SIONA: Amazon’s Protectors Under Threat

Filmmaker Q&A with Director Tom Laffay

Is there a particular documentary film or filmmaker that had a major influence on your career?

Manda Bala (Send a Bullet), 2007 opened my eyes to documentary as an art form and an almost symphonic approach to creative storytelling of complex, and often stereotyped, issues in Latin America.


What motivated you to make this film?

My motivation was two fold in making SIONA. As part of an ongoing, long term collaboration with the Siona nation which I began in 2019, creating a short film in the first 6 months of our collaboration brought more attention to the Siona’s legal and human rights cases before the Colombian and Ecuadorian governments. Secondly, it proved that I am serious in delivering meaningful work, respecting our pact and would serve as a calling card for making connections for the feature length film I am pursuing together with the Siona.


Please tell us what camera(s) you shot with primarily – and any other special equipment that you used and why you used it.

Canon C300mkII


Please tell us about any special styles or techniques that you used during the production of your film to help tell your story. 

I used some slow motion shots of the jungle just to allow the audience to take a breath and be able to admire the tapestry of vegetation and light in Siona territory. I only use natural light and for a film with a number of night scenes, I relied on candlelight which was already available. I enjoy being guided into finding my angles and perspectives by what’s being offered and not interfering with the energy of what’s really happening; for instance in the scene where Adiela drinks Yagé with Taita Humberto. It’s a privilege to be allowed into that very personal space for both her and the taita and I would not impose, so in a sense I was lucky there with the soft, flickering light illuminating everyone participating in the ceremony.


How did your story evolve from day one, to the very last day in post? Is your story what you thought it would be?

There are a multitude of threats facing the Siona people, and they are responding to those through unique organizing techniques of territorial defense. My editor Soo-Jeong Kang at The New Yorker and I were in agreement in focusing the story on Adiela, a young, somewhat timid leader of the Siona who in many ways embodies the realities of young indigenous women becoming leaders in often times very male dominated contexts. I originally was interested in following Adiela through her training with the indigenous guard, an unarmed protection force made up of community members, and as she pursued becoming governor in local elections, which she lost. In the editing room we decided to take the direction of her work clearing her territory of landmines because we felt it was a novel approach to visualizing a threat to the territory and Siona culture which is at once very physical for the raw violence it can, and has, unleashed on Siona community members, but also a psychological threat and reminder of the malevolent forces that surround the Siona. I also hoped that visualizing this specific threat and Adiela’s work would call the attention of the Colombian government and bring more support to the Colombian Campaign to Ban Landmines. As far as I understand, it has been well received in those spaces.


Please describe the most rewarding experience you had while making this film.

Keeping in mind that this film came out of a larger collaboration with the Siona, which has been a true privilege and honor to collaborate with them, one moment has stuck with me from this short film. The day I accompanied the Siona de-mining team I was guided to a remote camp in the jungle in Siona ancestral territory to film Adiela and her team of twenty somethings. They risk their lives for minimal pay, spending three weeks at a time living at their camps meticulously excavating IED’s; tuna cans filled with explosives, nails, ball bearings and wired to syringes waiting for an unsuspecting soldier, or innocent civilian, to step on one. The team was so humble, so proud of the work they did to create a safe environment for the Siona community members, particularly the children who walk along paths to school through mine contaminated areas. After filming, which was a bit nerve wracking in itself, while the team took a break to relax, take lunch and goof around, it set in the heaviness of these young women and men’s work and life experience.


What advice can you give to other impact filmmakers?

Wait for a story to come to you and if you’re ready, accept with humility. I believe the best work you will create will be the work that you feel you have to take on. Only you will know why, but the energy and love you put into a project that is truly right for you will shine through.


What’s your favorite part about the filmmaking process and why?

There is so much to the filmmaking process that I love. Of course there are parts that torture me too, and often are the same! I’m going to cheat a bit and talk about a chain of events which often occur for me, and have with the Siona. The first part I love are the open and honest conversations with key community members about the direction of the story and setting some parameters for a collaborative project. Next is when you find yourself lost in a scene where you didn’t even expect something to happen. All the elements for the story are lining up, the light is right, and you’re gone, you just lose yourself behind the viewfinder and move with the story unfolding in front of your eyes. Finally, leaving with the idea of what you filmed and working with an editor you trust to bring that scene to life, open to the way it inevitably will change on the cutting floor.


