Screening Room: Trees Tropiques

We hope you were able to enjoy Trees Tropiques! The film has been taken down, but this page will remain up with the filmmaker interview and other teaching resources.

After a short hiatus, we are happy to begin this cycle of the Screening Room Series with the short ethnographic documentary, Trees Tropiques, which will be available until September 15. Directed by Alex Fattal and produced at Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab, this experimental-observational documentary questions the issues that arise when the ethics of the ethnographic encounter intersect with the ethics of deforestation in a small island community in the Brazilian Amazon.

The film follows a local family engaged in an illegal deforestation practice—harvesting the booming açai berry crop. In the process of documenting a practice that can potentially land members of the family in legal trouble, the filmmaker decides to involve the family in the editorial process of the film. The film prompts viewers to revisit the editorial decision-making process alongside the complex politics surrounding deforestation, açai harvesting, and our own ethical commitment to those at the other end of a recording device. Through an experimental approach to editing, Fattal brings to the forefront the ethics of documentary practice and ethnography, and how this mirrors other ethical issues that unfold within a field site. The beautiful visuals and use of sound in the film serve to highlight the complex multispecies entanglements between waterways, flora, fauna, global markets and humans. This allows viewers to contemplate the interactions, competing desires, and subtle decisions of the various family members to participate—or not—in the production of this global commodity, even if it is at the expense of the same forest they live in. Trees Tropiques explores the formal language of documentary practices, and the politics and ethics of representation, environmental issues and their relation to global markets.

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An observational immersion in life along the waterways, where the sweet water of the Amazon basin mixes with the brackish Atlantic Ocean, is interrupted by questions about the ethics of including images of deforestation, which could land the protagonist in trouble with the environmental police. The editing waxes experimental bringing the family into the editorial fold and prompting the viewer to revisit prior editorial decisions. The film ruminates on the global ethics of deforestation as we learn of deforestations’ symbiotic relationship with harvesting açai berries from the tops of skinny palm trees. Açai is Brazil’s latest boom crop, having made its way into popular energy drinks and onto Oprah’s diet. The penultimate scene unexpectedly and evocatively ties the themes together in an act of animal acrobatics. The ecological connections between waterways, flora, fauna, and humanity subtly intertwine, confronting viewers with all we are losing in the continual deforestation of the Amazon, and the multiple levels of complicity in that loss.


Alex Fattal is an anthropologist and documentary artist that shuttles between Cambridge, Massachusetts and Bogotá, Colombia. He is a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at the Mahindra Humanities Center at Harvard University and a Visiting Researcher in the Art Department at Universidad de los Andes. He completed his PhD in anthropology with a secondary field in critical media practice at Harvard University in 2014. His dissertation, “Guerrilla Marketing: Information War and the Demobilization of FARC Rebels,” ethnographically examines the assemblage of targeted marketing operations and military intelligence in the Colombian government’s bid to transform guerrilla fighters into collaborators and entrepreneurial citizens. He has led many documentary initiatives, notably the Shooting Cameras for Peace participatory photography project. He is currently in the process of producing a feature length documentary about the lives of former FARC rebels. The documentary, tentatively titled “Dreams from the Mountain of Concrete,” was filmed in the intimate space of the payload area of a truck transformed into a giant camera obscura.

Director's Website:

Follow Alex Fattal on Twitter: @FattAlx

Interview with Alex Fattal

Patricia Alvarez: How did the idea for the project emerge? Can you tell us about the background of the film?

Alex Fattal: I shot Trees Tropiques for a class, more than a class really, more like a one-year documentary immersion in Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab. It was my first foray into video and my longest stint in Brazil, three months in the summer of 2008. I wanted to expand my horizons as a Latin Americanist and improve my Portuguese. I had some close friends in Belém do Pará at Fotoativa, an experimental photography cooperative, so Brazil made sense. I had no way of imaging this film before I left for Pará, and absolutely no sense of the small island where I ended up filming. I do my long-term field research in Colombia; this was a detour, a wonderful detour but a detour.

