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“Avatar” Director James Cameron Follows Box Office Success with Advocacy for Indigenous Struggles

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On the heels of his record-setting Hollywood blockbuster Avatar, the film director James Cameron is taking on a new role as an activist, allying himself with indigenous struggles he says mirror the plot of his film. In Avatar, an indigenous species called the Na’vi resists the private military force of a powerful corporation bent on exploiting their planet’s valuable minerals. Democracy Now! producer Aaron Maté caught up with James Cameron to discuss Avatar, Cameron’s opposition to the Belo Monte in Brazil, last week’s peoples’ climate summit in Bolivia, and his reaction to seeing Avatar embraced by indigenous people worldwide, from the Amazon to the Occupied Territories. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: On the heels of his record-setting Hollywood blockbuster Avatar, the film director James Cameron is taking on a new role as an activist. Since its release last year, Avatar has become the highest-grossing movie of all time, topping only Cameron’s previous film, Titanic. Avatar centers around an indigenous species called the Na’vi, who resist the private military force of a powerful corporation trying to mine a valuable mineral on the Na’vi’s planet of Pandora. Well, in real life, Cameron is now allying himself with indigenous struggles he says mirror the story told in his film.

This weekend, James Cameron attended the Ninth Session of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues here in New York, along with hundreds of indigenous activists from around the world. He had just returned from Brazil, where he joined protests against construction of the Belo Monte Dam, which opponents say will devastate indigenous communities in the Amazon rainforest.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Democracy Now! producer Aaron Maté caught up with James Cameron just after he appeared on a panel with indigenous leaders called “Real Life ‘Pandoras’ on Earth: Indigenous Peoples’ Urgent Struggles for Survival.” Cameron discussed his thoughts on last week’s peoples’ climate summit in Bolivia, his plans for an Avatar sequel, and his reaction to seeing Avatar embraced by indigenous people worldwide, from the Amazon to the Occupied Territories. And you don’t even have to wear 3D glasses to watch this or even listen.

    JAMES CAMERON: The success of Avatar triggered an interesting chain reaction, which is a lot of groups that are involved with indigenous issues and the environment and energy and so on have come to me saying, you know, “How can we use the success of the film to continue to raise awareness, not just a generalized kind of emotional reaction, but a very specific awareness on different battles that are in progress right now around the world?” And I thought, well, OK, fine, this is an opportunity to maybe do some good, beyond just the film itself. I mean, I thought, you know, as a filmmaker, as an artist, I put my story out there, you know, and people react to it, and they draw their own conclusions, and that’s it for me. I’m over and out, you know?

    But I don’t think that’s enough in this situation, because Avatar doesn’t teach you anything specific. It only gives you an emotional reaction, a sense of moral outrage, if you will, about the destruction of nature, about the, you know, destruction of indigenous people, culture and so on. So I think people need action items. You know, they need specific things. They need specific information about what’s going on, and they need specific action items about what to do about it. So you’ve got to talk about it. There’s got to be a dialogue. So I think there’s a whole dialogue going on now in the wake of this film that’s beneficial.

    AARON MATÉ: When you made the film, was this your intention all along, to spark this kind of dialogue? What inspired you to make it?

    JAMES CAMERON: I don’t think I could have predicted what’s happening right now. I mean, you always think, OK, you make a film that’s — whose, you know, heart is in the right place, and that sort of goes out into the zeitgeist, and maybe it tips the tide very slightly just in, you know, human consciousness. It’s tiny, you know, millionth. What I didn’t expect was the success of the film, which I think is — it’s less about the film than about the need for people to see something like that in their entertainment, the need for them to have some kind of cathartic experience in a movie theater. And most entertainment doesn’t give them that. And there was a lot of controversy, of course, as we were making the film, about how much message should be in the movie. And I said, “Guys,” you know, talking to the people putting up the money, you know, “I made this movie to make these statements, because these things are important to me,” which goes to the second part of your question.

    This movie started for me when I was a kid, you know, roaming around in the woods behind my little village in Canada where I grew up and, you know, feeling that incredible connection to nature and then feeling it on an ongoing basis as an adult, as a scuba diver, and, you know, seeing these incredible coral reef ecosystems, just this amazing profusion and abundance of life, and not wanting to see it destroyed and degraded in the way that we are kind of inexorably doing as a technological civilization.

    AARON MATÉ: You were just in Brazil helping bring awareness to a very large dam project. Can you talk about what you saw there?

    JAMES CAMERON: Yeah, now, Brazil, you know, this is a case where I debated whether I should drill down to a specific issue, to a specific battle, or just talk more in sort of global generalities. And I was convinced by my friends at Amazon Watch that this is actually a pivotal battle that not only, in and of itself, is important, but is important kind of symbolically and as a kind of a gateway, almost, to a whole bunch of other very similar projects that are going to devastate the entire Amazon Basin. So I did get involved in the Belo Monte Dam issue.

