POMONA — Leslie Baer-Brown does not seem the type likely to feel at home among an isolated Amazon tribe that kills many of the outsiders who try to visit their jungle home.
The Southern California native works as an editor in the Cal Poly Pomona News and Information office and writes folk songs. But last summer, Baer-Brown took a photographer and a crew of advisers to the Venezuelan rain forest. The group spent a week among the tribe known to anthropologists as the Fierce People, the Yanomami.
The Yanomami--who call themselves the Children of the Blood Drops of the Moon--are considered by most anthropologists the last remaining intact tribe of the Americas, and Baer-Brown wanted to tell their story.
The resulting documentary, "Yanomami: Keepers of the Flame"--written and co-produced by Baer-Brown and produced and directed by Cal Poly media production specialist Adolfo Rudy Vargas--won Best Broadcast Feature and Best of Festival at the U.S. Environmental Film Festival in Colorado Springs, Colo., last month.
"It humanizes the people who live in the forest," said Jeanne Sauer, film coordinator for the festival. Judges were impressed with "the idea that the saving of the forest is going to depend on preserving the lives of the people who live in the forest," she said.
Sauer said the film stood out because it concentrated on people, not simply on animals or wilderness.
"I was shocked when I found out we had won, because we were up against The Discovery Channel, the BBC, KCET, filmmakers from overseas who had some very large budgets," said Baer-Brown, who paid her own way to the jungle and made her documentary with donated materials. "But the film has a lot of heart. It's a message that has to be told."
The film is narrated and hosted by actor Michael Dorn, who plays Lt. Worf on "Star Trek: The Next Generation," and includes a voice-over by actor Michael Horse, who played Deputy Hawk on the TV series "Twin Peaks." Dorn will host a benefit screening of the documentary, with proceeds going to a medical assistance program for the Yanomami, tonight at 6:45 p.m. at the Loews Hotel in Santa Monica.
Baer-Brown, 33, learned about the Yanomami from Michael Stuart-Ani, a writer and musician who is one of the few whites accepted by the people and who is allowed to live periodically in their villages.
Stuart-Ani was a guest on Cal Poly's EarthWatch radio program, which is syndicated on the Pacifica public radio network and which Baer-Brown hosts. "The way he talked about the Yanomami as the last intact indigenous American group really signaled to me that we had come full circle," Baer-Brown said. "The last intact group of indigenous Americans are about to be wiped off the face of the Earth."
It was Stuart-Ani, along with anthropologist and Yanomami expert Napoleon Chagnon, who brought Baer-Brown to the jungle last summer.
Stuart-Ani, who also appears in the film, is on a quest to save the people, whose numbers are rapidly dwindling because of the onslaught of gold miners and other city dwellers from neighboring Brazil. In the past five years, Stuart-Ani said, the Yanomami population has shrunk from 20,000 to 14,000, and their numbers continue to decline.
"The Yanomami need help now," Stuart-Ani said during a screening of the film at his Hollywood Hills home. "They are in such peril."
The documentary shows the Yanomami, who have no written language, through Baer-Brown's Southern California eyes. It shows plainly that the Orange County native is an outsider and displays some of the foibles of the mostly white expedition group. For example, the filmmakers admit in an epilogue that the helicopter in which they departed blew down half of the village.
Similarly, it shows how Baer-Brown gave the Yanomami--who do not believe in speaking the name of another person--pet names from U.S. popular culture as a way to keep their identities straight in her mind. They allow her to teach them how to draw with pencil and paper, and she allows them to paint her face.
"In the village we were in, the people have no knowledge of the outside," Baer-Brown said. "They had heard myths and folk tales about the people who come from the sky on a locust, but they don't have much of a concept about what that means."
According to Baer-Brown, the Yanomami are a pre-Stone Age culture who, rather than making their own tools, build their villages on sites where they find stone tools. Their number system consists of "one, two and more than two."
The budget for the expedition and film was "exactly zero," Baer-Brown said, with all of the group's supplies and service needs--even the videotape and camera--donated.
Of the 17 people in the expedition, seven contracted malaria on the trip, two came down with typhoid and one with encephalitis.