I left with the idea of creating a portrait of a child, pre-teen. My idea was to take seriously childhood. Reviewing the canon of visual anthropology I felt that it has only engaged the subjectivity of children very superficially. Think about the omniscient narrator in “Dead Birds.” There’s a moment when he says, “Pua waits for manhood.” It’s as if boyhood were merely a staged to be passed through. My sense is visual anthropology still has not done childhood justice. Hopefully somebody will do a project (or tell me about one that I may have missed) that delves into the complex life-world of a child.

What I found was not a child but a family with two boys, three years apart (like the one I grew up in). We enjoyed spending time together and in my first week with the family I learned that Dico, the father, was involved in small-scale deforestation, which gave the film an environmental and political dimension that piqued my interest. The film very quickly became a family portrait.

PA: What is the story behind the title?

FA: It’s a translingual title, which is weird — like the word translingual — but I like the title. I like it, in part because of the alliteration, in part because of the reference to Claude-Lévi Strauss’s classic, and in part because it distills a central concern of the film. Tristes Tropiques is about many things but it’s first and foremost a reflection on the documentary encounter, so alluding to the classic text, which provides such an incisive glimpse into the ethnographic encounter in Brazil, made sense. In two words the title signals that this is a film about trees, the people who live among them, and those who come to represent them. Well, that’s the intention at least. I remember a few members of the class thought that the title was atrocious.

PA: Is açai cultivation a new practice in the island, do most of the islanders make a living from this crop? What are the tensions between açai cultivation as a mode of livelihood and environmental policy in the island?

AF: Açai boomed. The truth is I don’t know when exactly. First it boomed in southern Brazil as an ice cream flavor and then came the international wave. Suddenly açaí found its way onto Oprah’s diet, into Jean-Claude Van Damme’s energy drink, and onto a list of commodities patented by a Japanese company. Northern Brazil, far northern Brazil, has become the locus of açaí monocultures, which means that old growth and anything that is not the very skinny palm tree you see in the film is being chain sawed down. Açai is healthy for humans but the boom is not healthy for the northern Amazon, and that’s not healthy for humans.

PA: The film does a great job showing the complex multispecies entanglements between forest, riverways, humans and even faune, when we get to see them interact with the sloth! How does the government’s environmental policy affect the livelihood of the people in the island? How did the family understand their right or relationship to the environment they live in?

AF: Your question is very generous, thank you! Showing the multispecies entanglements was one of the film’s goals.

The islanders worried about the IBAMA. When I first heard the word IBAMA part of me wondered if they thought Obama would find out they were cutting down trees, but my more reasonable side led me to inquire. IBAMA stands for the Brazilian Institute for the Environment and at that time it was distributing leaflets with a cell phone number and urging people to report illegal deforestation. The concern was that somebody, a neighbor looking to earn financial rewards, a rival, or a good Samaritan would call that number and one might be caught in the act of cutting. Small-scale deforestation, like the kind Dico was involved in, was rife but the important thing for the islanders was not to get caught red-handed. Chainsaws are an important piece of capital and they could be confiscated; fines could be levied; and repeat offenders could face jail time. That was the view from the crime and punishment calculus.

On a moral plane, there seemed to be a disconnect between feeling entitled to chop down trees and the implications for the environmental loss that the act of cutting implies. You see this at the end of the film when the young man says “We eat them,” about the sloth and afterward we see the sloth struggling to find branches to wrap its long finger nails around. Dico always talked about getting out of the game but I remained skeptical. That talk was motivated by a desire to be on right side of the law, not environmental concern. In fact, as he says in the beginning, he wanted to turn his own parcel of land into an açaí plantation.

PA: Considering the tension between the deforestation practices of local families and the environmental police, how was the process of finding a family willing to be filmed engaging in an activity that could potentially get them into trouble?

AF: Two ethical questions arose: “a motoserra” or the chainsaw, and the mother’s father. I will focus on the former here and deal with the latter later.

