Helicopter Images: Mediating Injustice in Environmental Film

Marian Ahn Thorpe, Princeton University §

The fictional movie Even the Rain (Bollaín 2010) tells the story of a Spanish-Mexican team as it attempts to make a drama about the genocidal violence of Christopher Columbus. The team opts to film in Bolivia because of its cheap, plentiful Indigenous extras, but the project is soon overwhelmed by the Cochabamba Water War, a real-life public outcry against water privatization in late 1999 to 2000 (de la Fuente 2003). The film-within-the-film’s main Bolivian actor, Daniel (Juan Carlos Aduviri)—a leader of the anti-water privatization movement—forces the filmmakers to understand the ongoing nature of colonization, and to recognize their own exploitation of the local population in the name of art.

Still from Even the Rain (Bollaín 2010).

The first scene of Even the Rain (known in Spanish as También la Lluvia) introduces these themes with an appropriately cinematic spectacle: a low-flying helicopter carries a giant wooden cross—a prop for the Christopher Columbus film—over a crowd of Bolivian actors as they wait to audition. The film’s Spanish producer Costa (Luís Tosar) and director Sebastian (Gael García Bernal) have just pulled up outside their Cochabamba studio, where they encounter two hundred hopeful would-be actors. Penny-pinching Costa attempts to dismiss the crowd without conducting auditions, but Daniel protests: “You don’t understand, cariblanco (whitey, literally “whiteface”). We’ve been waiting here for hours! People have walked for miles!” To appease the actors, Sebastian agrees to audition everyone, and the two filmmakers turn to get into their jeep. Suddenly a helicopter thunders overhead. The camera closes in on Daniel’s face as he follows the aircraft’s flight and then turns to contemplate the fair-skinned filmmakers. The close-up of the Indigenous character’s visage, overlaid with a searching guitar soundtrack, invites the viewer to identify with his unease, and underscores the sense that the helicopter and its cross mean trouble.

Still from Even the Rain (Bollaín 2010).

While some scholars have discussed the representational politics of aerial technologies used to image nature (Dodge and Perkins 2009; Rajão 2013; Zubrow 2003), this reflection focuses on one airborne technology—the helicopter—as image itself. Helicopters are striking features in dramas and documentaries about environmental injustice, and especially so in Latin America. On one hand, the vehicle connotes invasion. Movies like Apocalypse Now (Coppola 1999 [1979]), with its frenzied scene of a US helicopter attack during the Vietnam War, and real-life examples such as the US-supplied helicopters of Cold War regimes across the Americas, allow movies like Even the Rain to deploy the helicopter as a symbol of incursion. On the other hand, in other films, helicopters ferry allies into remote communities, becoming lifelines between isolated groups and supportive outsiders. Though apparently contradictory, both helicopter tropes—invader and lifeline—help viewers relate to the people and landscapes on their screens across race, class, rural/urban, Global North/South, and polluter/polluted lines.

At the same time, helicopter tropes also invoke what Fatimah Tobing Rony (1996) calls “the Ethnographic”: a film style that uses exotified, dehistoricized non-Western subjects as mirrors on Western society. The helicopter not only signals the viewer’s status as invader or lifeline, it also stands in for the viewer in several ways. For instance, its ease of movement symbolizes the viewer’s effortless travel into the filmed community, sharpening the contrast between the mobile spectator and the supposedly rooted community she “visits” through the film. What’s more, the helicopter is high-tech, granting the viewer the “modern” capacity to observe nature rather than be tied down to or by it. In contrast, those who live a helicopter’s ride away are imagined to be antiquated, nature-bound, even primitive. By thus highlighting these differences between the watcher and the watched, helicopters can turn the people and landscapes in environmental films into Ethnographic subjects—emplaced, pre-modern characters threatened by the ecological sins of “modern” viewers.

In this post, I examine helicopters in three Latin American environmental films. But before I continue, let me acknowledge how my own identity informs my interpretations. As a mixed-race, Korean-and-white North American whose first language is English (I learned Spanish in high school and college), I encounter most of the filmmakers and characters of these films as a racial, cultural, and linguistic outsider. My claims about what viewers experience are based in my own immersion in a US media environment steeped in Ethnographic motifs, US racial categories, and portrayals that operate from the starting point of an imagined universal Euro-American experience. My perspective of these helicopter images is, as in all things, partial.

Slow Violence and Ethnographic Cinema

Films about environmental injustice often grapple with the challenge of depicting what Rob Nixon (2011) calls “slow violence”—the long-term, largely unseen impacts of environmental degradation on the world’s poor. According to Nixon, slow-moving, geographically expansive environmental injustices—like climate change, deforestation, and the toxic effects of war—are difficult for writers and activists to capture in today’s spectacle-driven moment. To effectively spotlight environmental injustice in a media climate that prefers “fast” over “slow” violence, movie-makers must humanize and de-anonymize victims, and create a sense of urgency around long-simmering struggles. These techniques—often enhanced by a shot of or from a helicopter—help viewers empathize with the people on their screens.

