When it comes to TV dramas, surely even the most determined addict has now been treated to more television series set in hospitals, offices and the corridors of power than they could possibly wade through. Why not mix things up then by delving into the inner workings of an environmental NGO? If that NGO happens to be attempting to save the Amazon rainforest, headed by four Brazilian women not afraid to the break the rules and spar with a giant mining corporation – who’s complaining?
Split into ten 45-minute episodes, the first series of Aruanas follows the lives of four activists at an eponymous NGO. Their goal is to prevent the illegal actions of an unscrupulous mining company working in the fictional region of Cari, where people are mysteriously becoming sick. Each of the protagonists plays a different role in combatting the company, revealing her strengths and weaknesses along the way and highlighting the numerous layers of corruption at play.
First, there’s Verônica (Taís Araújo). As a lawyer she spends her time navigating the upper echelons of power in the courts of Brasilia, Sao Paulo and Amazonas. An at-times ruthless leader of the NGO (she remarks that if the intern ever gets into the office later than her, she can leave), she is control personified – until you peek into her personal life. Then there’s unpredictable Luiza (Leandra Leal) – the most stereotypical activist, she frequently puts herself in life-threatening situations to get important information. Journalist Natalie (Débora Falabella) is a determined story teller who introduces the viewer to one of the indigenous tribes of the Amazon (who also become involved as activists). And finally, there’s Clara (Thainé Duarte), the new intern. Brave, troubled, idealistic, she is the eyes of the audience, entering the bewildering world of hard-core activism for the first time, revealing that even ‘good’ institutions come with their problems.
Pitched as an ‘environmental thriller’, in terms of pure entertainment Aruanas is as good as anything currently doing the rounds on Netflix or Amazon. There are compromising dossiers, egocentric businessmen, threatening notes, power-dressing lobbyists, bodies in trunks and frequent brushes with death. In an early scene, set to the thumping back-track of Imagine Dragon’s Believer, the fictional activists shout the names of others who have died defending environmental rights. It sets the tone for what’s to come: a fast-paced, fast-talking drama with a real sense of danger at its heart.
If it all sounds a bit far-fetched, it’s not. For more than three years Brazil has occupied the world’s number one sport for the most activists killed each year. In 2017, 57 were killed, 80 per cent of them specifically being environmental protestors. The plot of Aruanas is based on the real testimonies of environmental activists and was developed in partnership with over 20 global NGOs including Amnesty International and Greenpeace. In Brazil, somewhat unbelievably, the plot of Aruanas is not an exaggeration.
On the other hand, this is no documentary. Between scenes of activism and danger, the characters also navigate the sort of precarious personal lives that only fictional characters could ever hope to juggle. Relationship problems and affairs are high on the agenda, which lowers the tone, but in a good way. This might be a TV series with a message, but it was built to be entertaining and that was a good decision. By focusing on entertainment it’s all the more likely to get its message across.
Aruanas represents a new kind of TV series, one that practices what it preaches. Produced by Globo (a Brazilian TV network) and Maria Farinha Films – the latter is the first B Corp production company in Latin America (a certification that declares a business puts equal weight behind ethical purpose and profit-making). The company claims that 90 per cent of the costumes were recycled or reused, 47 per cent of the crew were women and that the cast includes 131 bit-part actors and 2,000 extras and background actors, of which 33.8 per cent live in the Amazonian rainforest region. The series proves that TV with a message doesn’t have to be dry and that great TV can benefit the people it portrays.
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