21st Century Cowboy; Meet John Carter

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Based on a true story, Frontier shows us a slice of Amazonian life, as well as the causes and impact of deforestation. I saw this first hand when I was in Mato Grosso in 2007, filming the series ‘Jimmy’s Global Harvest’ for the BBC. While there I witnessed one key moment which inspired me to bring this story to a wider audience.

The presenter was Jimmy Doherty and the premise of the program was how Brazil was going to feed the world. Through this production I met John Carter, a charismatic American livestock farmer. John was fed up with corruption and bribery, and had mobilized a 200,000 strong alliance of landowners and ranchers, determined to make a change in Brazil.

John had squatters camped out on his land, and invited us to see the problem first hand. I didn’t expect him to pull a gun out of his attaché case and proceed to arm up. Myself and the crew all suddenly realised this was far more serious than it looked. My mind started running  through BBC guidelines on how to manage a potential shootout.

Through this experience I saw the nuances behind Amazon deforestation and the chain of desperation that leads to it. Normally the squatter is some homeless destitute, who has nothing, and is etching out a living. What’s behind the squatter is something far more sinister. The squatter has been put there by land grabbers; what in effect is Mafioso organized crime. Most landowners are intimidated by this and pay squatters to leave their property. The squatter has nothing to lose – if he wins he gains some land, if he doesn’t the land grabbers will move in anyway and sell off the rest of the property.

Behind the squatter and his tethered pig is a procession of corrupt officials, police and judges, all in on the land grab. It’s commonly cloaked in a veneer of Marxists ideals, how the poor have no place to live, how the landowners are colonialists lording it over everyone else. But really it’s a scheme to exhort money from ranchers and farmers – and it’s been going for years. It’s no surprise that many landowners have hired gunmen to patrol their boundaries. What’s more, it discourages ranchers from being responsible and sustainable in their farming. Leaving forest, though sensible farming practice, can encourage squatters and illegal loggers to move in. Clearing land is one way farmers can protect themselves.

So then the big question is how to turn this into a drama. Ultimately the drama comes out of struggle that takes place between the hero and the circumstances that sooner or later he has to confront. I decided to focus the film on the true story of John and his wife Kika; who returned to her home country Brazil to live the Frontier life. They embark on what many see as the ultimate dream; to live off the grid in paradise. This paradise soon turns into a living hell, and their relationship is pushed to breaking point. The question at the heart of the story is “do we run and have an easy life or fight to make things right?”.

Landowners in the Amazon are challenged on every side. It’s lawless world, with squatters trying to steal your land, corrupt officials looking for bribes, starving indigenous tribes stealing your cattle. Jaguar, homeless from the destruction of habitat, destroy your herd. People around the world judge Brazilian cattle ranchers, but there’s money to be made if you just pull down the forest and turn it to pasture for the cattle to roam. In such an unjust world, you can hardly blame people for trying to survive.

FRONTIER is a real crime story with an urgent message. We like to think we understand the Amazon, and damn all that harm it. We cast a simplistic morality over those who live there Rather than judging these characters, I wanted to look at the economics that drives them, the chain of desperation and corruption that ultimately leads to the loss of one of the world’s most precious resources. The reasons are much more nuanced than individual greed, and there is a workable solution. Ultimately, John’s story is one of finding hope in hell.  

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