Shoehorned into a spare slot in the NZIFF Autumn Events Classic Movie Weekend at the Regent Theatre in Dunedin, between Carol Reed's thriller The Third Man (1949) and David Lean's biopic Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Sharon Lockhart's film Teatro Amazonas (1999) confirmed itself as a special cinematic event. As Catherine Fowler, of the Otago University's Media, Film and Communication Department said, introducing the single screening of Teatro Amazonas, Sharon Lockhart wants her film only to be shown in venues that match the venue depicted in her film; and the Regent Theatre is the only cinema in Australasia that preserves its original revived-baroque style décor, recently refurbished and dating back to the silent movies era of the 1920s, when not for nothing were the grandest venues known as "moving picture palaces."

Grandeur is also at the heart of the Teatro Amazonas, which is an opera house pitched up on the banks of the Rio Negro in the town of Manaus in the jungles of Brazil at the point where major tributaries meet to form the Amazon River. Teatro Amazonas is Portuguese for "Amazon Theatre", and this theatre is a product of the late nineteenth century rubber boom, when rubber plantations made their owners wealthy and eager to celebrate that wealth with one of the great symbols of European high culture: an opera house. The opera house opened in 1897: its entranceway a three-story neo-classical portico, its interior ornately decorated with imported luxury materials, and on its roof an art nouveau cupola.

The Teatro Amazonas is the centrepiece of the opening sequence of Werner Herzog's 1982 movie Fitzcarraldo, where two characters, played by Klaus Kinski and Claudia Cardinale, paddle a small boat out of the darkness and arrive at the river landing below the opera house, before rushing up and rushing inside to catch the end of Verdi's opera Ernani, with Enrico Caruso performing. The auditorium that Fitzcarraldo reveals is the same as that shown in Teatro Amazonas, but the purposes of the two film-makers, Herzog and Lockhart are very different.

Herzog's Fitzcarraldo is an epic piece of myth-making, both exotic and preposterous: the episode, for example, where a 320-ton steamer is dragged up and over a hill, massively exaggerated the incident on which it was based, where the original of Fitzcarraldo conveyed a small steam launch of three and a half tons over log rollers from one river tributary to another to avoid river rapids. Herzog made his film at a time when Manaus had declined from a thriving river port into a backwater—the rubber boom ended during World War One—and Teatro Amazonas had been closed and shuttered up for sixty years. The atmosphere of Portuguese colonialism and of intrepid expeditions into unknown territory was, however, still tangible. Lockhart's film doesn't so much repudiate Herzog's heroics as examine its "exotic locale" with a more knowing lens. Her film is an exercise in suggesting how histories are layered and constructed. It offers a portrait of a society, but that portrait is minimalist, consisting, like the river, of a smooth or dimpled surface that intimates at turbulent depths.

Teatro Amazonas also has a traceable relationship with Fitzcarraldo in that both use film to tease out the notion of the Amazon as a source of legend and mystery, while some of the helpers on the making of Fitzcarraldo are connected to families included in Lockhart's group-portrait. Manaus has been known variously as the "Heart of the Amazon" and "City of the Rainforest" and "Paris of the Tropics". When the Teatro Amazonas was built, the population numbered around the same as that of post-gold-rush Dunedin in the 1890s. Now the population is 1.9 million, many of them recent economic migrants. In the past decade it has become a thriving industrial hub, encouraged by the regional government. By the time Lockhart filmed there in 1999 it was at the beginning of its industrial revival—partly as a result of globalisation—but it did already have one prominent international function: that of jumping-off point for scientific jungle expeditions. The Amazon has ever been a "locus classicus" for "lost worlds": for scientific investigations of flora and fauna, and for anthropological investigations of neolithic peoples whose cultures remain marginally viable.

And there is also a hidden history of genocide and oppression against indigenous peoples that dates back to the first European explorers. Many Portuguese colonialists were slavers and traders who press-ganged local tribes into servitude, despite spirited resistance. Whole regions were depopulated: Manaus itself is named after an extinct tribe. More recently, large tracts of forest in nearby regions have been removed to make way for cattle ranches, mining, smelters and hydro-electric projects, while working class people have flowed in to settle in slum-like barrios, in Manaus as well as elsewhere. Lockhart's film's title confirms her concern with how such events form the nexus, or the setting, for this "jewel of the Amazon", this florid and once-archaic opera house that is now, in 2014, a tourist drawcard, as well as a fully-functioning music venue.

