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Amazon Women

As the chroniclers of the time would have it, when the expedition led by Francisco de Orellana navigated the great river from Peru toward the Atlantic, they were confronted by a tribe of female warriors who fought more fiercely and bravely than any male “indian” they had yet come across. It is in homage to these women and their resemblance to the warrior women of Greek mythology that the river was baptized the Amazon.Today, it is generally agreed that this account was a flight of fancy, or that the Amazons of Brazil were no more than a fever-induced illusion. However, a rare few insist that their descendants are among us, hidden somewhere among the rivers and forests of the vast Amazon delta.I believe I have found them.


A documentary in development (1x70min & 1x25min)

Amazon Women – Teaser from Gavin Andrews on Vimeo.

Neither the withering equatorial heat nor the noise of speeding vehicles on the busy road outside her street-level workshop seem to bother Trindade. On the table around her lie braids of human hair and scraps of silicone fabric. She painstakingly weaves the strands of hair into the silicone, in bunches of three or four strands at a time. At this rate it will take her almost a week to complete the wig. The wig weaving machine that is her dream purchase is still just that, a dream. The new fabric is itself a big step forward for her. It will be less likely to irritate the skin after prolonged use unlike regular fabrics, as she knows from personal experience. After all, she’s had to wear a wig since she was nine years old to cover the ragged scarring over 90% of her scalp, from her eyebrows to the nape of her neck.

The last fifty years or so (coinciding with the predominance of motorized craft along the rivers of the Amazon, displacing the wind- and human-powered vessels once so common) has seen the emergence of a phenomenon known as “scalping”. It’s what happens when the long hair of passengers (almost exclusively female, and many of these young girls) inadvertently wraps around the exposed, spinning drive shafts of the small wooden vessels and is violently ripped out at the roots, resulting in the loss of sections of the scalp and sometimes ears or parts of the face and neck, causing permanent disfigurement and sometimes even death. Requiring years of treatment and extended hospital stays, the women find themselves discriminated against, regarded as freaks or monsters and more often than not uprooted from their families and communities.

The numbers are scarce and unreliable, but it is estimated that there have been more than a thousand incidents of this kind throughout the Brazilian Amazon in recent decades, concentrated in the states of Para and Amapa at the mouth of the Amazon River.  Still, as a phenomenon it is largely unknown to the general public. Only recently has this “invisible population” – some now organized in associations to amplify their collective voice – made strides in drawing the attention of authorities to their plight and to the need to put an end to this tragedy. A new law prohibiting uncovered drive shafts combined with more rigorous enforcement by the port authorities lends some hope.

While commonly referred to as vítimas de escalpelamento (“victims of scalping”) or escalpeladas, it’s hard to think of Trindade as a victim. She faces her predicament with courage and a scrappy rebelliousness that has turned her into a kind of poster girl for the local movement. Once consumed by shame to the point of paying a neighbor to represent her at parent-teacher meetings at her son’s school, she now candidly speaks about her experiences to packed rooms and school auditoriums. Her friend Rosinete – current president of their local Association – is another example. An otherwise shy and soft-spoken individual, she’s bloomed into a combative albeit reluctant community leader. I prefer to think of them as survivors… at times, even warriors.

Various news reports and some public service broadcasts have been made about the plight of the vitimas de escalpelamento, but Trindade and Rosinete are unsatisfied with what they’ve seen so far. They want to tell their “own story” to the world, and that is what I hope to help them do with this film.
Amazon Women is a character-driven documentary that will follow Trindade and Rosinete, among others, during the months leading up to and during a significant event in their lives: government sponsored reconstructive surgery that for many is a promise of the return of self-esteem and social acceptance. Along the way, we will listen to the stories behind their accidents and witness their struggle for recognition and reintegration.  We will follow the women from the river communities from which they’ve been exiled, and the Amazon city where they concentrate the fight for their rights and the eradication of scalping, to Brasilia, the nation’s capital, where they perform what for them is the ultimate act of courage: removing their wigs in front of the politicians and the nation’s press, baring their scars for the world to see in a poignant effort to draw attention to their cause.

The film will also delve into the status of women in the Brazilian Amazon – caught in a tense struggle between traditional roles and new opportunities – and address the topic of image and ideals of beauty in a country that leads the world in optative cosmetic surgery. To be filmed in diverse locations, urban and rural, along both shores of the Amazon delta, the great river will serve as backdrop and highway on this Amazon “rivertrip”.

Yet the relevance of this film is not restricted to Brazil and the Amazon. It’s about what happens when authorities everywhere neglect the most remote and marginalized populations, permitting through lack of fiscalization and social policy the continuation of a silent tragedy and how – through the strength that comes with organization and union – these marginalized and once ignored peoples can make a difference and start to take control of their own futures. It’s also about how women continue to struggle under the burdens of gender discrimination and prejudice, as well as expectations of beauty and self-worth that  impose stifling limits to women’s chances for social mobility.

As a Canadian documentarist living in the Brazilian state of Amapa since 2000, ever on the lookout for interesting stories, I sometimes wonder at how the plight of the survivors of scalping managed to evade me for so long. It’s a telling sign of just how isolated and marginalized these women are. I only learned about their struggle a few years ago, through the efforts of a local congresswoman to shine light on the situation and effect change in government policy. Just under a year ago, I started to accompany Trindade and Rosinete as they organize the hundred or so members of the Association who stand to benefit from corrective surgery. The events that have unfolded since then only serve to reinforce the idea that I am a privileged witness to the ongoing struggle of true Amazon Women.

