John Boorman's 1985 film "The Emerald Forest" begins with the point of view of a white family out on a picnic. Bill Markham (Powers Boothe) is the supervisor of a dam construction site on the edge of the Amazon rainforest, which looms menacingly. He warns his children to stay out of the forest, since there are dangerous things inside it. By the end of the film, the point of view becomes entirely reversed. It is the forest that is the safe haven and it is the outside "civilized" world that is savage.
His son Tommy (played by Charley Boorman, the director's son) strays into the forest where he meets several members of the "Invisible People," including the chief. They take him with him back into the deep forest, while his distraught parents organize the construction workers into a search party.
When we next see Tommy, he is an adolescent. Clad only in a loin-cloth, he has become "Tomme." Side by side with his new father, the chief (Rui Polonah), he is learning the fine points of hunting and fishing with a bow and arrow. As it turns out, the chief had taken pity on the boy and spirited him away from the "Termite People." He decided that he would be better off in "the World," as the "Invisible People" describe the rainforest. The "Termite People" are like insects since they have been tearing down the big trees.
Tommy's father has never lost hope that he can discover his son and organizes an expedition into the heart of the rainforest. He runs into a war-party of the "Fierce People," who pursue him. He eventually lies exhausted near a river, after having been wounded by one of their spears. There he meets his son, who manages to rescue him from his attackers. The two make their way back to the "Invisible People's" camp.
After his father recovers from his wounds, he tells Tomme that he wants to take him back with him to the city, but the youth explains that he has been in "the World" too long. He belongs there now. Then the father turns to the chief and asks him to order the boy to return with him. The chief shrugs his shoulders and says that if the boy wanted to return, he would have agreed to do so. Furthermore, he would not be chief any longer if he told members of his tribe to do something that "they did not want to do." This admission gets to the very heart of the difference between "primitive" society and our own. In our society, it is normal for the state, employer, teachers and religious officials to order us around every day of our lives. The high price of civilization is repression.
Next we find ourselves at an outpost at the edge of the forest that houses a brothel to serve construction workers. They are working on various development projects which have sprung up near the dam of the opening scene, now up and running. The "Fierce People" are bargaining with the white men who run the brothel. If they bring him Indian women whom he can prostitute, he will give them machine-guns in exchange that they can use against their enemies, including the "Invisible People." We eventually learn that the Bill Markham's crew has build a dam on the territory of the "Fierce People" and that their degraded behavior is one of the unforeseen consequences of "development."
The "Fierce People" launch a raid on Tomme's village and take all the young women back to the brothel, where they become go-go dancers and prostitutes at the point of a gun. Among the women is Tomme's wife Kachiri (Dira Paes). Tomme organizes a group to rescue the women but fail because bow and arrows are no match for machine-guns.
He decides that there is only one person who can help him and that is his biological father. He leaves "the World" and crosses a river that brings him into a large city near the rainforest, where Bill Markham lives. We see the city through the eyes of the Indian and it is a horrible place. When he gets off his canoe, a gang of drunken, pistol-shooting slum dwellers chase after him for sport. The irony is that his pursuers are originally from the rainforest themselves and, like the "Fierce People," have no place to go after losing their land except the city.
One of the slum-dwellers rescues him from the mob and allows him into his shack. He tells him, "I know you. You are one of the Invisible People. Do you know my people? We were the Turtle People." While the man is speaking, we hear the sounds of bottles crashing, boomboxes blasting and violent arguments through the walls of the shack. Tomme's face expresses fright and disgust at the notion that people have to live this way. Boorman's film has succeeded, since we share this feeling with him. We want to be back in the forest away from such a horrible place.
Boorman took enormous risks with this film. He obviously left the task of presenting a straightforward social and political account to documentary makers. He is much more interested in trying to translate his material into something approaching legend. There are numerous scenes in the film when he tries to evoke a non-scientific understanding of the world. Tomme searches for magic stones that have the power to make the members of his tribe invisible. We also see things through his eyes, when he goes through an initiation ceremony. He turns into his totem, an eagle, and flies through the air.
At the conclusion of the film, we learn that at one time 4 million indigenous people lived in the rainforests of Latin American. Now there are less than 150,000. The final scenes of the film make a powerful, dramatic case for how urgent it is to defend the human rights of the remaining tribes. While it is too late to turn back the clock, it is not too late to fight for the survival of this important part of our human race right now.