What’s the one item you always take with you when working out in the field and why?

A multi screw driver set to make any adjustments or tighten things up on the C300mkII, you never know when you’ll need it. And for me, my water bottle, got to stay hydrated. I find when I treat my physical body as a machine and take care of it like I do my gear, my mind and heart just flow with my work and I can be more concerned with the bigger picture: telling the story.


Please share a personal story about your experience making this film.

The main scene of the de-mining work almost didn’t get filmed. I had already shot the rest of the film and was sent to Ecuador for nearly three weeks on a separate production for a series on indigenous women leaders in early March 2020. I was in very remote areas including Waorani and Kofan indigenous territory. As I was coming back to Lago Agrio in the Ecuadorian Amazon a friend texted me word of the status of Covid-19 and that the border between Ecuador and Colombia would be closing that very night. I got a private taxi to drive me to the border and crossed over with maybe four other people before it was shut for months. I stayed in isolation in a hotel a few nights in Puerto Asis and waited to join the de-mining team to go to the remote area where they were clearing the mines. That was the last mission they completed before we all went into lockdown in Colombia.


Can you describe any obstacles you encountered in making your film and/or in your distribution/exhibition efforts?

Honestly, this project helped maintain some sanity in the first months of the pandemic. Working with The New Yorker’s video team went very smooth despite or perhaps because of everyone being relegated to working from home. My friend and editor Jaap Van’t Kruis and I had two mirrored drives so could just share project files and keep the work flow going. Everyone involved was understanding of each others’ time and emotional state as we were all dealing with Covid and we just worked at our own pace to bring the project home. Meanwhile, staying in touch with Adiela and other Siona community members was difficult at times because of connectivity, but I’m glad to say that although the community was heavily impacted by Covid, not one community member succumbed to the disease.


What do you want audiences to take away from your film?

I want audiences to take away that the threats facing indigenous communities across the Amazon are multiple, they’re complicated and that it’s the indigenous communities themselves who are most equipped to confronting those threats. That women leaders need to receive more support, both externally from organizations and governments, and internally from their own communities where often times men lead and govern disproportionately to women, which may be cultural or may be culturally imposed over generations.


Please list key points that should be covered in a post-screening discussion:

The Siona people as protectors of the Amazon.
Threatened culture equals threatened environment.
Resurgence of conflict in Colombia’s Amazon since the peace process.
Supporting women leadership across the Amazon.
The role of collaborative filmmaking in the Amazon.


Please provide information on any recent developments regarding the issue or subjects of the film. How have things changed or not changed?

Shortly after publication of the film, the Siona were granted another official hearing by the Inter American Commission on Human Rights where they have an open case. Since then, Adiela has left the de-mining team to refocus on her first passion, teaching. The Siona have, as part of human rights cases with the Colombian government, been ceded some 50,000 hectares to increase their reservation’s territory (already part of their ancestral territory) which will double their legal land area. This new area, while beneficial to the Siona, also increases their contact with armed groups operating deeper in the forest as well as colonizing coca growers. The Siona’s challenges will only continue, however there is a renewed energy among their struggle.

For the filmmaking team, SIONA has been nominated by The Pulitzer Center for the Overseas Press Club’s Edward R. Murrow Award for best documentary interpretation of international affairs.


What opportunities are available for those interested in getting further involved?

I would recommend anyone wanting to support the Siona to get in touch with the indigenous rights origination Amazon Frontlines which represents the Siona in legal cases and works with them in territorial defense.


Please provide any additional resources (websites, links to additional videos, forms, articles, etc.):

Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) Podcast with director Tom Laffay

Blog: The Pact: A Filmmaker’s Collaboration With The Siona To Tell Their Story In Defense of The Amazon

Pulitzer Center

Leonardo DiCaprio Tweet about film SIONA



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