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Native Peoples See Themselves in 'Avatar'

Special screening coincides with UN meeting on indigenous issues

'Avatar' director James Cameron with some of the indigenous people who attended a recent screening of the film.
'Avatar' director James Cameron with some of the indigenous people who attended a recent screening of the film.

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Adam Phillips

An Australian aboriginal instrument called a "didgeridoo" began a special screening of "Avatar" for indigenous leaders from around the world. The event coincided with the 9th Session of the U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in New York.

James Cameron's Hollywood blockbuster is a potent mix of futuristic science fiction, romance, action-adventure and dazzling special effects that already has earned more $2 billion worldwide.

The film's message has touched an especially deep chord among many indigenous peoples.

Raising awareness

Before the screening, the leaders praised director Cameron for the artful way "Avatar" tells their message to the world. Cameron explained the link between this audience and the movie.

"It's raised awareness of the issues. Of course, the film is a fantasy," says Cameron. "It doesn't really educate. It creates a kind of emotional framework or context for a dialogue, which follows from the film."

The story centers on a marine who agrees to gain the trust of the Na'vi people on a distant planet, while gathering intelligence about them for an invading force from Earth. They want the information to get the Na'vi to relinquish the precious resources on their planet, Pandora.

Director James Cameron says 'Avatar' was meant to be a wake-up call to the civilized world.
Director James Cameron says 'Avatar' was meant to be a wake-up call to the civilized world.

Hitting a nerve

The invasion of Pandora resonated with Native American Willy Littlechild of the Treaty Six Territories in Northern Canada.

"North of us is what they call 'the heavy tar sands,' where machines, huge, huge machines come in to the area just like in the movie," Littlechild. "So that to me had a tremendous impact to me because of the serious violation of the territories of Mother Earth."

The marine in "Avatar" falls in love with a Na'vi princess and is won over by her people's ethos of harmony with nature. He switches sides and leads the Na'vi to victory.

Mixed reaction

Vicky Tauli-Corpuz, an activist with the Kankanaey Igorot people of the Philippines, who have struggled for decades to protect their ancestral lands from logging and mining interests, had a mixed reaction to the film.

"I thought the movie was really very good. It really represents the reality that many indigenous peoples face, and, of course, the reality of how indigenous peoples relate with nature," says Pauli-Corpuz. "What I didn't like was the white man being the messiah.  But he [Cameron] explained that because he is a white man, he is the one making the film, he would like to show it as a way for the white man to really make the amends for what they have done to indigenous peoples."

VOA Reporter Adam Phillips interviews director James Cameron.
VOA Reporter Adam Phillips interviews director James Cameron.

But Carmen Ramirez Boscan of the Wayuu People of Colombia remains mistrustful. She says their desert land continues to be devastated by coal developers with the government's cooperation.

"They are saying we are doing good things, that it's developing our territories when they are just raping our Mother Earth," she says. "You are eating coal all the time. You are breathing coal all the time. But it's not going to change. They don't care about us. They only care about money."

Wake-up call

Director James Cameron says "Avatar" is meant to be an emotional film, not a political one.  He says he's not trying to reconcile the competing claims between corporations, governments, the balance of nature and the rights of indigenous people to live in their traditional lands undisturbed.  

Still, he will say that he does believe the government colludes with big industry and big financial interests to deal with these things in a way where the lack of public interest works in their favor.  

"So, when these battles come along, and they are happening every day all over the world, the more of a media spotlight we can shine on it, the more we can challenge people of conscience, of honor to think about it and talk about it and do something about it," says Cameron. "The movie was meant to be a wake-up call. My fantasy is I grab the civilized world by the lapel and shake and say, 'Wake up!  We've got to deal with this situation. There is urgency here.'"

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