MUBI is showing Charles Fairbanks & Saul Kak's The Modern Jungle (2016) as part of a collaboration with the Film Society of Lincoln Center for their Art of the Real festival. The film is playing May 3 - June 2, 2017 in most countries around the world.
I met my co-director Saul Kak in 2011, while teaching video at a university in Chiapas, Mexico. Saul came to me with a short film script that elaborated what he calls the Zoque cosmovision: the beliefs and worldview of his culture. The short film did not pan out, but one scene was marvelous, so we started shooting documentary with two people Saul had cast for the short.
Carmen lives peacefully, in harmony with the seasons and the jungle, on a parcel she was granted by the land-rights movement inspired by her martyred husband. Her compadre Juan is a shaman who suffers from a hernia that his incantations cannot cure. Frustrated by the Mexican medical system after a succession of referrals, Juan becomes convinced that he’ll be healed by a pyramid-scheme-marketed nutritional supplement. When Juan approaches me for help buying into the pyramid scheme, our film also becomes a meditation on ethics, money, and the documentary encounter.
From the beginning, Saul and I wanted to dignify Zoque culture through the language of contemporary cinema. We also wanted to show the actual struggles of these marginalized people. Far from the touristic, political, and economic centers of Chiapas, and also from the networked solidarity of the Zapatista movement, the Zoque are among the most vulnerable people in the poorest region of Mexico.
Only thirty-some years ago did this region become accessible by car. Spanish and Catholicism, schools and Mexican nationalism, TV and popular culture all flooded in at the same time, so young people today grew up in a completely different world—and culture—from that of their elders.
In the Zoque language, Zoqui means snail and Zoque can be translated as “people of the snail.” Dreams have cosmic and existential significance for the Zoque, as a way to draw on—and tap into—the wisdom of ancestors. But Saul has said, and our film suggests, that television is changing the way people dream: people today are less interested in their Zoque ancestors and traditions, as they’re increasingly motivated by individualistic, consumer desires. Juan’s vulnerability to the OmniLife salesmen is a clear example of the mystical aspects of capitalism, for the commodity he fetishizes is an industrial product, sold through stories told in his native language of Zoque.
In our view, the celebrity CEO of OmniLife is not just a charlatan industrialist whose fortune was made by exploiting the poorest and sickest people in Latin America. He’s also an Evangelical Capitalist, whose tactics of multi-level marketing are designed to initiate people like Juan into the cults of Capitalism and Consumerism, in the few remote areas where they’re not already the dominant religion.