Story Summary

Amazon Women is the story of Trindade, Rosinete and countless women like them who (as survivors of scalping or not) struggle against ancient prejudices and the stifling weight of tradition and gender discrimination. Our point of departure is the state of Amapa – more specifically, the capital city, Macapa, located at the junction of the Equator with the Amazon River – one of the few places where the struggle to end scalping and to recognize the rights of survivors is relatively advanced. The roll of main characters include, but is not necessarily restricted to:

Trindade – Abandoned by her family after the accident on her father’s boat, she was raised by the staff of the hospital where she spent years in treatment. Ever the optimist, she is preparing to found her own small business and employ her peers in the manufacture of wigs for survivors of scalping and cancer. She understands more than most the need that many women like her have to feel beautiful and accepted by society. As a young mother, she could not bring herself to face the world, such was her embarrassment. It took the loving encouragement of her young son to bring her out of depression and confront the world. In 2005, at the invitation of congresswoman Capiberibe, Trindade represented her fellow escalpeladas in Brasilia, where she removed her wig in front of a shocked Congress, provoking the President to introduce a change to the constitution to allow survivors like her to receive compensation and disability benefits.

Rosinete – recently rose to assume the presidency the local Association. Now in her last year of college, she plans to return to her hometown of Breves, on the Amazon river, to show the young women there that it is possible to surmount even the gravest of life’s setbacks. Rosi’s dream is to structure the Association to be self-sufficient. At home, she makes dolls with human hair that she sells to raise awareness and funds for the Association. She is married to one of the few male victims of scalping with whom she shares a relationship of love, mutual support and a newborn son.

Marcilene – Even at 7 years old, she is not the youngest survivor of scalping in the region. As one of the lucky ones whose family continues to support fully despite such a “monstrous” disability, she continues to live in the remote archipelago of Bailique where she occasionally has to travel between communities in the same boat in which she lost her hair. At school, she is the victim of bullying, yet I never see her without a smile on her face, nor without the little doll that Rosi made for her.

Other inspirational women make up the roll of secondary characters who will help us better understand the challenges faced by the region’s women:

Janete Capiberibe – Congresswoman representing the state of Amapa, she is respected for championing the causes of marginalized segments of society: prostitutes, traditional midwives, victims of scalping… Proponent of a recent law aimed at eradicating scalping accidents, and president of the Commission for Navigation Safety in the Amazon, Janete faces on a daily basis the soul-numbing indifference of the nation’s lawmakers as she tries to sensitize them about the need for more funding and effective policies.

Mara Regia – Journalist and radio personality, she captains the women’s programming on Radio Amazonia. 2013 will mark 30 years of producing content and fielding letters from all over the region; as such she understands more than almost anyone the dreams and anxieties, the daily problems and sweet victories, of the women of the Amazon. In 2012, she began a radio campaign to raise funds and donations of human hair for the Association in Amapa.

The film will be structured along the interweaving storylines of three principal characters:

Trindade is settling into her new role as entrepreneur. Between the day to day struggle of consolidating her wig-making business, she still finds time to campaign for the eradication of scalping. She usually attends to recent victims in the hospital emergency ward, lending moral support and a shoulder to cry on; she dreams of the day when she will no longer fear that the next phone call may be to request her presence at yet another hospital bedside. We revisit her trip to Brasilia where she shocked the Congress into action and set off a chain reaction that continues to the present day. We eventually follow Trindade to face the ghosts of her past, returning to the city of Belem in Para state, where she spent years in hospitals recovering from her brutal accident, and to her home town where it all began, to face the family that abandoned her.

We follow Rosinete through her daily activities as president of the Association, representing her peers in negotiations with the federal and state authorities on issues as diverse as social security benefits and post-operative care. The growing frustration is evident: the Association’s headquarters is a crumbling three room building overlooking the local port, and in bad need of repair and basic necessities like a computer and telephone line. The bureaucracy is endless and the results slow to emerge, but she keeps on fighting. Still, she is one of the lucky ones who has a safe port with her loving family and a home which, while small and humble, is her own. She has plans to expand the production of her dolls, and we will help her and Trindade raise funds for their respective initiatives through crowd-funding campaign.

In Bailique, we accompany Marcilene and her family as they deal with the difficulties accentuated by the prejudices of a small, isolated community. The trauma of the accident is still fresh in her mind as she deals with the growing pains and challenges typical of children her age.

The various principal storylines will be interconnected by common landmark events and themes:

  • Through the intervention of Congresswoman Janete and Promoter Luciene, the government of Amapa state  is offering reconstructive surgery to eligible candidates. Surgeons of the Brazilian Society of Plastic Surgeons are volunteering their time and expertise to return a semblance of normality to the physical aspects of many survivors, but the process is not without risks and post-operative hardships.
  • Meanwhile, Rosi and Trindade dream of ways of raising funds for their Association and promoting awareness of their cause. Their latest idea is to produce a calendar, with their fellow survivors as calendar girls. We have agreed to help them with this initiative, and together with psychologists and specialists in body image, will organize a workshop where local photographers will work with the women to produce the photos for the calendar and a photography exhibition. We will attempt to challenge the predominant concepts of beauty and self-esteem in the country of the bikini and samba.

Helping to advance the narrative and fill in background context, our secondary characters will be our guides to understanding the reality of the region’s women. Mara Regia, icon of journalism for women in the Amazon, is a frequent visitor to Amapa as she brings regular updates of the progress of her radio campaign; the radio reports that she produces (which will serve as a narrative device in the film) are candid and heartfelt accounts of her encounters with women like Trindade and Rosi. We will also follow Mara on journalistic expeditions to remote riverside villages where we are acquainted with the daily trials and tribulations of the womenfolk, while Congresswoman Janete will lead us through the halls of the Brazilian Congress and into meetings with Navy brass.

The film will maintain the original dialogue in Portuguese with English subtitles.