From the beginning I was open with Dico that I wanted to film the chainsaw. In my first week I went with him to see his crew chop down trees but did not film it. Like with my research in Colombia, also on sensitive topics, I’ve learned that proceeding gingerly and building relationships is crucial. Consent cannot help but be mediated by the relationship with the filmmaker; I wanted to move that dynamic into the film rather than leave it as something to talk about in Q&A sessions after screening Trees Tropiques. My goal was to turn the fact that my interests and that of the family did not align into one of the film’s subjects and to show that a certain amount of violence is intrinsic in the documentary encounter. Rather than sweep those tensions under the rug, I wanted to turn them into the subject of the film with the goal of thinking about how to manage rather than eliminate them.

One year after shooting this film my brother was taken captive by Iranian authorities. He was one of the three “American hikers”. A documentarian started following the story and I got a sense of what it’s like to be on the other side of the video camera. It’s a bit more complicated because there were three families involved and essentially one of the families dove into the project and only consulted with the other two post-hoc. The experience revealed the same thing as Trees Tropiques — consenting to revealing yourself to a public audience in a form you can only partially anticipate and hardly control is not a binary decision, yes or no. You have to say yes or no in a moment, but the feelings that surround that decision are inevitably mixed and vacillate over time. What I found fascinating was how central the question of distribution was in the Brazilian family’s reactions. Would it be on their TVs? Would it be a big success? As long as this didn’t happen, they were fine with it. I tried to be forthright that I didn’t think either of those things would happen but that I could not completely control the film after it was made. Reflecting on my own experience as a subject, it’s not that different really. Part of me hopes the documentary on my family’s ordeal flops.

PA: The beginning of the film captures the complex family dynamics, familiar to us all: the father’s concerns with his sons disregard for his studies and the ‘family business’, the teenager’s desires to play soccer and be a boatman, the mother’s complaints that her son disregards her authority. We get an intimate sense of family dynamics and gender relations in the family. Later in the film we see how the family becomes involved in the editorial process, this section seems to be mostly ‘cut’ by you. I’m interested in hearing about the editing process and how this portrait interacts with the ethics of ‘cutting’?

AF: Ultimately I did the cutting in the editing studio in Cambridge, Massachusetts which, is very far from the Brazilian Amazon — in many ways. If anyone influenced the way I cut Trees Tropiques it was the other members of the class, none of whom had any substantive experience in Brazil, knowledge of that island, or relationship with the family. The family gave their consent, with mixed feelings, and offered opinions but it ended there. Interestingly, when Dico gives his stream of consciousness ideas on how to edit, when to insert Pedro in the boat, etc., it’s not far off from my ideas about how to build the timeline. We were both trying to imagine what a final product might look like and shared a certain sensibility about what footage was strong.

The more substantive influence on the editing were my friends in the Sensory Ethnography Lab that year and their comments in the crit sessions. Running through the SEL is a commitment to certain stylistic conventions, most notably long takes. These can be revelatory—like when a large flock of sheep cross a river at dawn in Sweetgrass—but they can also hedge toward boring and when taken to the extreme, a hint of elitism creeps in. ‘Look at this, I am telling you that it’s interesting, even if it appears terribly mundane.’ If I were growing up today I would be diagnosed with ADHD, so it’s not what I gravitate to. Although I resisted what I saw as the dominant thread of an observational style in the SEL at the time, it was very helpful to have that vision to bounce off of. Opening Trees Tropiques with the long shot from the base of the dugout canoe works really well, and starting in a more observational register set the stage for the dialogical turn in the film’s second half.

PA: How and when did you decide to include your interventions and interactions in the film? It is really interesting since we not only hear you asking them about editorial choices but also organizing a shoot for the following day. What prompted you to explore the ethics of editing in documentary film?

AF: The two things I wrestled with while living with the family were the ethical dimensions of the project and imagining how all the footage would come together in a coherent final piece. Rather than only scribble about it in my notebook while lying in my hammock at night, I began to play around with talking about it with the family on camera. It turned out to be really interesting not only in thinking through these challenges but also as footage.

