The Green Inferno, a U.S. horror film that depicts a fictitious Amazonian tribe as a horde of violent, bloodthirsty cannibals, is giving some viewers an upset stomach.
Indigenous groups and their allies say the film, which premiered late last month, is racist and promotes negative stereotypes that are especially harmful for real-life Amazon tribes that are struggling to preserve their territories in the jungle.
“This movie reinforces the idea that tribes in the Amazon are violent groups, whose lifestyle needs to be changed,” said Segundo Chuquitiondo, a member of Peru’s Shawi tribe.
“They are portraying us as savages and we can’t allow that to happen,” adds Henderson Rengifo, director of Peruvian indigenous rights organization AIDESEP.
The film is about a group of U.S. college kids who go to the Amazon to protest a gas project that is encroaching on tribal lands. When they're returning from the protest, their small plane crashes in the middle of the jungle and the survivors are taken captive by the Yage, the fictitious and isolated tribe that they were trying to protect.
The movie takes a very dark turn at that point, as days of carnage ensue. The well-meaning activists are tortured, killed, and slowly eaten by the body-painted, spear-wielding, Yage.
Justine, the film’s heroine, somehow manages to escape and, in the process, even saves the cannibals from getting mowed down by a group of cruel, gun-toting mercenaries who are raiding the Yage’s land.
Director Eli Roth says his film’s (entirely improbable) plot and depiction of Amazonian natives as cannibals should be taken as fiction. But in Peru, activists say the last thing they need right now is a film that depicts Amazonian people as blood-thirsty savages.
Several indigenous tribes in the Peruvian amazon are currently struggling to protect their lands from oil, logging, and mining companies that were awarded government concessions to exploit the Amazon’s resources. They are trying to fight off the image, held by some, that they are primitive savages, who resist modernization.
“Even if this is fiction, it has a negative impact because it feeds the prejudices and negative stereotypes that the population and the government have of indigenous people,” said Beatriz Huertas, an anthropologist who has worked with Amazonian tribes for the past 20 years.
“These are actually people who’ve learned to protect the forest,” Huertas added. “They have made valuable contributions to the debate on climate change and other environmental issues.”
In the United States, several Native American pundits are also criticizing the film. Among them is Tara Houska, a tribal rights attorney who has led protests against the Washington Red Skins.
“Racist portrayals of indigenous people are all too common,” Houska wrote recently in the Huffington Post. “Indignation about the incredibly offensive depiction of indigenous people aside, this couldn't have come at a worse time for real-life Amazonian tribes.”
Roth, the director, says he wants to help preserve the Amazon rainforest and do good things for its residents. Over the summer, the filmmaker teamed up with environmental news website Mongabay to raise funds for conservation projects and real-life reporting on Amazon issues.
“We want to help protect and preserve 10,000 acres of rainforest and get 100 stories published,” Roth says in this video pitch, posted on charity fundraising website Prizeo.
But the fundraising effort appears to be sputtering, at least on Prizeo, where Roth’s video pitch has no more than 160 views. Only a handful of people have bought the fundraising packages that Roth offers on the site.
Environmental group Amazon Watch argues that Roth’s crowdfunding campaign is just a slapdash response to the criticism of his film.
“You can watch interviews that he’s done and you can look at the evolution of the discourse about the film, and it was only quite recently—in August—that he said he made the movie to create discussion about the Amazon,” says Andrew Miller, Amazon Watch’s advocacy director. “I think that collaboration was very last minute, and it could be viewed just as a PR stunt to pacify criticisms.”
Mongabay says results from the online fundraising campaign won’t come in until another couple weeks. The organization's founder, Rhett Butler, told me in an email that Mongabay is not endorsing The Green Inferno and that indigenous people and environmentalists have “every right to be upset” about the movie.
But Butler argues that environmental groups should take advantage of the publicity generated by the film to “make the world aware of the real threats to indigenous people and forests.”
Correction: A previous version of this article said that Mongabay argued it had the right to use the Green Inferno to raise funds for conservation projects. The organization would like to stress that it is not a conservation group, but a news website.
Manuel Rueda is a correspondent for Fusion, covering Mexico and South America. He travels from donkey festivals, to salsa clubs to steamy places with cartel activity.