The Amazonas Film Festival: Good Movies, Good Times in the Jungle

"Who would have thought that making a movie about a fast-food joint in Ohio would get me here?"

That's what Craig Zobel, director of the indie hit "Compliance," asked me while we were standing waist-deep in a stream in the Amazon rain forest.

This all started a month ago, when I got one of the most random emails of my life. I was selected as one of four journalists to cover, all expenses paid, the Amazonas Film Festival in Manaus, Brazil. My first thought was that the email was spam. My second thought was that this was some sort of scheme to separate me from my kidneys. But no, it was legit. I was invited. How could I turn this down?

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Back in the late 1890s, Manaus was one of the wealthiest cities in the world, thanks to that new miracle of technology, rubber. Its citizens built a city in the middle of the jungle on the Amazon River, complete with beautiful palaces, a fish market modeled on Les Halles in Paris, and the Teatro Amazonas, a lavish opera house complete with vaulted ceilings and a huge dome covered in mosaic tiles. To films buffs that last building might be familiar; it was a setting for Werner Herzog's masterpiece "Fitzcarraldo." During Manaus's glory days, its people were reportedly so rich that they would send their laundry to Paris for cleaning. But after someone figured out that rubber plants can grow in Malaysia just as well as in Brazil, Manaus's stranglehold on the rubber industry collapsed and with it the city's affluence.

Today, Manaus is a thriving, traffic-choked city of 2.2 million. During a press round table, state minister of culture Roberio Braga expounded at length about the need for culture in the city. Apart from the film fest, opera, jazz, and dance events also take place throughout the year. Clearly, the aim is to bolster Manaus's national and international image. But Braga's hope is also to inspire the city's youth to get involved in the arts. In an analogy that few American politicians would dare use, he said, "How do young people start smoking tobacco or taking drugs? They try it. The same thing with art."

Unlike the big film festivals out there -- say, Toronto, which programs so many movies that the catalog looks like a phone book -- Amazonas is a much more intimate affair. Roughly five dozen shorts and features are screened here -- some Brazilian, some international, and some specifically Amazonian. Moreover, everyone connected to the fest -- journalists, jury members, filmmakers, and hangers-on — is housed in the same business hotel located a couple miles outside the center of the city. And there isn't a heck of a lot to go to in the neighborhood, aside from a gas station that sells a local whiskey called "The Lord's Land" -- remarkably smooth for being so cheap -- and a mall that has a staggering number of shoe stores. The result is that the fest started to take on the feel of a freshman dorm during the first weeks of class, but without the beer bongs. Cliques quickly developed, breaking down mostly by nationality.

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The festival opened with great fanfare and even more dry ice in Manaus's glorious opera house. Since the tickets for the fest are free, the audience is incredibly diverse, ranging from nursing mothers to uniformed high school kids to soap opera stars. And, for some reason, there was a guy dressed as Charlie Chaplin serving as an usher.

The Brazilian movie "Colegas" ("Buddies") opened the fest, a strange crime-caper fairy tale starring a trio of actors with Down syndrome. Though told with visual flair, the film has some serious weaknesses in the story department, though I gather a lot was lost in translation. While the audience laughed all the way through the flick, my American cohort -- admittedly a jaded lot -- barely chuckled.

A number of really good movies were programmed, including "Compliance," Ken Loach's new "Angel's Share," and Danish Sundance fave "Teddy Bear." Many of the short films there were terrific, including one that might just have the best title of the year, "The Chicken That Defied the System."

Local favorite "A Floresta De Jonathas" ("Jonathas's Forest") also screened. It is one of the first Brazilian movies ever made in the Amazon. Based on a true story, the film is about a local who, hoping to impress a comely American, ventures into the rain forest in search of passion fruit, only to get hopelessly lost. Though the film was clearly influenced by the elusive and elliptical films of Apichatpong Weerasethakul, not the sort of movie that usually draws a crowd outside of Cannes, the audience clearly appreciated seeing a film about their corner of Brazil. That screening was packed to the rafters.

Like any good host, the festival wanted to show us foreign guests the sights. So while the afternoons and evenings were taken up with screenings and parties, the mornings were reserved for excursions. At one point, our hosts took us on a cruise to the convergence of the Rio Negro and the Amazon, where, freakishly, the different-colored waters flow alongside each other without actually mixing. At another point, they packed us in buses to go to an animal research center for a "sloth christening." This was something I didn't fully understand. I mean, are sloths Catholic in Brazil? In any case, the event drew a good-sized crowd, including several more soap opera stars; a wait staff in bow ties served Coca Cola, and one very cute sloth.

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On another day, journalists, filmmakers, and jury members alike stripped to their swimsuits and took a dip in an utterly idyllic-looking waterfall in the rain forest located a couple hours north of Manaus along the only road out of town. While we were wading into the stream, I asked Zobel what was the difference between this film festival and all the other ones he's been to. "There's a lot more swimming in this one," he said before jumping in.

There are a lot more sloths and Charlie Chaplin impersonators, too.