At the same time, filmmakers may also unwittingly draw on the tropes and techniques of “ethnographic cinema” or “the Ethnographic,” Rony’s (1996: 7-8) term for that film style which racializes and dehistoricizes its subjects as Others. According to Rony, ethnographic cinema emerged in the late 19th and early 20th century, when anthropologists used the medium of film to study the supposedly less-evolved physiology of nonwhite populations, or to record “vanishing” Native cultures.

Rony argues that these science-sanctioned depictions of Native bodies, dress, and customs had a profound influence on popular cinema. The Ethnographic is now evident in stock motifs ranging from “Native” dances in films like King Kong (Cooper and Schoedsack 1933), to the “Plains Indians in sci-fi drag” aesthetic (Starn 2011: 179) of the extraterrestrials in Avatar (Cameron 2009). As Audra Simpson (2011) notes in her indictment of anthropology’s role in spreading false narratives of Indigenous purity and cultural death, spectacles like Avatar depoliticize the dispossession of Native peoples by portraying it as inevitable extinction rather than active exploitation and genocide.

In light of Simpson’s critique, how do filmmakers call attention to slow violence without succumbing to the spectacularizing moves of the Ethnographic? Despite a director’s best intentions, the legacy of ethnographic cinema means that, for audiences steeped in the ubiquitous motifs of the Ethnographic, a character’s darker skin, unintelligible language, and unfamiliar practices impose their own narrative upon a viewer’s experience of a film. These differences can overpower a director’s storytelling, such that instead of identifying with a film’s characters, viewers become disengaged spectators.

The Helicopter as Image

Into this challenge flies the helicopter. No other vehicle straddles the line between engagement and spectatorship in quite the same way. The craft’s speed and versatility allow it to land in almost any flat place, or hover and observe what is happening beneath it. Combined with the rhythmic rumble that announces its approach, this agility produces a spectacle both mesmerizing and terrifying. And while it’s true that attributes like agility and noise also apply to unmanned drones, helicopters are unique in that they can carry people, allowing for immediate human-to-human intervention. Combined, these features give the vehicle a special capacity to dramatize the plodding everyday-ness of slow violence. But at the same time, they can also help reproduce the spectacular tendencies of ethnographic cinema.

Consider how the following environmental films—a drama and two documentaries—play with these ambivalent meanings, using helicopter images to suggest outside forces that can imperil, but also rescue, victims of environmental injustice. I have already mentioned Even the Rain (Bollaín 2010), a big-budget work of fiction. Below, I situate it alongside Chumpi’s Journey (Valdivia 2009), a spare, unpretentious documentary set in the Peruvian Amazon. These two markedly different films introduce my first trope—helicopter as threat—both setting up narratives of outside invasion in their figuration of helicopters and Indigenous characters. Afterward, I turn to the documentary Crude (Berlinger 2009) to examine the function of my second trope: helicopter as savior.

Helicopter = Threat

I began this post by describing the opening scene of Even the Rain (by Spanish director Icíar Bollaín), which uses a helicopter spectacle to introduce themes of colonization and exploitation. A similar helicopter-related close-up occurs in Chumpi’s Journey (2009), a documentary by Peruvian filmmaker Fernando Valdivia. The intimate film (titled La Travesía de Chumpi in Spanish) captures daily life in an Achuar Indigenous village in the Peruvian Amazon. Through Spanish subtitles in the Shiwiar-language film, viewers learn that a new oil concession could destroy a sacred waterfall called La Tuna. The community has decided to map the GPS coordinates of La Tuna to prove that the site lies within the concession, and thereby demonstrate that the concession is illegal. The title of the film refers to a young boy named Chumpi who boats upstream with other villagers to document the location.

The film opens with a whispering voice and the sounds of forest insects. Next, a middle-aged man called Irar begins speaking in Shiwiar. He describes a sacred place called La Tuna, where the powerful souls of the ancients can be found. A closely framed shot of La Tuna waterfall fades to black, accompanied by the driving beat of a drum. A few shots later, the prow of a dugout canoe cuts through water, and Irar continues, “La Tuna is important because through it we ensure our own lives.” The camera zooms in on Chumpi’s resolute face as he rides in the canoe. The film’s title, Chumpi’s Journey, floats across a watery background as the rumble of an unseen helicopter resounds.

Still from Chumpi’s Journey (Valdivia 2009).

The documentary continues with quiet vignettes of village life. After several shots of Chumpi and another child playing in the forest, the invisible helicopter again begins to thunder. The sound of the aircraft plays ominously over tranquil images of a foggy forest, tree branches against the sunset, and a chicken running through a garden.

