation. Lawsuits had brought the dam project in and out of court for decades, resulting in the literal shape of the dam shifting to have a smaller reservoir, but still destroying land and livelihoods. My research looking at the political economy of energy generation in the Amazon showed that without a consideration of the trajectory of climate change, the dam’s construction was largely shaped by the political-economic relationships that involved corruption and lower-than-expected return on investment that had resulted in international investors withdrawing their capital.

The stories of the illegal approvals of the dam’s construction continue to be released even as we make our final plans to distribute the film. The fires that have ignited the forest and international concern about it resonate with the film as the in-migration of over 30,000 people to build the dam results in increased deforestation from road-building. Both the fires and the dam do the same thing – destroy the rain forest. Dam building catalyzes more fires by bringing people into the rain forest where they settle and make a life for themselves, often burning the rain forest as a form of economic development.

SEQUESTRADA shows how one little girl is affected by the process of destroying the Amazon as her home is erased. It also shows us the real world of the indigenous people whose lives are often hidden behind controversial headlines and policies.  As a director, my hope is that by making a beautiful piece of art, the science that shows how deforestation hurts the planet would be made into a heartfelt moment, capturing what it means to be human in this historic moment.

Sabrina McCormick, PhD, is a sociologist and filmmaker. Her current research investigates how climate change lawsuits are won and lost, and why cities can fail in their address of climate change. Dr. McCormick’s film work includes her current feature fiction film, SEQUESTRADA, set in the Brazilian Amazon, and the Emmy Award-winning Showtime series, The Years of Living Dangerously, amongst other projects. She is currently Advisory Committee member of the Climate Change Communications Initiative of the National Academies of Sciences. She was Lead Author on the Nobel Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and has advised Congress, the State Department, and the White House. Dr. McCormick’s work has been featured in NBC Nightly News, NPR, TIME Magazine, the Chicago Tribune, and many other media outlets. She is Associate Professor at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health and Senior Fellow at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.