‘The Inflated Jungle’ (‘La selva inflada’): Cartagena Review
A Colombian-Spanish documentary investigation into a spate of Amazon suicides
The Inflated Jungle turns a poetic eye on a troubling social situation, the suicides in a four-year period of twenty-four young indigenous in a region of the Amazon. Director Alejandro Naranjo went to Colombia to find out why. Because of his frustratingly indirect take on events he comes back with few specific answers, but Naranjo does provide a sharp portrait of dislocated lives being played out in a remote corner of the earth, and a study of a cultural alienation which, one feels, is surely being played out in many other places too. Politically-themed documentary festivals and sidebars with an ecological slant could be interested in a walk through Jungle.
Each year, young men from the Vaupes region of the Amazon jungle in the east of Colombia are uprooted from their tribes for six years to receive a “proper” secondary school education about 120 miles away. The film’s first part delivers a somewhat impressionistic view of its four protagonists, Jose Eugenio Correa, Leonel Cabiyari, Gilberto Rojas and Edison Fernandez, all now studying in a town called Mitu -- tiny by most people’s standards, pretty big by theirs. In class, they are taught amongst other things about the importance of learning English (which we suspect will be of very little importance to them): they have some difficulty, a teacher states, in interpreting texts and images.
They nonetheless read Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba, a play over which death hangs heavy, as it does here. They still sleep in their hammocks and they buy deodorant, something they haven’t had to worry about before. Naranjo’s theory seems to be that in seeking to offer the boys an education, society had deprived them of their culture.
In the film’s wordiest section, Edison and Leonel are interviewed by the director about why one of them (not one of our four) has committed suicide in the school (the preferred method by hanging using the hammock rope). The interviewees are not particularly verbal, and Naranjo struggles to get much out of them, but the film’s final third, which shows two of the boys making the journey back home to the jungle village, where, on this evidence, nothing ever happens, might supply a little more of the answer. (They return for fear that otherwise, they’ll be conscripted into the army or as guerrillas.)
The Inflated Jungle is extremely evocative film making, thick with images which suggest the alienation in which the protagonists have been condemned to live. A chair being washed in a river is signaled as a prelude to the suicide ritual, while contemporary pop plays memorably out into the silence of the Amazon.
But the style, so curt as to be cryptic, leaves the viewer wanting more -- particularly more information. There is no voiceover, which robs the story of information vital to a clear understanding of some of the early scenes. Why not interview a couple of their teachers? Only at the end are we actually introduced to the protagonists by name, while a powerful, damning on-screen text about the boys’ life would have made more sense coming at the start of the film. Even the locations are not given until the end.
All this suggests that Naranjo is seeking some kind of universality -- “look, this could happen anywhere” -- but which only serves to place the boys, already somewhat distant from us, even further away, lessening the impact of their story. No amount of cameras trained on their faces as they listlessly swing in their hammocks during some over-lengthy shots will tell us what we want to know about their dead friend, or indeed about them.
Production companies: Dirty Mac Docs, Tourmalet Films, Senal Colombia
Cast: Jose Eugenio Correa, Leonel Cabiyari, Gilberto Rojas, Edison Fernandez
Director, photography: Alejandro Naranjo
Producers: Rodrigo Dimate, Amyi Gutierrez
Editor: Omar Razzak
Sales: Dirty Mac Docs
No rating, 70 minutes