February 18, 2012

Morcegos in The River

In Los Ciegos, the third installment of The River (airdate: 2/14/12), the explorers encounter their first Amazon Indians.

The crew is on another of their foolhardy jungle treks in search of Dr. Emmet Cole. They reach a cave and enter it. First they find a dead missionary's body--disemboweled and with the eyes and heart cut out. The know-it-all girl explains that it's the work of the Morcegos, a local tribe.

Further on they spot what look like glowing fireflies. But the things are actually the shiny eyes of bats. The bats swarm out of the cave, driving the explorers away.

A posting on Percy Fawcett, an Amazon explorer who disappeared in 1925, describes the Morcegos:Fawcett had expected to run into a fierce tribe near here called the Morcegos, cannibalistic ape-men who lived in the ground and hunted at night. When I mentioned them, Vitor said, “Yes, the bat tribe. Their eyes couldn't stand the light and they only came out at night. They lived in northern Mato Grosso, but I never went there." Ethnologists believe the Morcegos were a myth conjured up by Indian imaginations.The explorers don't connect the Morcegos to the bats. And neither did I until I read this posting. So The River is using a fictional Amazon tribe with subtle references to their legendary origin. So far, so good.

Morcegos give "evil eye"

While the explorers sleep, we get a glimpse of the Morcegos. They've covered themselves in mud, which makes them look like blue-white specters. This happens enough in the media that it's almost a stereotype. The idea is that "savages" are so strange and inhuman that they resemble zombies, not flesh-and-blood beings.

The Morcegos leave "evil eye" symbols next to each of the sleeping explorers. The next day, Clark the producer shoots at something in the forest and kills a wild boar. He treats the animal's death as a joke.

Soon everyone starts losing their vision. The girl explains that the Morcegos are testing them with blindness. Only if they're worthy will the Morcegos let them survive and pass through their territory.

Some of the crew members retreat to the boat while others search for a remedy. The Morcegos stalk both groups. They pound on the ship's hatches, apparently ready to murder the interlopers. But Clark offers to sacrifice himself and the Morcegos, satisfied, disappear.


If you think about it, the Morcegos aren't evil. True, they kill trespassers horrifically, but only if they fail the test. Their punishments may be harsh, but at least they give trespassers a chance. They're merely enforcing their strict moral code.

That's a conclusion you may come to upon reflection. If you go by superficial
appearances, the Morcegos are murderous savages. They killed the missionary horribly for no obvious reason. They camouflage themselves to look like dead men. They leave "evil eye" messages. They threaten strangers without communicating their intentions.

In short, they resemble the deadly beast-men in every other stereotypical movie and TV show. I doubt the average viewer will think, "Those Euro-Americans got what they deserved for encroaching on Indian territory without permission." Rather, they'll think, "Another savage Indian attack on innocent white folks."

You could do the same basic story without making it so stereotypical. Have the Morcegos capture some crew members and explain the trespassing deal in person. Show the Morcegos as normal brown-skinned people, not white-skinned ghouls. Debate the morality of the pass-or-die rule a bit. If the chief is laying down the law, have a sympathetic Indian help the crew with clues.

In other words, don't portray the Morcegos as faceless, nameless creatures. Show them as human beings with diverse concerns and viewpoints. Whether people come from Western civilization or the jungle, they aren't packs of wild animals. Every person on the planet has similar thoughts and feelings.

Critics agree

A couple of snarky reviews agree that Los Ciegos was stereotypical. Their comments:

"Los Ciegos"When the crew sets off into the jungle in search of a cave that has shown up repeatedly in the tapes left behind by Emmet, Jahel again plays the role of Magical Exotic Non-English Speaker, informing Lincoln that the mysterious etchings found on the cave are the mark of the Morcegos. These warrior tribesmen, known as the Guardians of the Forest, are not often happy to see a bunch of bickering white people tramping through their jungle, and who can blame them?

Honestly, all of this is just one small step from an old movie serial about great white hunters running afoul of head-shrinking savages deep in the jungle, and it might have played better if The River displayed the slightest bit of awareness or sense of humor about this. (It’s a little disappointing that nobody fell in any quicksand, but maybe the writers are saving that for a future episode.)
The River: "Los Ciegos" ReviewAlso--and this is the show's biggest Achilles Heel right now--at some point these people are going to have to smarten up and heed Jahel's freakin' warnings. She's been right about everything so far! And now, three episodes in, we're supposed to believe that this team, who have already faced down a blood-thirsty ghost and a phantom doll tree that drowns you in puddles, would scoff at her warnings about the "Guardians of the Forest?" Who judge you and then gut you? I mean, AJ literally says something along the lines of "You expect me to believe that some imaginary ghost tribe from a children's story is real?" YES! Because your fellow camera man was killed by a goddamn poltergeist in the first episode!For more on Amazon Indians, see Brazilian Indians Protest Site Conversion and Amazon Worldview Influences Avatar 2.

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