Can a building be a protagonist in a movie, as Lockhart implies? Well, Teatro Amazonas is actually a documentary, of sorts, whose subject is a particular theatrical space, and some of the meanings and associations that might accrue in that space. By profession Lockhart is an American artist who works with both moving film and still photography as favourite mediums. Teatro Amazonas is a work which actually blends the two, in a way, offering a portrait of the people of Manaus in its best-known building. The social space allows for a form of social representation that, on-screen, seems class-based. So far, so Marxist dialectical. The people depicted—we are told in publicity material promoting the film—were recruited so as to represent a cross-section of the town's populace. The film-maker and a Portuguese-speaking colleague interviewed over 600 people, all volunteers, who responded either to flyers on noticeboards or to a radio station programme promoting the project.

Teatro Amazonas is a 35 mm colour film, shot as a single take on one continuous reel, by Brazilian cinematographer Rudolfo Sanchez, using a static camera onstage on a tripod. The film shows the audience, which numbers around 300 people, filling all the seats in camera eye-view. This audience listens to a complete composition by a Lockhart collaborator, the American minimalist composer Becky Allen, performed live by a hidden choir. And that is the extent of the 30-minute film, to which about 10 minutes of production credits are appended: everyone who appears is named.

On one level, Lockhart's conceptualist project, funded by a United States arts grant, is an exercise in logistics, assembling a particular audience, or group of subjects, for a non-commercial production. The film-maker has employed a methodology that appears to be a mixture of the aesthetic and the ethnographic; though perhaps that should be "postmodern mixture", as her aesthetic framing derives from documentary photographers ranging from Eugene Atget to August Sander to Lewis Hine to Walker Evens to Andreas Gursky, as well as from documentary fabulists who construct scenarios—such as Jeff Wall, Gregory Crewdson and Cindy Sherman—while her attentive examination of the increasing boredom or attention-wandering of the audience summons Andy Warhol to mind, along with more recent faux-documentary filmmakers, such as Gillian Wearing. The ethnographic component, meanwhile, derives from the film's implied anthropological reportage and photo-documentation, traditionally used as a means of "fact-gathering" to arrive at a desired end or proven ideological outcome in the manner of Claude Levi-Strauss and other structural anthropologists. So far, so formalist, then.

The filmed crowd, which is "the audience",—bused-in, after six weeks of pre-planning, for the one-day shoot—has been laboriously organised according to which of the city's districts they are from, though these seating arrangements are not obvious. Despite this manipulation, everyone seems alert, and festive. (Later, after filming, and lunch, and a second take, never used or even developed, they will invade the stage with their own performance: singing, dancing and playing musical instruments. This wasn't filmed.)

And so to "the gaze", beloved of theorists. Lockhart's filmed audience is confined to gazing at a bare stage and the camera. They are listening to a 60-strong choir—Choral do Amazonas—but it is concealed in the orchestra pit. So, instead, they seem to be gazing at us, the cinemagoers in the Regent. To add to our self-consciousness, the auditorium lights in the Regent were barely dimmed, not quite up full. As "an audience" we sprinkled the stalls, sparse indeed, consisting of academics, cineastes, artists, film students and such-like fellow travellers, barely a few dozen in all.

Notwithstanding our separation, the alienation effect, there was symmetry of sorts, a sense of exchange, as we listened to what they were listening to: audience versus audience. The lights in the opera house were not dimmed by much either, so that the packed opera house, as it seemed—its drawn-shut red plush curtains occasionally tweaking at the back of the auditorium, suggesting the curiosity of the excluded—held you with the subdued animation of its spectacle: hand-held fans fluttered, arms stirred languidly, and people shifted in their seats; girls wore plain black dresses, men plain white shirts, though there was the occasional flash of a turquoise frock or colourful garment. What was noticeable, too, was that these were people of the proletariat, salt of the earth, workers and school children—rather than suave and savvy fans of minimalist modern American music.