    I went out into the forest. I attended — you know, we went out by boat, ten hours, twelve hours. You know, we took a couple of trips, was involved in these big council circle meetings with leaders who had come in from all points of the compass, lots of different tribes. There were Arara, Juruna, Xikrin Kayapó, Xipaia. There were, you know, about forty leaders at each of these two big meetings that we attended a few weeks apart. And their themes were almost the same, almost to a man, you know, that we’re going to fight; we’re going to die, if necessary; we’ll fight to the last drop of blood; you know, this land is what we have, it’s our life, the river is our life — all of these things.

    And, you know, this dam project will displace 25,000 indigenous people, and there’s no plan for where they go. They just get shoved out of the way. You know, the government doesn’t want to talk to them. You know, they’re promised, by law, you know, hearings and things like that. The hearings didn’t take place, and so on. They have no voice in the process, and the process is not transparent to the public.

    In fact, the public down there are being lied to. You know, I mean, you can appreciate, Brazil is rapidly developments, the economy is rapidly developing. Its economy is growing very fast, and they’re running out of power. So you have blackouts and brownouts in the big cities, like São Paulo and Rio and so on. So the government tells the urban Brazilians, “You’re going to get power. We’re building a dam.” And so they say — they kind of shrug and say, “Well, that’s a good idea,” except the power from the dam is not going to go to them. You know, the dam’s 1,500 miles away. The power is going to go to aluminum smelters. Aluminum smelters are incredibly energy-intensive, and they make very, very few jobs per megawatt. So it’s really a bum deal. Plus the profits go offshore. So you’ve got the Brazilian taxpayers subsidizing an eleven-gigawatt dam project. They don’t get the power. The dam itself is a very kind of shaky concept.

    AARON MATÉ: There was just a peoples’ summit in Bolivia this past week.


    AARON MATÉ: And they came out with a very strong declaration with several demands, including climate debt to —-


    AARON MATÉ: —- countries affected by global warming, a call for a climate justice tribunal. What are your thoughts on this summit?

    JAMES CAMERON: Oh, we absolutely need exactly those things. We have to acknowledge climate debt. You know, I mean, unfortunately, I mean, people don’t want to hear this in this country, because we’re in a recession and we’re dealing with this huge deficit, you know, but there is an unseen deficit that we’re creating every day, and it’s the cost of mitigating global warming. People in this country don’t even want to admit that global warming is real. I mean, we’re behind most of the other developed nations in that regard. You know, people just have sort of pulled the covers back over their head. It’s crazy. We’ve gone from 47 percent of Americans believing that global warming is real and anthropogenically caused to 34 percent, gone from half to a third. So if you assume that of that enlightened third, half of them are — or a small percentage of them are willing to actually do something about it, that’s just not enough people to fight the fight. You know, so not enough is happening. People need to be convinced that the problem is real. So, you know, these types of summits and these kinds of declarations are very, very critical in raising consciousness and getting it into a format that starts to become a precursor to law, to legislation and policy, at an international level. It’s got to happen.

    AARON MATÉ: You were honored today by some indigenous activists from Ecuador. What’s it been like for you to have your film embraced by indigenous peoples?

    JAMES CAMERON: You know, it’s certainly unbelievably moving to hear that kind of response. It’s worth more to me than any Academy Award or Directors Guild Award or anything else. And that’s not just sour grapes. It’s literally, you know, the most important thing, because you know you’re communicating.

    Now, you know, I didn’t grow up as an indigenous person living in the rainforest. I got it all from National Geographic magazine and from, you know, reading books on anthropology and so on and studying the value system and just, you know, my own kind of creative instincts as a writer. So we created a fantasy rainforest. And because it’s at a remove, because it’s fantasy, it wasn’t shot in any one place. Everybody everywhere who’s in a similar situation can project themselves into it. They say, “Oh, that’s me. You know, this fantasy story is actually my life. That’s happening to me now. I’m under pressure. My people are being displaced. Our lives are being degraded in some way.” Whereas if I had just gone in and done a study of one individual people, you know, the others would have said, “Well, that’s similar to me,” but it’s not as — somehow not as moving to them. So, you know, it’s been an amazing, amazing experience, where so many people have, you know, come to me with this kind of response that — you know, it’s fulfilling as an artist, but it’s also very challenging as a human being, because their fight is real.

    And a lot of what I thought I was doing with this movie was commenting on the colonial period, the manifest destiny period, in American history, so much of which is in the past. And, you know, we don’t have the cavalry charging in and cutting down whole villages now. You know, we think we’ve evolved beyond that, when in fact it is happening in other countries. You know, there have been incidents in Peru just recently where, you know, guns were used on protesting indigenous people, who fought back with bows and arrows, and deaths on both sides. You know, so in order to forestall future violence and bloodshed, you know, we have to be having this dialogue, because these people are informed enough now, in this world of, you know, rapid spread of information — they’re informed enough to know that they have a legal basis. They certainly have a moral and ethical basis for their fight, but they also have a legal basis. So they’re fighting back.

