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Filmmaker Catches the Spirit of the Rain Forest


Kim MacQuarrie was walking through Manhattan recently when he came across a crew filming a Woody Allen movie. He watched as the actors ran through one scene over and over and couldn't help but reflect on how different it was from his own experiences.

MacQuarrie was in New York for the premiere of "Spirits of the Rainforest," a documentary set in the remote Manu Biosphere Reserve in Peru. Much of the film, on which he was writer and assistant editor, focuses on one Indian tribe living there, the Machiguenga, whose way of life retains aspects common to many of the forest dwellers who populated the pre-Columbus Amazon.

Filming them, MacQuarrie said, presented its own set of challenges.

"They're totally unpredictable. They're not actors. You never know what they're going to do."

While the filmmakers did not want to stage scenes, they did try to find out when the Machiguenga were planning to engage in certain rituals or activities they wanted to film.

However, he said, that only led to frustration. The Machiguenga, in tune with the rhythms of the forest and generally oblivious to artificial timetables, do things on their own schedule.

"Spirits of the Rainforest" will air on the Discovery Channel cable network Tuesday at 8 p.m. Local residents will get a chance to view the film earlier when MacQuarrie speaks at the Bowers Museum of Cultural Art in Santa Ana today at 5:30 p.m. The film kicks off at 6:30.

While some documentaries focus on only the wildlife, and others focus purely on the people, "Spirits of the Rainforest" tries to encompass both. Discovery wanted to do it from the point of view of an Indian tribe, MacQuarrie explained. The filmmakers try to give a sense of how the Machiguenga view the forest as both a physical and a spiritual presence.

Also included are interviews with scientists, both U.S. and Peruvian, who are studying the people and wildlife of Manu. Among them is Glenn Shepard, an ethnobotanist who is studying medicinal plants used by the Machiguenga. MacQuarrie said "Spirits" is the first documentary about the Manu reserve.

Because of its remoteness in Peru's southeastern region, Manu is one of the least-visited and environmentally pristine areas of the Amazon basin. Cataracts separate the Manu River from other connecting rivers, so the turn-of-the-century rubber boom had a relatively minor impact. The 5-million-acre reserve (roughly the size of Massachusetts) is home to 200 species of mammals, from numerous monkeys to the rare giant otter. It is also used by more than 1,000 species of birds; by comparison, all of the United States and Canada has about 650.

"It's the largest tropical rain-forest reserve in the world, and if you ask anyone who's been there, it's probably the place to go to see large amounts of wildlife," MacQuarrie said. "It's still a really wild area."

The reserve is just starting to develop a fledgling eco-tourism trade.

MacQuarrie, a biologist and anthropologist by trade, was studying at Cal State Fullerton when he first went to Peru in 1986 as an exchange student. He stayed for 3 1/2 years, including a year in Manu studying another forest people, the Yaminhuah. He was the first anthropologist to study and live with them.

The Yaminhuah live about two days' walk from the Machiguenga.

"They used to attack the (Machiguenga) village we filmed in," MacQuarrie said.

By reputation a fierce tribe, the Yaminhuah were not contacted by outsiders until 1984, when they met a group of woodcutters and were eventually lured by gifts to a nearby mission town. Within the first year, a third of the tribe had died of whooping cough, part of a familiar pattern, MacQuarrie pointed out.

"All the tribes have the same history, basically, from Columbus on down."

Of 60 Indian groups in Peru, three remain uncontacted, two of those in Manu. As recently as the 1950s, most of the forest Indians in the Peruvian Amazon were still uncontacted by the outside world. MacQuarrie predicts that the remaining Indian groups in the Amazon will be contacted in the next 10 to 15 years.

Besides his anthropological studies, MacQuarrie supported himself in Peru by writing, including writing the text for a coffee-table book on Manu (published by Andrews & McNeel in Kansas City, Mo.), which brought him to the attention of SuperFlow Productions, an independent company in Colorado Springs, Colo., which was planning a Manu documentary for television.

MacQuarrie joined the project, which was shopped to PBS, National Geographic and Discovery. The latter was the first to bite. What's more, the cable network gave them a two-hour time slot for the film, allowing them to make a longer film than most nature programs.

The film, minus commercials and promos, is 90 minutes. And to shoot those 90 minutes in Manu wasn't easy.

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