Marcos Colon was already writing his dissertation on literature of the Amazon when he traveled to Brazil to see the real thing.
There he found a changed – and still changing – Amazon.
The South American journey led Colon, a PhD candidate at UW-Madison, into filmmaking – which in turn has taken him around the world with his documentary, “Beyond Fordlandia.” The 82-minute film uses historical and contemporary footage to tell the story of Henry Ford’s foray into the Amazon and the long aftermath of that venture, including its environmental and cultural toll.
“Beyond Fordlandia” has its American premiere this week at the Beloit International Festival, with screenings on Friday and March 2.
The film won a prestigious 2017 Golden Sun WWF award at the Barcelona International Environmental Film Festival, and has been screened in France, Germany, Portugal, Brazil and elsewhere, with more upcoming bookings in the U.S. and abroad.
Colon worked for 16 turbulent months on the film. Looking back on that period, “everything has a story,” he said — from the breathtaking adventures the filmmaker had in the Amazon region with only a local driver as his companion, to the 15 days he spent frantically copying historic film footage at the National Archives in Washington, D.C.
The Archives was on the verge of digitizing and compressing the original film images from Ford’s work in the Amazon, a process which would reduce picture quality and make the originals unavailable to the public. Colon copied those images just in time.
The historic footage in “Beyond Fortlandia” is indeed remarkable. It follows Ford’s effort to strip 1 million hectares of Amazonian forests of their indigenous flora – including huge trees – and unsuccessfully replant the land with rubber trees on the Tapajós River, a primary tributary of the Amazon. The attempt at monoculture preceded the huge, flat, soybean plantations that later filled the region, taking over 70,000 square kilometers by 2006. Today, Brazil is the largest exporter of soy in the world.
The son of a Brazilian mother and American father, Colon speaks Portuguese and Spanish as well as German and English. His five trips to the Amazon for “Beyond Fordlandia” were made possible by UW-Madison’s Latin American, Caribbean and Iberian Studies Program, the Nelson Institute’s Center for Culture, History, and Environment (CHE), and the university’s Department of Spanish and Portuguese.
On one trip during the 2016 spring break, Colon invited a group of university professors to travel with him and to see firsthand the challenges of the region. UW-Madison Spanish and Portugese professor David Hildner narrated Colon’s script for “Beyond Fordlandia.”
Colon plans to be on hand during the screenings in Beloit to expand on the film’s environmental themes.
“‘Beyond Fordlandia,’ although it’s local, discusses something that is global,” the filmmaker said. “It’s very difficult for you not to be touched by what is portrayed.”
“I love the Amazon. The people, the culture,” he said. “And I’m happy I’m able to tell these stories and think about the future. Because their future is our future.”