PA: There are many forms of engaging in participatory filmmaking, and there have been many discussions on the ethics of filmmaking (speaking for, speaking next to or nearby, etc). However, editing still remains an area where filmmakers tend to retain more control, even when one seeks opinions, feedback, etc. Sitting down and figuring out how to craft a narrative falls mostly on the filmmaker. It is really interesting seeing the narrative choices made by each subject—can you speak more about this process?

AF: Before graduate school I was immersed in the participatory photography movement in which people who are generally in front of the lens get behind the viewfinder. Although I am a big proponent of the practice of sharing the tools of representation, I am also critical of it. Specifically the sense that what emerges is a form of unmediated truth. Foundations’ funding priorities, NGOs’ agendas, the photographic training of the project leader, and a series of other factors all mediate these initiatives. The point is that nothing is pure and Trees Tropiques does not pretend to be some sort of ideal collaborative documentary. Inviting subjects into the editing room and sharing fully in the decision making process is one horizon to aim for, and could make for some interesting work. Maybe somebody reading this wants to do a project like that, I sure would like to see one. Trees Tropiques makes a move that is less radical, and at this point somewhat established, gesturing toward the conditions of a film’s production and the types of authority embedded in the norms of making documentaries. A more radical move would be to invite a young person from the island to make a documentary about a group of Harvard graduate students.

PA: The mother was concerned about making her father’s story public, yet before we hear her concern about this we already saw her tell us the story. Why did you decide to include the scene of her father when she tells you she feels hesitant about making the story public?

AF: To me the mother’s story about her father is more sensitive than the images of the chainsaw. In both cases, I wanted to bring the viewers into the editorial decision to include those images after they had already seen them. The goal was to prompt a participatory form of spectatorship so that the audience thinks back to the previous images and reconsiders my editorial decisions. The moment when she reveals the secret that she knows who her father is and then goes on to explain that they both pretend they don’t know — that was the most powerful moment in filming the documentary. We had just come back from a Sunday excursion to a neighboring island where we had a great time. The mom and I sat on top of the roof of the boat as we were pulling into the guarapé (little river-way) where they live and I was filming. We passed her father in a canoe and they exchanged greetings. She turned to me while I was filming and told the story. It was as if she was speaking to the part of my face that was not covered by the camera. I was extraordinarily moved by the story and by the fact that she shared it with me but immediately worried it might be too personal.

Weeks later when I asked for her input in the editing, what I was really asking about was this scene. Of course I wanted to put it in, but I had total respect for her decision. When she is washing dishes in the school we see her process in thinking about including her revelation. She asks about the film’s distribution, thinks about it, and ultimately agrees to let me include the shot. Clearly she is hesitant in her approval. My read is that she is agreeing as a favor to me. It is a favor that I never asked for, but one that she can sense would make me happy. What she is saying, without saying it, is: ‘I trust you.’ You could argue that the more cautious move would have been not to include that scene, a position I certainly understand; however there would be something condescending about that. If I did not include that scene, I would be saying that she is not capable of making her own decision and in essence that her trust in me is misplaced. I don’t believe either of those things, so I stand by my decision to include that footage. What is more, is that you sense all of this when she gives her okay. The scene communicates clearly both what is spoken and what is unspoken. The conundrum is that friendship and reciprocity inflect consent, but there’s no formula to manage these intangible affects — which is one of the things I wanted to make visible.

PA: It is also interesting to consider the family’s lack of concern to share their story, including that they participate in an illegal activity (deforestation), with a global audience but not with the local community. Who did the family understand would be the audience and how did you negotiate what they wanted to expose with your own intentions and audience considerations as a filmmaker?

