A gift she honed to perfection when from 1987 through 1990, Zmekhol assisted on several international television documentaries, which took her through the Brazilian states of Rondonia, Acre, Pará, and Mato Grosso. She visited such diverse tribal communities as the Kaiapo, Surui, Arara, Negarote and Kaxinawa and brought her own unique perspective to each encounter through her stunning photographs. Zmekhol also interviewed and photographed the union leader and environmental activist Chico Mendes with his family—one month before his untimely assassination.
From 1998 to 2001 she co-produced 39 episodes for Digital Journey: Series from a Networked Planet, a technology television series airing on prime time US Public Television, TVO/Canada, numerous stations in China and other venues. In 2003, she produced and directed the video Teaching Machines. The following year, she produced and directed Teaching Skills for Assistive Technology Specialists, a video for the American Foundation for the Blind.
Years later, Denise Zmekhol realized that among the many photographs she had captured of Amazonian tribal daily life—fishing, cooking, ceremonies, songs, and river bathing—were a captivating collection of photographs of children. These images, from different indigenous and rubber tapper communities, were subsequently exhibited in cultural centers and universities throughout California. In preparing these images for a subsequent exhibit, Zmekhol wondered what had become of her rainforest children. And so the photo exhibit, Children of the Amazon, became a film project, focusing on the lives of the children whose playful curiosity and connection with the forest captivated Zmekhol’s more than 15 years ago.
I recently had the opportunity to talk to Zmekhol, and she shared with me some of her insights on documentary filmmaking. Asked at what point she decided to pursue filmmaking , she replied, “When I was studying journalism in Sao Paulo, I realized that I liked expressing myself better through visuals. And my photography and film classes inspired me the most. So I moved to San Francisco in 1984 and helped my friends shoot and edit their films. Then I took film and broadcast classes at San Francisco State and got an internship at a Spanish-language TV station doing camerawork for the news. After a couple of months, I was hired to do camerawork full-time and worked for them for a year and half. Then I moved back to Brazil where I started shooting institutional videos, doing sound and assisting documentaries. I returned to the Amazon 6 or 7 times working on different documentaries.”
What drew her to documentary films? “My goal is to tell a true story using art. I thought for many years that my first film would be a narrative film, but I wanted to tell the tappers’ story in their voices. I think reality offers so many rich stories—beautiful, tragic, romantic—that you can tell without creating anything. They are what they are. Then you can be creative in the way you tell that story. I wanted to give a voice to the rubber tappers and establish a personal connection with them.”
How does she “connect” to the children in the film? “It was amazing to see the children I photographed 15 years after taking their photos. I remember arriving at Chief Almir Surui's house in the regional Amazonian city of Cacoal to talk about the film. After we started our discussion, Almir surprised me by inviting all the kids I photographed to show up. It was a very pleasant experience to see many of these children now grown up with children of their own. They were amazed and moved by the photos I had taken. I didn't expect to see any of the children until the following week when we were scheduled to travel to the village where the children lived. It was great! I couldn't contain my emotions.”
Were there any unusual challenges you faced during filming? “There so many--the heat, the mosquitoes, the broken bridge, the loggers.” Were there any obstacles she encountered as a female filmmaker? “I didn’t encounter a lot of obstacles in that sense. I think there are more women doing documentaries. Other than the standard obstacles to filmmaking—the fundraising, trying to tell the story with so many characters without confusing the audience.”
Speaking of fundraising, was getting financing difficult? “From the beginning, I had some support. I had a foundation that saw my progress in the film and they kept helping me. At the very end, I received funding from San Francisco-based Independent Television Service. This was very competitive. They received hundreds of applications from across the country and they only fund eight films. They were attracted to the importance of my story and its personal, poetic presentation.”
What has she learned? And what advice does she have for other first-time filmmakers? “For me, the most important lessons were with the film's content. I've learned that we are very connected in the world we live in today. Whatever choices we make here, the kind of forest products we buy, directly affects the people in the Amazon. And whatever choices they make also affect other parts of the world in terms of climate change. In terms of filmmaking, the lesson is perseverance. There will always be a million challenges. They may be different for every film. But somehow you just have to stay with it. It took me five years to complete Children of the Amazon.
Has winning awards in the Indie Fest and Accolade Competition helped her career, and helped promote her documentary? “First of all, I feel very honored to have received so many awards from Accolade Competition and the Indie Fest as well. These awards help give the film stature, which created opportunities for me and the film. But I also have to say that going back to the previous question about perseverance, that these awards give filmmakers a psychological boost at a time when it's so easy to feel demoralized by the difficulties of filmmaking and distribution.”
How does she approach a new documentary topic? What must it have to be engaging enough to pursue? “I like to keep working in Brazil. Bring out their stories. There are so many incredible stories and people there. The African/Brazilian experience. The culture, the religion. It’s also a very visual place to film.”
What’s her next her project? And what goals has she set for it? “My next project already happened. I went back to the Amazon after completing Children of the Amazon to produce a video with Google Earth Outreach. At the request of Chief Almir, they agreed to train Indigenous Amazonian tribes how to use Google Earth. With this knowledge, the indigenous tribes can create maps that record their cultural traditions and monitor the forest against illegal logging. I also want to spend more time working on the outreach and distribution of Children of the Amazon. With the fate of the Amazon still undecided, and with great hopes raised by the efforts of the indigenous people and rubber tappers to protect the forest, the subject of the film remains very timely and important.”
What films or filmmakers inspire her? “Today I’m inspired by Robert Altman and Scorsese.”
Finally, I asked what central message she seeks to impart in all her documentary films. “I did a lot of traveling in the Amazon and the environmental approach interests me. The environment is a subject that is close to my heart.”