Later in the film, Irar explains that the petroleum company will disrupt the Achuars’ reciprocal relationship with nature. An interior shot of his thatched-roof home spins away into blackness, and helicopter rotors sound again. Then the screen cuts to a grainy image of a helicopter flying over the forest canopy. The next scene shows a pipe spewing oil into a river. The sequence suggests that the helicopter will bring pollution to the peaceful village.

Still from Chumpi’s Journey (Valdivia 2009).

While Chumpi’s Journey and Even the Rain are different in genre and tone, both use helicopters to suggest an outside threat. In both films, the helicopter is shot from below, inviting the viewer to see it from the ground-level view of Daniel and Chumpi. This vantage establishes the helicopter as something from above, from beyond the immediate sphere of the character on the screen. The need to look up in order to spot the helicopter underscores the contrast between seeing from above and seeing from below, between the easy mobility of the machine and the relative immobility of the grounded human.

In addition, both films use tight shots of the protagonists’ faces to encourage the audience to ponder the character’s internal life: what is Daniel thinking as he watches the flying cross and the two fair-skinned filmmakers? What is Chumpi thinking as the helicopter sounds in the distance? The close framing invites the audience to connect with Daniel and Chumpi’s human interiority, and the shared, ground-level view of the helicopter helps the audience identify with their vulnerability to the aerial machine.

And yet, the fact that these are brown faces filling the screen, and that the shots are accompanied by other signals of difference—the “cariblanco” epithet Daniel hurls at Costa, the Edenic forest where Chumpi plays— identifies these characters as firmly Other for white, urban viewers accustomed to the tropes of ethnographic cinema. And other signals also situate the viewer ambivalently in relation to Daniel and Chumpi. For instance, the spectacle of the helicopter-borne cross/movie prop (a reference to Fellini’s critique of the Catholic Church in a similar scene in La Dolce Vita [1961]), simultaneously indicts Christians and moviegoers for participating in the exploitative work of both colonization and the film industry. Likewise, in Chumpi’s Journey, the shot of the spilling oil reminds viewers that their consumption is what threatens Chumpi’s forest playground. In short, the helicopter-as-invader trope, in combination with other storytelling devices that heighten the distinction between Indigenous characters and viewers, makes it difficult for these films to escape the pull of the Ethnographic.

Helicopter = Savior

In contrast, other films use helicopters as a sign of outside support. One documentary, Crude (Berlinger 2009), tells the story of the legal battle to force oil giant Texaco-Chevron to clean up oil spills that have sickened communities in the Ecuadorian Amazon. The main characters are two members of the communities’ legal team: an American named Steven Donziger and an Ecuadorian named Pablo Fajardo. Donziger is loud, bilingual, and cosmopolitan; he is filmed walking his dog on Manhattan’s tony Upper West Side, and jets between the Big Apple and Ecuador with ease. In contrast, Fajardo grew up in poverty in one of Texaco’s polluted oil towns. One sequence shows him on a cramped long-distance bus, listening to English lessons on a Discman as he travels to his Amazon hometown.

Partway through Crude, Fajardo and Donziger receive a phone call announcing that Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa has decided to show his support for their case by visiting the alleged Texaco spill sites. Intercut with shots of Donziger and Fajardo taking the exciting call, the film shows Fajardo boarding a military helicopter. Shortly thereafter, the camera is inside the helicopter, and a smiling Rafael Correa enters. During the flight, the charismatic president chats encouragingly with Fajardo.

Still from Crude: The Real Price of Oil (Berlinger 2009).

Next, the camera captures Correa stepping out of the aircraft onto a grassy field and striding over to waiting community members. Donziger says in a voiceover, “This is historic. We’ve never had a president in all the years of the case who’s ever given a damn about the victims of the contamination.” In another scene, Correa embraces a weeping man whose land has been polluted. The president proclaims, “The world needs to know about this.” In sum, the helicopter has ferried in a compassionate hero whose visit shows isolated locals that they are not alone.

In contrast to Even the Rain and Chumpi’s Journey, Crude features a helicopter playing a positive role. The aircraft is both practical and symbolic; it carries Correa to the Amazon for his fact-finding mission, and it also represents the arrival of a savior who literally reaches out to locals and connects them to the world that “needs to know about this.” The fact that viewers get to ride along inside the vehicle turns the audience temporarily from invader to supporter. Instead of watching the helicopter approach ominously from below, the camera travels with Correa and observes him interacting with community members. As the audience journeys with the heroic figure, viewers temporarily transform into heroes too.