    AARON MATÉ: The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan seem to be an undercurrent of your movie.


    AARON MATÉ: Were you making a commentary there?

    JAMES CAMERON: Oh, yeah, absolutely, clearly, because, you know, I feel that this whole climate change thing is never really going to get solved unless we really have full cost accounting and we fully burden the cost of what we’re doing. And by “what we’re doing,” I mean burning fossil fuels and so on. And if you don’t see that the cost of gas isn’t $3 a gallon, that it’s, you know, $10 or $15 a gallon, when you pay for all the military actions necessary to secure our oil supply lines and to secure our way of consuming energy here in North America, that’s what you’re paying for. You know, it’s just this invisible tax, and we’re all paying it. You know, I mean, I’m a Canadian citizen, but I live in the US, and I pay taxes here. And, you know, so I’m helping to pay for the war in Iraq, the war in Afghanistan.

    And why are we there militarily? Oh, yeah, sure, because we got attacked. Why did we get attacked? Because we were messing around in the Middle East, you know, the Middle East region, since the '30s, pulling — you know, spending billions of dollars a day there, you know, in energy. And, you know, we have to — we're dependent on it. You know, what, 70 percent of our oil comes from offshore sources. We’re dependent on it. This nation would grind to a stop. So, you know, we put ourselves into a situation where we have to take these unethical military actions. Well, I consider Iraq unethical anyway. Afghanistan was a little more righteous, because that was, you know, direct response to an attack. But the point is, why are we putting ourselves in that situation in the first place, spend all this money on military action to preserve the flow of oil to ourselves? And, you know, so, to me, it always goes back to energy. It always loops back to energy and our really almost complete lack of a coherent energy policy in this country.

    AARON MATÉ: Now, you mention you’re from Canada. You have citizenship from Canada.

    JAMES CAMERON: Mm-hmm.

    AARON MATÉ: As I understand it, you haven’t taken up US citizenship.


    AARON MATÉ: Can you tell us why?

    JAMES CAMERON: Yeah. I actually had thought about it, and after the 2004 election, I decided not to.

    AARON MATÉ: With the reelection of President Bush.

    JAMES CAMERON: You’ve got it. Yeah, absolutely. I don’t need to say any more on that, though, I don’t think. That was my little act of protest.

    AARON MATÉ: When you saw Palestinians dressed up at the Na’vi, what were your thoughts on that?

    JAMES CAMERON: Well, obviously, they’re responding to their sense of being oppressed, by saying, “OK, guys, if everybody in the world can relate to the Na’vi, you know, being crushed by a large force, then you can see that we’re in the same situation.” You know, I need to go spend some time there and really look at both sides of that issue. I’m not going to weigh in on that, because I’m not an expert, not an expert, you know, on that region. I’m not an expert at anything, except making movies, really, but I have studied some of these other issues with respect to energy and indigenous rights. And it’s a little bit different there, because, you know, you’re not dealing with the wholesale displacement of people out in the rainforest for the purposes of the continued economic growth. It’s a little bit — I think it’s a little bit different. But again, I don’t want to weigh in on that until I know more.

    AARON MATÉ: There seems to be some references with the light and the colors in your movie to the medicinal aspects of indigenous life. Are you making any kind of references to alternative medicine that people in the West might not be exposed to?

    JAMES CAMERON: I think that really what I’m trying to do with the design in the film is to try to touch a kind of a mystical or spiritual aspect to the indigenous worldview, you know, and value system. They really — the ones that are undisturbed, that are really uncontaminated by Western civilization, really believe things quite fundamentally differently than we do. They really believe their connection to the flow, the cycles of energy in their world.

    And I actually heard it expressed by an indigenous leader today, that here, in our technical society, we think of life as a line, and they think of it as a circle. And when you think of life as a line, you don’t worry about what’s behind you, you know, and what you leave behind. But if you think of it as a circle, then you take responsibility for the future generations. And it’s the seventh generation concept. You know, and they have a very interesting expression, which is, “Tread softly upon the earth, because the faces of the unborn look up at you,” which, if everybody just thought that, they would do things very differently. You know, the bankers, the industrialists, the CEOs, our political leaders, they have children, you know? They need to — they have a conscience. They have a heart. You know, some of them. Probably the majority, actually. But unfortunately, they also have a kind of mandate from market forces to do their jobs a certain way. And people are going to have to break out of that cycle.

    You know, for me, the responsibility, in a subsequent film, is going to be to take what I’ve learned, now that I’m involved with a lot of these people, with these leaders and with these cultures, take what I’ve learned, take their issues, and incorporate them into the next film in a way that’s meaningful.

    AARON MATÉ: James Cameron, thank you very much.

AMY GOODMAN: The film director James Cameron, whose movie Avatar is the number-one grossing movie of all time. He was speaking while attending the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues here in New York. Special thanks to Jon Gerberg and Hany Massoud. He was interviewed by Democracy Now!’s Aaron Maté.

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