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10 - Filming Modernity in the Tropics: The Amazon, Walt Disney, and the Antecedents of Modernization Theory

Felipe Martínez-Pinzón
Affiliation:
Brown University, Rhode Island
Javier Uriarte
Affiliation:
Stony Brook University, State University of New York
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Summary

Once upon a time there was a beautiful and virtuous region, a ‘paradise of riches beyond men's dreams’, that lured the interest of fortuneseekers from far and wide. But this region, cursed by its culture and location to suffer from immature technology and insufficient venture capital, lay dormant, in a deep, timeless sleep until one day Prince Charming (who bore a remarkable resemblance to Henry Ford) bestowed upon it the kiss of his copious capital and breathtaking technological innovations, and the region finally stirred, shaking off its slumbers to join Prince Charming on the road to progress.

The ‘fairy tale’ narrative sketched out above may seem facetious, but it captures the genre conventions and, in most respects, the message of the film The Amazon Awakens, a 1944 documentary produced through a joint venture of the Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs (headed by the young Nelson Rockefeller) and the Disney Studios. It formed part of an extensive body of feature films and documentaries dedicated to promoting the Good Neighbor Policy in Latin America during World War II. This cinematic collection included both theatrical releases—such as the animated Disney features Saludos Amigos (1942) and The Three Caballeros (1944)—as well as numerous non-fictional works that included, aside from The Amazon Awakens, films on such rousing subjects as changing agrarian structures in Chile and the versatility of corn. The intended and actual audience for these non-theatrical films is somewhat difficult to determine; many, with Spanish or Portuguese voice-overs, were routinely shown as educational or public health films in open-air theaters to Latin American audiences. In the case of films directed at US publics, such as The Amazon Awakens, it is probable that they were distributed to educational institutions and business organizations (such as local chambers of commerce) in the USA to promote ‘hemispheric understanding’ and investments abroad. As for the decision to make a film specifically about the Amazon, this likely reflected both the longstanding (and ongoing) US fascination with the region, and the intense interest in the Amazon Basin inspired by the campaign to revive regional rubber production for the war effort, known in Brazil as ‘The Battle for Rubber’.

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Intimate Frontiers
A Literary Geography of the Amazon
, pp. 193 - 207
Publisher: Liverpool University Press
Print publication year: 2019

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