Yet the music was for them. Allen had divided her choir into twelve groups of five who modulated their way sequentially through a wordless chant or drone using only local dialect vowels. To my ears, it sounded like a hum in a beehive channelled into a kind of jungle pulse, the distilled noise of a tropical rainforest at noon. The music, then, helped hold the whole enterprise together. It was an exercise in reduction, in subtraction, that served to mirror, support and emphasise the greater minimalism of the whole project.

Near the end of the film the waves of choral voices faded out altogether to be replaced by silence and ambient sounds: traffic outside, horns beeping, an impression of shuffling, which joined with the coughing and the general subdued restlessness marking an audience of working-class people politely sitting through an avant-garde musical composition (and its aura of an almost evangelical imposition of top-down high culture).

Teatro Amazonas seemed to stretch time like toffee, an effect apparently partly achieved through literally stretching the film itself during processing, so as to marginally slow the frames down; but also figuratively, in the sense that this was a jungle town at the end of the rainy season, sticky and humid in late June. The subtle implication of viscosity was reinforced by the impression that the audience, as the film wore on, seemed held in their seats, glued to them, while looking around as if for the exits. Vaguely writhing in place, they unwittingly enacted a pantomime of listening postures in which, for some of them anyway, excitement was replaced by boredom, and in turn replaced by irritation: the sonorous, sustained drone of Becky Allen's work threatening rather than lulling or transporting.

At least one person left early—bolted and ran, taking with him a child as excuse. The trained and fixed viewpoint, the sense of time moving excruciatingly slowly, a mise-en-scene that suggested a sluggishly steaming pressure cooker, or else a tankful of wilting hothouse orchids—faces glazed with heat and boredom—all added to the blurring of individuals into a collective mass. This was a parody of a "population study", surely, despite the willing community engagement.

In summary, this film emphasised ordeal, endurance, entrapment, constraint, surveillance: all characteristics, one could argue, of an oppressed people, which left you wondering what message exactly was being preached, and if this late twentieth century argument about anthropological hierarchies wasn't itself anachronistic. I imagine, for example, that fifteen years on, almost the entire audience would be equipped, like people everywhere, with internet-enabled communication devices to distract them. Teatro Amazonas felt like a period-era tract, its straitjacketed audience arranged to make a point of dated relevance. In Fitzcarraldo, the European man and woman rushing into the opera house at the beginning of the film push past military guards who are holding back the indigenous poor. It is precisely these dispossessed people, or rather their descendants, that Lockhart has brought into the auditorium and seated. She then confronts us, a typical arthouse audience, with them in a kind of embarrassed standoff.

One reason why Teatro Amazonas was so disappointing, so underwhelming, was the quality of the film print: speckled, scratchy, crackly. But compounding this was the indifferent focus. The left-hand side of the screen was actually slightly out-of-focus throughout, making it hard to register the much-hyped clarity of detail. The sought-for precisionism thus undermined, the fuzziness, the lo-vis resolution, detracted from the power of this "portrait of a city", in all its carefully-arranged ordinariness.

Teatro Amazonas was first shown publicly in Rotterdam in 2000 in an art gallery. At that time it was accompanied by an exhibition of supporting materials which helped ameliorate the conceptual harshness of the film with an armature of carefully-gathered visual artefacts: enlarged personal snapshots and photographs of those who participated in the film elaborating on them as individuals, along with magazine articles and advertisements, and other print ephemera they had in their homes. Such an exhibition would have made clearer both the anthropological ambivalence of the film-maker's original intentions, as well, possibly, as her empathetic concern for her subjects.

However we at the Regent Theatre, unless we had bothered on our own account to pursue the full circumstances of her endeavour, knew nothing of this. Instead, the film unspooled with the air of a moral tract, an exercise in discomfort, a form of sociological showboating. Teatro Amazonas reached us here in the further reaches of the antipodes as the slow-burning fag-end of a doctrinal postmodernism from the fag-end of last century, smacking of nothing so much as American cultural outreach delivered to the locals like a hearty helping of pabulum.

More writing by David Eggleton

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