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Making a thriller out of Belo Monte hydro dam: Q&A with filmmaker Sabrina McCormick

  • The construction of the controversial Belo Monte hydroelectric dam in the Brazilian Amazon is the narrative engine that drives Sequestrada, the first full-length film by U.S. cinematographer and sociologist Sabrina McCormick.
  • The film, which came out in December on various streaming platforms, tells the story of Kamudjara, an indigenous girl, amid the expectations about the profound social and environmental changes that the construction will bring.
  • In this interview with Mongabay, the director speaks about her creative process, her experience filming in the Amazon and perceptions about the social and cultural aspects, as well as the indigenous people’s sense of belonging to the forest.
  • A former climate and environmental adviser to the Obama administration, McCormick also stresses the importance of blocking the advance of power generation models based on projects like Belo Monte.

Construction of the Belo Monte hydroelectric dam is the narrative impulse for Sequestrada (2019), the first full-length film by U.S. cinematographer and sociologist Sabrina McCormick, together with South Korea’s Soopum Sohn. The film, released last December on streaming platforms iTunes, Vudu, Vimeo, Amazon and Google Play, tells the story of a young indigenous woman, Kamudjara (played by indigenous actress Kamudjara Xipaia), in the midst of disputes and expectations about the profound social and environmental changes the development will bring.

The dam, built on the Xingu River, displaced up to 50,000 people, cost nearly $10 billion, caused untold socio-environmental damage — and today generates only a fraction of the electricity that its developers had promised.

An associate professor at the Environmental and Occupational Health Department at George Washington University’s Milken Institute School of Public Health, McCormick was an adviser to Congress and the Department of State, serving on climate committees during the Obama administration. She says she believes film plays a fundamental role in disseminating information and fostering reflection over environmental issues, which she has been studying for more than 20 years.

In this interview with Mongabay, she talks about the creative process, her experience filming in the Amazon and perceptions about the social and cultural aspects of the people she met, as well as the locals’ sense of belonging related to the forest. She also stresses the importance of blocking the advance of power generation models based on projects like Belo Monte.

A shot from the film ‘Sequestrada’. Image courtesy of the director.

Mongabay: Why did you chose to film in the Amazon — and specifically about the construction of the Belo Monte hydroelectric dam?

Sabrina McCormick: I’ve studied environmental policy for about 20 years, especially the topic of power generation and climate change. During my doctoral studies, I spent some time at UFRJ (Rio de Janeiro Federal University) and was able to follow more closely the public debate underway over the power plant’s construction.

Something that caught my attention was that a development project on that scale in the middle of the Amazon wasn’t seen as something positive by the people, yet still, it would be built. It was a gigantic construction project, intended to be the world’s fourth-largest hydroelectric dam, part of a group of other large plants in the forest like Balbina [in Amazonas state] and the Rio Madeira hydroelectric complex [composed of two large dams: Jirau and Santo Antônio, in the state of Rondônia].

I make films so the knowledge I have can reach more people. I knew this was a really important topic — not just for Brazil, but for the whole world, because degradation of the Amazon directly impacts climate change.

In spite of this global vision, your narrative focuses on local characters, even using local actors from the Altamira region around the dam. Why this choice?

We received support from many local organizations and, from the very beginning, when we began creating the story, I could see that even if we weren’t making a documentary, it was important to show the experiences of those who were suffering most directly. I also knew we were talking about territory that, aside from being rich in biodiversity, has a complex social reality. This couldn’t be ignored. Listening to the indigenous people and other people living in the region was very important in building the script and the entire film.

What were the greatest things you learned in this process?

I learned much more than I imagined I would. I noticed details about how negotiations work there, the distances — it would take us over six days in a boat to arrive at some of the villages — and the relationship that they had with the forest. The sentiments the locals expressed to me made me realize that those people’s world was being destroyed. I, as an American, have a different sentiment when I use the word “home.” Of course, I understand what it is to have connection to the place where one is born, or the community there. But what these people felt they were losing was much greater than this.

We also had to learn to deal with the tension in the air that was very evident. We began visiting Altamira in 2015 and could see that Belo Monte was a topic of discussion everywhere we went, even when we sat down to eat in restaurants. We attended a town hall meeting where 15 indigenous peoples were represented, all opposed to the dam. I decided to drop the scene of a fictitious protest because there were so many real protests going on that we could have caused some real tumult. I think filming in the Amazon and communicating what goes on there is quite a challenge. But the fact that I was a foreigner made me feel safer than the Brazilian environmentalists, who suffered a lot of violence.

Actress Kamudjara Xipaia, as the main character of ‘Sequestrada’. Image courtesy of the director.

Why choose a 13-year-old girl as the main character?

I wanted the central character to be an indigenous girl. First of all, because I feel that, generally, there needs to be more female presence in films. I believe it’s a way to give more importance to a certain type of experience that is delicate and also has the power to create an emotional connection with the audience. Another important factor is that, in the context, the character is experiencing a great deal of vulnerability. To me, she represents the forest itself.

Another central character is a controversial employee of Funai, the federal agency for indigenous affairs. Was this a criticism of the institution?

Maintaining the character of Roberto [played by Brazilian actor Marcelo Olinto], a Funai agent who negotiates with the indigenous people and establishes a close relationship with Kamudjara, was a hard decision to make because I knew it could become polemic. Personally, I see the institution as important in the fight of indigenous people. But at the same time, the decisions I saw being made about Belo Monte didn’t appear to be favorable to these groups. It’s not a criticism of the organization itself, but of an entire system that allows development like this to keep advancing. There is another thing that’s important to notice: Roberto truly does care about Kamudjara which, for example, leads to his intention to take her to live in Rio de Janeiro at a certain point in the plot. He knew what the consequences would be for her and her tribe and, in his opinion, this would be a real opportunity to better her life.

How does your experience through studying for and producing Sequestrada make you see the future of conservation in Amazonia?

Unfortunately, much progress still needs to be made in policy and awareness if the model that leads to the construction of large dams in the forest is to be stopped. It makes me very sad when I see, for example, the American government making agreements to collaborate with infrastructure in Brazil that hold no accountability whatsoever to conservation. More than ever, we must know where every dollar invested goes. We have to fight and change this scenario because, if not, in a few years we will have an Amazon forest that has been completely changed, generating environmental and social imbalance that will generate disastrous consequences for Brazil and the world.

Sabrina McCormick, director of film ‘Sequestrada’. Image courtesy of the director.