At the same time however, the helicopter also underscores the distinction between the emplaced local victims and the outside world. In contrast to the helicopter-accustomed Correa and seasoned flyer Donziger, members of the affected communities travel in slower ways. Cofán Indigenous activists travel by canoe. A cancer-afflicted mother and daughter worry about bus fare to get treatment in another city. And Pablo Fajardo’s own bus travel shows that he is literally grounded. Thus, even though the helicopter plays a positive role, it also Others the Amazon residents by accentuating the cultural and economic differences between vulnerable locals and outside saviors. Here, Correa’s helicopter flight suggests, are poor jungle people in need of saving.

Helicopter Politics

These films provoke questions about filmmakers’ responsibilities when depicting victims of slow violence. Within such films, directors’ strategic use of helicopters can flatten or complicate Ethnographic narratives. For instance, in Even the Rain and Chumpi’s Journey, ground-level vantages of helicopters in conjunction with closeups of Indigenous faces amplify the aircraft’s association with invasion, expanding the distance between Indigenous characters and non-Indigenous audiences. Spectacular aircraft and spectacular alterity complement each other.     

Meanwhile, in Crude, scenes within and from helicopters depict the craft less as invader and more as lifeline. By putting audiences in the aircraft, the director invites the support of outside viewers. However, this strategy also presents problems: Correa’s visit suggests that the spectacle of a president dropping out of the sky for a short visit solves complex, long-brewing problems. Moreover, it presents the victims of contamination as rural Others, as people in need of rescue by outsiders.

In the end, whether directors encourage viewers to see themselves as invaders or lifelines, media makers and consumers must be alert to the ways in which the legacy of ethnographic film predetermines how viewers encounter the people on their screens. Storytelling devices like the helicopter may ultimately work with the Ethnographic to neutralize the political impact of supposedly progressive movies. Despite their best efforts to spotlight environmental injustice, well-meaning filmmakers may find that, like the spectacular, mobile helicopter, the Othering gaze of ethnographic cinema is hard to escape.

Works Cited

Berlinger, Joe, dir. 2009. Crude: The Real Price of Oil. New York: First Run Features. 104 min., https://www.kanopy.com/product/crude-real-price-oil.

Bollaín, Icíar, dir. 2010. También la Lluvia (Even the Rain). Chatsworth, CA: Image Entertainment. 103 min, https://www.netflix.com/title/70154110.

Cameron, James, dir. 2009. Avatar. Beverly Hills, CA: Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment,. 162 min.

Cooper, Merian C., and Ernest B. Schoedsack, dir. 1933. King Kong. United States: RKO Radio Pictures. 103 min.

Coppola, Francis Ford, dir. 1999 [1979]. Apocalypse Now. Hollywood, CA: Paramount. 153 min.

de la Fuente, Manuel. 2003. “The Water War in Cochabamba, Bolivia: Privatization Triggers an Uprising.”  Mountain Research and Development 23 (1):98-100.

Dodge, Martin, and Chris Perkins. 2009. “The ‘View from Nowhere’? Spatial Politics and Cultural Significance of High-Resolution Satellite Imagery.”  Geoforum 40 (4):497-501.

Fellini, Federico, dir. 1961. La Dolce Vita. 174 min.

Nixon, Rob. 2011. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Rajão, Raoni. 2013. “Representations and Discourses: The Role of Local Accounts and Remote Sensing in the Formulation of Amazonia’s Environmental Policy.”  Environmental Science and Policy 30 (June 2013):60-71.

Rony, Fatimah Tobing. 1996. The Third Eye: Race, Cinema, and Ethnographic Spectacle. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Simpson, Audra. 2011. “Settlement’s Secret.”  Cultural Anthropology 26 (2):205-217.

Starn, Orin. 2011. “Here Come the Anthros (Again): The Strange Marriage of Anthropology and Native America.”  Cultural Anthropology 26 (2):179-204.

Valdivia, Fernando, dir. 2009. La Travesía de Chumpi (Chumpi’s Journey). Peru: Teleandes Producciones. 47 min, https://vimeo.com/59512111.

Zubrow, Alexis A. S. 2003. “Mapping Tension: Remote Sensing and the Production of a Statewide Land Cover Map.”  Human Ecology 31 (2):281-307.

Marian Ahn Thorpe is an environmental and political anthropologist who studies Indigenous rights and development in Latin America. Her work examines the application of the international Indigenous right of Free, Prior, and Informed Consent/Consultation (FPIC), which holds that Native peoples have the right to participate in development decisions that affect their lands and livelihoods. Setting FPIC in conversation with discussions of consent in feminist legal studies, development studies, and medical anthropology, her work demonstrates that FPIC is a multifaceted tool that states use to manage Indigenous participation in development, and that Native peoples use to negotiate rights, culture, and internal politics. Her work has been supported by the Inter-American Foundation for Grassroots Development and various entities at Rutgers University.

This post is part of our thematic series: Imaging Nature.