The Lost City of Z (2016)

“An Image of Amazonia”

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In “An Image of Africa,” his scolding 1975 lecture to the Anglo-American literary establishment delivered at the University of Massachusetts, Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe laments the modernist celebration of Joseph Conrad’s purportedly anti-imperialist novel, Heart of Darkness (1899).

Achebe argues that, despite the indictment of the lunacy of White imperialism in the guise of the murderous Kurtz, a novel that does not consider Africans as central players in the drama cannot be properly labeled a critique of colonialism.

Achebe himself had set about fixing this problem in his now canonical novel, Things Fall Apart (1958), which tells the story of the disastrous encounter between Christian missionaries and African people from the point of view of Okonkwo, an Igbo leader in a fictional Nigerian town.

The new film, The Lost City of Z, adapted from a non-fiction article and book by David Grann, cannot help but tread again over this material. Director James Gray’s film concerns Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnan), a British officer who becomes obsessed with exploring South America in the early decades of the Twentieth Century.

When he returns from a 1906 expedition with pottery proving an advanced civilization in the middle of the Mato Grosso area of Brazil, his colleagues at the Royal Geographic Society ridicule him, refusing to give up their delusions of the superiority of White people.

For the rest of his life, Fawcett dreams of finding the ruins of the city, which he called Z, a version of the legend of El Dorado. The film’s Fawcett is a fascinating portrait of a British explorer. He spends very little time at home, and when he does, he seems, for often very good reasons, to want to leave.

His dipsomaniacal father ruined the family’s reputation; he takes the 1906 mapping mission as a way of proving his worth to the rigid British class system. In between trips to South America, Fawcett fights in the trenches of World War I, nearly losing his eyesight in a chlorine gas attack. Finally, his wife and son scold him for spending his time in the Brazilian jungle, and not with them.

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However, by the film’s end, Fawcett’s unwavering belief in the existence of the city of gold has infected even his family. His wife, stymied by repressive British gender assumptions, is not able to accompany Fawcett, so she lets her now grown son, Jack (Tom Holland) accompany her husband on a new expedition in 1925.

The men are about to be killed by rampaging tribesmen when another tribe saves them. In the film’s strangest turn, the chieftain of the rescuers tells his people that they should give Fawcett the spiritual peace he deserves.

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Gray refuses to speculate on a solution to the mystery of what happened to the Fawcetts. In a moving sequence without any human voices on the soundtrack, we see the tribesmen carrying the two men into what, because of the lighting, seems to be the lost city of gold. But, they are never heard from again.

It is very unlikely that this tribe inhabits the mysterious city for which Fawcett has been searching. Instead, the chief delivers in his ceremony, in what is most likely an execution, the kindest act in the film. He takes the long-suffering Fawcett further into the jungle, allowing him to permanently escape the British civilization which has been so brutal to them both.

The chieftain is an Okonkwo with the power to produce redemption. Fawcett is a triumphant White explorer reduced neither to the murderousness of Kurtz nor the impotent passivity of Marlow. The film sides with the post-colonial, dissolving Fawcett, not people of color, into the mythological.

In cinematic terms, the film expresses this affinity via image-making. When a member of the expedition brings a camera, the film presents his still images of various members of the Brazilian tribe. The photographs are as beautiful as the cinematography of the film in which they are housed.

Indeed, the photographs seem taken not by early 20th century mythologists (in the vein of Edward Curtis), but instead evoke the post-colonial photography of Claudia Andujar. In 1978, the Swiss-born Andujar released the book, Yanomami, a study in portraiture of native Brazilians taken between 1955 and the mid-1970s.

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Andujar’s stunning images capture the villagers in intimate moments of reflection. In “Yanomami Youth During a Festival” (1978), a young man gazes downward sullenly, his face bifurcated by the sidelight bathing his visage from an unseen location to his right. In another portrait, a young girl scowls at the camera, looking directly at us, her head tilted forward in an unsettling confrontation. Andujar’s portraits resist the common fetishizing and demeaning photographic presentations of native peoples.

andujar festival youth
Claudia Andujar, “Yanomami Youth During a Festival” (1978)

andujar girl
An image from Claudia Andujar’s book, Yanomami (1978)

By producing photographic images haunted by the work of Andujar, The Lost City of Z reinvents the imperialist expeditionary narrative of its predecessors. It is a film about the White exploration of the so-called Third World that foregrounds the subjectivity of the people at the receiving end of the imperialist thrust.

In the film’s most pointed moment, a graphic match cut begins with Fawcett pouring alcohol out of the flask of his assistant, Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson). The liquid, rushing to the left side of the image, down the drain of a sink, is matched with a new shot, of a train rushing leftward, drawing the two men to the edge of the world heretofore known by White people.

Just as Fawcett’s trip will redeem his family name from his father’s destructive alcoholism, his encounter with the rightful inhabitants of Amazonia will redeem the 20th century narratives of White imperialism, those so reviled by Chinua Achebe.

–Walter Metz