'The Burning Season' Fires Up Audience : Television: The Brazilian premiere of HBO's story of murdered rubber tapper Chico Mendes, starring Raul Julia, elicits boos, cheers and tears.


Minutes before the glitzy premiere here of HBO's film "The Burning Season," the story of murdered Brazilian rubber tapper Chico Mendes, Andrew Revkin said that he had one wish.

"I just hope it creates an emotional reaction," said Revkin, author of the book on which the movie about the champion of the Amazon preservation movement is based.

It did.

"This is a horrible movie," one patron shouted from the balcony of the city's elegant Municipal Theater to the 1,000-member audience, which was filled with members of Brazil's movie, television and art community.

"It wasn't the Americans who made this cause. It was us, Brazilians," shouted another man as the final credits ran, irked that local activists didn't get more credit in the film for their efforts in support of Mendes.

By the time the movie ended last Thursday, emotions in the crowd ranged from admiration to sadness, shame and disappointment.

The $11-million film, shot in Mexico and directed by John Frankenheimer, stars Raul Julia as Mendes and includes Brazilian actress Sonia Braga, American actor Edward James Olmos and Cuban-born actor Tomas Milian. It airs on HBO in the United States on Sept. 17.

HBO premiered the work here at the invitation of the Rio de Janeiro Film Festival.

"The movie was a surprise," said Carlos Reichembach, a Brazilian film director. "It's not an easy film. It's a difficult film. It's not a film that has an easy commercial appeal."

Giovanna Gold, a well-known Brazilian actress, said the film was moving but inappropriate to start a film festival. "We are here to have fun and enjoy movies, and the trees are still burning," she said, referring to the practice of burning off huge tracts of the Amazon forest to make way for large ranches--part of the deforestation that Mendes opposed. "That makes me feel uncomfortable."

"It started slow," said Felicia Krumholz, a landscape architect, "but as we got toward the end, I was there with tears streaming down my face. I am sort of a child of Chico Mendes. I got involved in recycling and other projects because of him."

Others found the movie boring.

"Too bad good intentions don't always make good movies," said engineer Marcos Venicios.

Some were irritated by the fact that a work about a Brazilian hero was made by an American company and not a Brazilian one.

"I feel ashamed because we (Brazilians) needed the foreign media to show us what was happening right here in our own country," said Beth Silveira, a theatrical producer.

Many complaints concerned the veracity of the film.

"The big error of the movie was made before the film begins, when it says (on screen) that it's a true story and not inspired by a true story," said Zuenir Ventura, a respected Brazilian reporter who covered the trials of the two men convicted of murdering Mendes in 1988 and who later adopted the boy whose testimony helped send them to prison. (One man later escaped and the other is awaiting a new trial.)

For example, some said, central to the film is Mendes' staunch opposition to the construction of a road into the Amazon forest. Journalists, rubber tappers who worked with Mendes and even writer Revkin said that Mendes never opposed the road.

"We need roads, we want roads," said Jorge Antonio Alves, 31, a rubber tapper who worked with Mendes and is currently president of the workers' cooperative in the town of Xapuri, where Mendes was murdered. "Chico was against the unfair distribution of the land. He was against the way the road was going to be used to promote more burning and clearing of the forest."

He also took exception to a scene in which a child is killed when gunmen hired by land owners fire into a crowd of demonstrators. "They dramatized a little too much," Alves said. "No children were ever killed."

"Chico Mendes was a more complex person than the person presented in the movie," said Ventura. "He was a militant of the '90s, not an activist of the '60s. In the film, they painted him like Martin Luther King or Gandhi, but that wasn't his style." Mendes was an aggressive communist, he said, whose activism was rooted in class struggle.

But over all, both Alves and Ventura gave the film a passing grade.

"The film shows clearly that (Mendes) was a champion," Alves said. "I think it shows the reality of what we're going through.

"Our struggle is not over. Two percent of the (western) state of Acre has been burned this year, and 6% was burned last year." Even the Chico Mendes Preserve--2.5 million acres deeded to the rubber tappers and their families after Mendes' death--has already been invaded by lumber cutters, he added.

"Unfortunately, Chico Mendes was so little known in Brazil that the image of him (in the film), with all its problems, will be accepted as the truth," Ventura said. "Whether that's good or bad, I don't know. . . .

"There is a mixture of shame and pride. Shame that we allowed this to happen, and pride in a Brazilian hero."

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