It's appropriate that one of Douglas Ayres' favorite movies is "The Emerald Forest," the 1985 John Boorman film based on the true story of a father's struggle to retrieve his son from the Amazon rain forest and the primitive Indian tribe that raised him.
For like the father, the Newport Beach film maker has had his own dramatic encounters in South America's dense jungles. And like director Boorman, who used "The Emerald Forest" to illustrate the damage outsiders can inflict on a delicate environment, Ayres concluded that advancing civilization may destroy the culture of the people that live there.
Ayres has visited the rain forest several times since 1981, and in 1983 began researching the shattering effects that modern life has had on the Boras, a small tribe settled near the upper Amazon River in Peru. Ayres, 27, filmed his experiences in 1985 and is now close to releasing "My People, My Jungle," a one-hour documentary on the Boras' losing fight to retain their identity.
"It's ironic that the ideas of my movie and 'The Emerald Forest' are so similar," Ayres said. "I loved it, but had embarked on 'My People, My Jungle' before I even knew of it. They both say the same thing, though; they talk about the need to preserve the beauty and purity of what is already there."
Ayres, who has directed documentaries on sailing and helped film the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles for European television, is now editing nearly 15 hours of film with partner Howard Reekie, 37, of Huntington Beach in their Newport Beach studio. They hope to finish the documentary by October and offer it to cable and public television and movie theaters.
Karl/Lorimar Home Video of Irvine, which put up about $100,000 to finance the project and shares distribution rights with Ayres, also plans to turn the film into a videocassette for the home market, according to the company president, Stuart Karl. He said the documentary, while not expected to compete with "The Emerald Forest" video already in stores, may be attractive to some film buffs because of the similar theme. Besides targeting homes, the "My People, My Jungle" cassette will be sold to schools and colleges for their educational libraries, Karl added.
The documentary will use Ayres' footage and film and photographs from Peruvian archives to chronicle the dissolution of the tribe over the past 200 years. The Boras have suffered at the hands of outsiders since the early 1800s, when the European rubber barons forced them to work on plantations, Ayres said. Their problems are no less sinister in the 1980s, as tuberculosis introduced from Peruvian cities has invaded the jungle and nearly decimated the tribe, he said.
"The saddest reality is that tribe members sense extinction is near," he said, noting that the Bora population has dropped from 40,000 to 2,000 since the turn of the century. "Due to disease and migration of youths to cities, they know they are the last generation. When they die, their old ways will die, too."
Ayres first visited the Amazon in the late 1970s to study the region's religious customs and music. Although a religion and music major at USC, Ayres was also fascinated by anthropology, particularly in South America, and felt the experience would satisfy his three interests. He began thinking about a documentary on the Boras in the early 1980s but knew that to accurately record the tribe's life he first had to win the Boras' trust, a process that took nearly four years.
As an outsider trying to become an insider, Ayres in 1983 spent two months with the Boras, communicating through Spanish and the few tribal phrases he had picked up. He returned in 1984 for another two-month stay. In 1985, Ayres was finally told by the chiefs that he could bring in a small film crew.
The real breakthrough came when he developed a bond with tribe leader Manuel, who seemed impressed by Ayres' knowledge of Bora history and concern for the tribe's future. Manuel acted as a liaison between the film maker and other tribe members. He also gave the bearded Ayres a native name that translated roughly into "the hairy one."
"I had to go in front of the whole tribe and ask them to approve my plans," he said. "They looked in my eyes (to gauge his sincerity), and I looked in their eyes. They decided I was a person who wanted to learn. When they started to make fun of me (because of his beard), I knew I was close to being accepted. Participating in their rituals helped bridge the gap."
Their polytheistic ceremonies honoring the rain forest gods were often stimulating and sometimes frightening, Ayres said. The Boras, who chew coca leaves (the source of cocaine) regularly, increased their intake for these rituals, eventually reaching a trance-like state that occasionally evolved into violent frenzies. Ayres recalled several times when he scrambled into the jungle to avoid potential danger.