‘We’ve made a really heavy canoe, quite a long way away from the water, and we’re clearly poorly equipped to move it,’ reflects artist James Trundle. The tone and content sums up this film: a slightly chaotic yet engaging story about two young Brits pushing themselves far out of their comfort zone; felling a tree and constructing a canoe in the remote Amazon, before attempting to use it to paddle their way out of the jungle.
Despite the emphasis on the canoe itself, and the journey it takes after its construction, the real story of the film is that of canoe-making guru, Bay Nenquiwi, a Huaorani hunter living with his family in Apaika, part of Ecuador’s Yasuni reserve. This is where Trundle and his filmmaker accomplice, Benjamin Sadd, opted to base themselves for a month, living as their hosts do – from banana broth breakfasts to basket weaving sessions – while undertaking the not-insignificant challenge of choosing the correct tree and subsequently crafting a traditional boat entirely by hand.
Despite their two months in the rainforest, the difference between the way Trundle and Sadd manage their time in the wilderness, and the utterly holistic relationship Nenquiwi shares with the natural environment, is truly striking. From his hunting blow-darts poisoned with toxic vines, to the knowledge passed down through the generations regarding how to build a river-worthy canoe from scratch, he is a man totally comfortable in a landscape most would find at best daunting, at worst inhospitable. Most poignantly, when scraping out the inside of the felled tree, he observes that the wood ‘bleeds when you cut it’, cradling a handful of what looks for all the world like a pool of blood. Hence the name of this particular tree: ‘blood of the chicken’.
After a small amount of last minute stuffing-of-t-shirts-into-holes, it isn’t long before the pair find themselves the owners of their very own traditional dugout canoe, all set and ready for adventure. After the intense experience of living with the family in Apaika, and the insights into the traditional rainforest lifestyles it entails, the river journey itself is comparatively calm, almost tranquil. They are treated to the sights of flamboyant birds, wild monkeys, and a vast array of colourful insects as they drift through this uniquely biodiverse part of the world, dealing with the usual difficulties of bank-side camping that accompanies most river travel.
Eventually, they reach the end of the Rio Tiputini, join the far wider Rio Napo, and reach their final destination, the town of Rocafuerte, situated on the border with Peru. Here, their dramatic journey comes to a surprisingly sudden end, a feeling which clearly hits them as hard as it does the audience. Saying goodbye to the canoe they spent two months building and paddling in is clearly a difficult undertaking.
Crucially, the film depicts the dramatic change occurring in the Amazon rainforest. Not long after the conclusion of the adventure, word reaches Trundle and Sadd that, due to Ecuador’s decision to begin exploiting oil resources in the Yasuni reserve, Nenquiwi and his family have left Apaika. The place they enjoyed camping in the wild has now been converted into an oil camp. What began as an audacious desire to record a carefree jungle adventure, instead captures the final days of this region of pristine natural rainforest, wrenched suddenly from isolation into the cut-and-thrust of the modern world. The glimpses we, as an audience, enjoyed of Bay Nenquiwi and his family embracing a lifestyle so different from our own, become ever more valuable, as that world continues to shrink.
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