Murder of rainforest hero inspires TV documentary

The Associated Press

LOS ANGELES The story of Chico Mendes, the Brazilian peasant whose murder sparked worldwide outrage over the depletion of the Amazon rain forest, is finally reaching the screen.

After the 44-year-old Mendes was shot down on his doorstep in 1988, producers vied for rights to film the story of his crusade against the cattle ranchers and land speculators who despoiled his native land and the government that permitted it to happen.

Britisher David Puttnam is the apparent winner. He is the executive producer of "The Burning Season," scheduled to premiere Saturday on HBO. Hollywood veteran John Frankenheimer ("The Manchurian Candidate" "Birdman of Alcatraz") directed a cast that includes Raul Julia, Sonia Braga, Edward James Olmos and Esai Morales.

A weary Julia talked about the film in a telephone interview from New York. He had arrived the night before from Australia, where he had filmed "Streetfighter," a live version of the video game.

The actor said he had read the news of Mendes' murder and its aftermath. When he became involved in "The Burning Season," he learned more about Mendes, who founded the Xapuri Rubber Tappers' Union, by studying film documentaries and other material.

What kind of a man was Mendes?

"He was just a regular guy, full of life and its enjoyment," Julia said. "People liked him. He had a great sense of humor. But he was dedicated to saving the forest, especially around the area where he grew up, in the footsteps of his father and grandfather. He was very involved in saving the forest for himself and his people.

"I don't know if he was a born crusader, but his livelihood was going to be eliminated by the ranchers and the government. He just had to do something to survive. As he evolved, he got to the point where he wasn't just thinking about himself. He was concerned for his people, and was willing to give his life which he did."

The actor relished the character because "he's an ordinary person who becomes a hero. The film not only shows what has happened to the rain forest, but also how a human being under the right circumstances has a choice: to make a difference beyond himself, or to retreat.

"He always had the chance to let go of the whole thing. He was told he could go to the States and live there. He knew that he would probably get killed, but he decided to stay and keep on fighting.

"That's one of the main things the film is about: whether to go on fighting or go to the beach. That's what makes a hero someone who actually makes a difference."

"The Burning Season" was not filmed in the Amazon jungle, where filmmaking would have been difficult. Instead, the producers chose a privately owned jungle in the Veracruz state of Mexico. It's fortunate that Julia likes hot weather temperatures ranged as high as 107.

"It was tough to keep up your energy," he admitted. "But in a way, the heat was in keeping with the film."

A no-nonsense director, Frankenheimer somehow completed the film in six weeks, despite the heat, remoteness and complicated action.

"He kept moving things along, and that's what we needed," Julia said. "He shot a lot with the (hand-held) Steadicam. With a television film, you don't have the time that you have with a theatrical release. Frankenheimer works very fast, with not too many setups and closeups. It's great acting-wise, because it's like doing a scene in the theater."

Julia, 54, credits Errol Flynn's "Robin Hood" with inspiring him to seek an acting career. "It was one of the first movies I saw, and I decided that was the life for me." After growing up in Puerto Rico and studying at the university there, he left the island for Manhattan.

Soon, he connected with the late Joseph Papp and the New York Shakespeare Festival and performed in a series of classic plays. He appeared in musicals ("Where's Charley?" "Nine"), dramas ("Dracula") and comedies ("Design for Living.")

Julia also has demonstrated his versatility in films. Among them: "Tequila Sunrise," "Havana," "Moon over Parador," "Kiss of the Spider Woman," "The Addams Family" and "The Rookie."

He is no stranger to causes. He and his wife Merel are dedicated to The Hunger Project, which aims to eliminate hunger by the year 2000.

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