On Avatar: digital commerce as activist pedagogy?

Contemporary media allow digital milieus to function as transnational classrooms, a multidimensional public sphere accessible to people with Internet connection. This generates ethical dilemmas, including the right to represent groups with incomplete civic rights and restricted access to representational centres. James Cameron’s Avatar (2009)-Amazon Watch (2011) marriage responds to this phenomenon, through its uses of digital communication as both profitable enterprise and activist means. The film narrated the interplanetary corporate destruction of another moon’s (Pandora) ecosystem and civilisation for its natural resources. But in search of interesting locales to photograph, Avatar’s Computer Generating Image-makers stumbled upon the tribes of the Amazonian rainforest whose culture and livelihood face extinction due to a government-backed multi-billion project to build the Belo Monte hydroelectric dam. Director Cameron, producer Jon Landau and the crew joined forces with anthropologists, tribesmen, regional and (trans)national activists to cancel these plans. Today Avatar’s digital contribution to the movement combines commercial and activist enterprise, assisting at once in the global mobility of the cause and the promotion of Cameron’s industry merchandise.


The generation of videos for the dissemination of Avatar-led activism against Belo Monte appears to draw upon Avatar’s core narrative text (‘archplot’ [McKee 1999: 41-2]) that questions human progress building upon destruction. Cameron himself appears in one of these open-access videos (promotional of his relevant documentary) confessing that he always wanted to travel to Brazil’s virgin territories. Elsewhere, he is depicted amongst indigenous populations like Avatar’s simulated soldier Jake or an ethnographic traveller-investigator, uncovering evidence of coordinated crimes against localities. Sigourney Weaver’s video (Amazonwatch.org, 15 August 2011) adopts a humanitarian hermeneutics, prompting viewers to sympathise with the cause. Having established herself professionally as a global icon (Alien’s (1979, 1986, 1992, 1997) Ellen Ripley hired by a corrupt corporation she ends up fighting against), she also allows connections with global feminist discourse within academia and in popular culture. Together, Cameron and Weaver reconstruct the archetypical ethical conundrum of developmental activism: does privileged-professional intervention limit or enhance indigenous action? (Hobart 1993) Is it merely self-serving or sincere action on behalf of the ‘weak’? Can we speak of corporate humanism that educates viewers? These issues were read against old racial-primitivist ideologies (Newitz, 18 December 2009), reproducing the ‘white (wo)man’s burden’ and duty to save the dispossessed from suffering. The Amazonian tribes in question are, after all, one colour skin darker than privileged metropolitan Brazilians.


The Avatar project sustains a scapal paradox pointing to multidirectional mobilities of ideals, ideas and action (Appadurai 1990; Urry 2007). The ‘thanks’ extended to Cameron by indigenous tribes clashed with film critiques as a racist fantasy and even the indignation of businessmen in the Amazonian city of Alta Mira, who suspect that the motivations of media business goes deeper than we might think (Hirsch, 12 May 2011). On a meta-level, social science scholars might consider how digital activism effectively simulates the cosmopolitan paradox of knowledge economies: Western technology always appears to control communication tools, to ‘invite’ alternative-indigenous worldviews to partake in global audio-visual mobilities. A devil’s advocate would raise other, situated questions: did Avatar’s developmental agents really need Belo Monte to gain in public recognition, or did local activism actually gain from the involvement of Hollywood celebrities fronting the protest photos that populate today Flickr’s collections (Amazon Watch, 12 April 2010)? It seems that ‘image-making’ (as recognition method) locked Hollywood professionals and indigenous activists into a game of interdependency, whereby cinematic simulation sets a social precedent to follow. Cameron’s digital lens merges fabulist creativity with political commitment in an ethical plight worthy of further investigation.





A Message from Pandora. (undated). Take action to defend Pandoras on earth. Retrieved from: http://messagefrompandora.org.


Amazon Watch. (12 April 2010). ‘Belo Monte Dam, Xingu River’, International Rivers Flickr Photostream. Retrieved from: http://www.flickr.com/photos/internationalrivers/4522089264/.


Amazon Watch-Avatar (2011). Stop the Belo Monte Monster Dam. Retrieved from: http://amazonwatch.org/work/belo-monte-dam.


Amazonwatch.org (15 August 2011). ‘Defending the rivers- Belo Monte Dam’, with Sigourney Weaver, Google Earth/Avatar. URL: http://www.avatar-movie.org/video/12618154/Defending+the+Rivers+bel....


Appadurai, A. (1990). Disjuncture and difference in the global cultural economy, Public Culture, 2, 2, 1-24.


Hirsch, T. (12 May 2011). ‘Costing the Earth-The Real Avatar’, BBC Radio 4. Retrieved from: http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b010y0t5/Costing_the_Earth_The....


Hobart, M. (ed.). (1993). An Anthropological Critique of Development. London: Routledge.


McKee, R. (1999). Story. London: Methuen.


Newitz, A. (18 December 2009). ‘When will white people stop making movies like “Avatar”?’, Io9. Retrieved from: http://io9.com/5422666/when-will-white-people-stop-making-movies-li....


Urry, J. (2007). Mobilities. Cambridge: Polity.

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Comment by Lucas on February 26, 2012 at 5:27pm

Great, thought-provoking post. Thanks for sharing.


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