On July 28, 2006, Alan García was sworn in to office for his second term as the President of Peru, 16 years since his first stint ended with social unrest and severe hyperinflation. In 2007, he delivered a nationally televised address in which he invited (or pleaded with) American entrepreneurs to invest in Peru and harvest the country’s finite natural resources. “We don’t have any political conflicts!” he boasted in a proto-Trumpian moment of goading the gods.
And then, on June 5, 2009, García ordered Peruvian police and military personnel to forcibly prevent protestors from blocking the major road that is used for accessing the country’s fertile Bagua region. Dozens of indigenous people and government troops were killed in the ensuing riot, and many more would die in the violence that resulted from that initial clash. No political conflicts, indeed.
All of this — and much more — is captured in Heidi Brandenburg and Matthew Orzel’s “When Two Worlds Collide,” a strikingly present documentary debut that traces how the friction between a government and its people can metastasize into a dangerous state of insurgency. Dedicated to “the victims of Bagua” but rather unambiguous as to which side it feels has the most blood on its hands (history tends to be biased against regimes that exploit their citizenry), the film chronicles the story from both micro and macro perspectives, cutting from the native communities affected by the North Peru Pipeline to the congressional meetings where their fate is determined.
Representing the indigenous Shawi people is Alberto Pizango, a steely-eyed activist whose father endowed him with the understanding that the Earth is borrowed by its inhabitants. “For us, our land can never be sold,” Pizango insists, expressing an unyielding determination that is immediately clear to everyone except the Chris Christie lookalike who decides to ignore the UN regulations that protect Tribal Peoples and the ground on which they live.
In fact, García is such a duplicitously cartoonish piece of shit that he quickly allows “When Two Worlds Collide” to grow beyond the limits of its context and achieve a universal urgency. The film, which begins in a mode of austere ethnography before thawing into a story that’s told with the page-turning velocity of an airport paperback, ultimately becomes so compelling because García’s greed is such a generic threat. Through the specificity of their footage (and the outsized personalities of their subjects and talking heads), Brandenburg and Orzel use an event that was largely ignored by the American press to chart the basic dangers of a country strip-mining its own soul.
And it’s this focus on process that makes the film so rich and rewarding, as Brandenburg and Orzel sift through an unimaginable stockpile of footage to find the moments that show how bad policies can turn decent people against one another. Most striking of all are the snippets recorded just before the Bagua episode, in which high-ranking members of the Peruvian military are seen chatting civilly with members of Pizango’s coalition and expressing sympathy for their cause. And then the killing starts.
Listless at times and lacking the killer instinct required to follow through on the emotional toll that the fighting took on its survivors, the documentary is far more insightful about the buildup to bloodshed than it is about the mess that was left behind in its wake. The allegiance that Brandenburg and Orzel reserve for Pizango and his fellow protestors is more than understandable, but it makes it difficult for them to convincingly muddy the waters when the Shawi leader is forced to answer for his role in the violence. Still, the hesitancy of the film’s final act does a perversely effective job of reinforcing its central tragedy — when worlds collide, it’s always the same two: The one we’re given, and the one we leave behind.
“When Two Worlds Collide” is now playing in theaters.