AF: I wouldn’t say it was a lack of concern. There were concerns and they express them on camera. As you note, the primary concern is about audience and circulation. The island has approximately 200 residents, and about half of those are somehow related to the mother. The main concern was that the island’s residents would see it. Making public these semi-public secrets would upset the balance of secrecy and disclosure on the island. When negotiating the contract with Berkeley Media for the film’s distribution I made sure to include a clause that said the film would not be sold in Brazil without prior consultation. It’s been a non-issue really; my audience has been small film festivals and universities. I figured as much but I wanted to be clear that I could not guarantee that the film would not feed back to the community, hence my disclaimer in which I invoke globalization that runs underneath unstable images of the city in the distance.

PA: The use of sound in the film was really immersive and affective, situating the viewer within the rainforest. The river, motor of boats, the wind and chainsaw are central characters during certain moments. Can you comment on the use of sound?

AF: That’s a great observation, and here I need to tip my hat to Ernst Karel, who does a great job in instilling in everyone in the SEL the importance of sound. I recorded with an external omnidirectional mic attached to the camera and a lavaliere; and was pleasantly surprised with the results.

My favorite sound in the film is the friction of Dico’s father’s feet as he slides down the palm tree holding the cut açaí branch in one hand. In a going native moment I learned to harvest açaí from the treetops. Sound does a great, if insufficient, job in communicating that burn.

Sound is something that I struggle to tune into, however in this region natural sounds and man-made sounds overlap in interesting ways that can be hard to miss. There was one bar on the island with speakers twice as tall as I am. Every fifth song was an overproduced remix of Rianna’s “Under My Umbrella”. You know the one that goes “ella ella ella ella ella ella.” That didn’t make it into the film, which was a good decision, but I would like to lie in my hammock and listen to it in the distance as the rain pelted the roof.

PA: Talking about production, what were some of the challenges and unexpected surprises of filming in a rainforest?

AF: Açai, pineapple, and beer do not mix. I learned that the hard way, which meant that the family had to load me onto a small boat at night and take me through choppy waters to the closest clinic, two islands away. If I had been further from a health facility I could have died from dehydration — it was that bad. That episode aside, I loved living in the rainforest. When low tide would come in the afternoon I played soccer with the guys on a sandbar — great fun. As for the filming, keeping equipment and material dry required constant preparedness and vigilance.

Related Multimedia

Influences for Trees Tropiques:

Stéphane Breton’s "Them and Me"

AF: The most important work is Stéphane Breton’s Them and Me. The idea that a filmmaker could call his subjects assholes on camera (a group of men were speaking jovially about raping a woman) was entirely new to me. Them and Me shows how a dialogical mode of filmmaking could interpolate the viewer into a very active form of spectatorship.

Jean Rouch’s "Chronicle of a Summer"

AF: In this way it (Breton's Them and Me) is similar to my favorite ethnographic film, Jean Rouch’s Chronicle of a Summer.

AF: Jeff Silva, who was instrumental in teaching Sensory Ethnography in its first few years, also had a strong influence on Trees Tropiques. He is a very talented artist and also creates spaces for people to speak back to the filmmaker. You can see that in his film Ivan and Ivana. Jeff’s commitment to student projects is astonishing; I learned a great deal from him in the editing suite. The Sensory Ethnography series is an intense experience and I ended up learning a ton from the other students.

I loved Verena Paravel’s style of fearlessly inserting herself into scenes, using the camera as an excuse to get close, as well as the way John Hulsey patiently shadowed his subjects. Looking back on the shooting, I think I was trying to combine those two styles.

The dialogical elements in Them and Me, Chronicle of a Summer, Ivan and Ivana, coincided with readings I was doing in graduate school, particularly the work of Mikhail Bakhtin. I remember re-reading The Dialogic Imagination while on the island, which was a lateral push toward bringing subjects into the editorial fold. Unfortunately, I only discovered the scholarship of Hugh Raffles on this region of Brazil after I came back from filming. Perhaps I would have been attentive to other aspects of Amazonia if I had prepared properly. Then again, I think there is something to be said for coming to an unfamiliar region with fresh eyes.


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