The history of human civilization keeps coming back to this: Our desire to consume outweighs our responsibility to maintain. The history of colonization and capitalism is linked to this ideology, particularly in how these dual forces paved a destructive path across Latin America. Filmmaker Yulene Olaizola adds a creepy twist to this devastating story with her slow, atmospheric, and nerve-wracking Netflix fantasy thriller Tragic jungle, or Tragic jungle.
The fictional takes place in the jungle on the border between Mexico and Belize in 1920 Tragic jungle deliberately engages in a broader discussion about the destruction of nature at the behest of companies and their masters. With elements of folk horror, Tragic jungle poses a series of characters who struggle over scarcity and do backbreaking work for low wages. The plot recalls the realities of the region’s history: the banana and pineapple plantations of Dole have been around for centuries Badly damaged environment, especially in Central America. International corporations benefit from the lower cost of doing business in South America, leading to increased development of the port sector and dredging, water pollution and Deforestation in countries like Brazil.
Even the story of chewing gum as described in the 2009 book Chicle: Americans chewing gum by Maya archaeologist Jennifer P. Mathews, is involved in exploitation. Although the Mayans and Aztecs learned how to prune sapodilla trees to collect resin and make chewing gum hundreds of years ago, the double blow from European settlers and American investors fueled international demand. At least 25% of Mexico’s sapodilla trees were killed in the mid-1930s, and the country’s economy swelled and then collapsed. “This unsustainable industry set in motion another so-called collapse of the Maya civilization, which is still having an impact today.” Mathews wrote
Tragic jungle does not initially set out this context explicitly. While Olaizola’s film increasingly points to the corrupt influence of the free market, it also explores the Mayan myth of Xtabay. Everywhere on the Yucatán Peninsula and in Belize, the demoness Xtabay is said to lure men into the jungle and into death. She appears out of nowhere to seduce and confuse, she always wears a white dress and her long hair hangs loose and free. The morning bell, which blooms into white trumpet flowers, can indicate their presence, as can the sacred Mayan Ceiba tree, which signifies the connection of the earth with the sky above and the underworld below. If Xtabay, believed to indiscriminately tie up and kill those who lust after it, had a motto, it would basically be something like “Men don’t shit”.
Tragic jungle starts with a break-in and then an escape. A group of rubber harvesters work the Zapote trees in a remote forest on the Mexico-Belize border. They tie themselves to the trees with loose pulleys, dig their feet into the tree trunks and cut diagonally into the bark, revealing blood-red wood from which white resin oozes. When they’re done with a piece of log, they rise further up, closer to the howler monkeys that live in the lush canopy of the jungle, and loudly announce their territorial presence. The camerawoman Sofia Oggioni captures the dangerousness of men’s work by taking pictures from above and below and positioning these men as parasites that cling to the 60 to 25 foot tall trees. The workers may know the land, but they don’t own it, and maybe they never should, from a conservation perspective.
Back at camp, the men cook the resin into chewing gum, which they have to transport from the jungle and deliver to their boss. The group is a mix of Mayan and Spanish speaking men (suggesting Belize’s indigenous history and Spanish invasion and aggression) led by Ausencio (Gilberto Barraza) who is strict and ruthless. In another part of the forest, the Belizein Agnes (Indira Rubie Andrewin) is on the run from an arranged marriage to Cacique (Dale Carley). In her long, white lace dress, brown leather boots and pearl and moonstone jewelry, Agnes seems very out of place at home between the countless shades of green, the calf-deep, murky water and the insects, alligators and jaguars that call the jungle. She is shy in this strange place, but her desperation to stay free outweighs any fear.
Tragic jungle comes into focus when Agnes crosses the paths of these men, and it turns out to be a recreation of the Xtabay myth on the one hand and an accusation of everyday greed on the other. The inhospitable nature of the jungle, the secrets that lurk in it and the rhythms it maintains unfold outward, seducing both Agnes and the harvest workers. The language difference means they cannot communicate with her, but that doesn’t prevent them from staring openly and lustfully or looking back at Agnes directly.
Their arrival leads to a slide into violence and internal struggles that compromise the entire group, a phenomenon that Mayan spokesman Jacinto (Mariano Tun Xool) describes with a combination of awe and fear. Jacinto is the only man worried that Agnes might be the reborn Xtabay, and his observations suggest that a story you’ve heard for years might actually be true. “I’m sorry you don’t understand the secrets of the jungle,” says Jacinto in the opening line of the film, but Tragic jungle nor does it imply that Jacinto knows her. Maybe nobody can.
Olaizola and Oggioni capture the flickering, swaying emotions of the men through rotating close-ups and the unrecognizability of the jungle through scenes that heighten its liveliness. The characters are distracted from one corner or the other of the jungle. They get lost, run in circles and stare into the impenetrable bushes, while Oggioni’s camera captures everything they think they see. Tragic jungle indulges in what is proposed and indulges in the indefinite. Did any of the men really see demonic bird feet on Agnes or is he hallucinating for lack of food and water? When one of Cacique’s trackers asks if Agnes is a real girl, is it a literal or a figurative question? And when the blood of one of the men splatters on Agnes’ face, the droplets almost artfully arranged, is her look shocked or serene?
Like other jungle travel films from, Aguirre, the wrath of God to Apocalypse now, Tragic jungle is dedicated to the potential of the karmic evil that lurks in the jungle. In contrast to these films Tragic jungle suffers from easy character development and relies a little too much on repetitive action scenes to build up tension. But with the strange beauty of his visuals, Andrewin’s deep-water performance, and his increasingly tense atmosphere, Tragic jungle works a disturbing spell.
Tragic jungle launches on June 9, 2021 on Netflix.