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Local director finds harmony in Amazon rainforest

'Diego Samper, a resident of Langdale for two decades who returns regularly to his birth country of Colombia, directed Wild Symphony. The 45-minute art film is the fusion of Samper’s still photography, audio recordings, and collaboration with Indigenous song keepers.'
A. Diego Samper (credit Michael Gurney)
Diego Samper, at his Langdale home, which he describes as an informal ethnographic music.

A film whose soundtrack is the result of musical synergy between human performers and the Amazon rainforest will be screened in Gibsons later this month as part of the Vancouver Latin American Film Festival. 

Diego Samper, a resident of Langdale for two decades who returns regularly to his birth country of Colombia, directed Wild Symphony. The 45-minute art film is the fusion of Samper’s still photography, audio recordings, and collaboration with Indigenous song keepers. His wife, Marlene Samper, oversaw production for the work. 

The two have collaborated since meeting in 1980 during a science and research expedition in Colombia’s Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta National Park. They subsequently founded a self-sufficient farm in Calanoa, a community that flanks the Amazon River on Colombia’s southern border.  

“Eventually things started to change in the region,” Samper recollected. Threatened by the encroachment of gold mines and the narcotics trade, the Calanoa project fell fallow for 20 years. The Sampers started a publishing house and moved to Canada. Then, a decade ago, they returned to the Amazon, establishing the Calanoa Jungle Hotel on a 50-hectare site. 

“Our goal was to build a jungle lodge with the idea of being self-sufficient, generating income in order to support the conservation of the place,” said Samper, whose academic background includes anthropology and biology. “Right now, we have about 30 families that are related directly to our project.” 

Rainforest conservation and preservation of Indigenous culture are priorities of the Calanoa project. Samper parlayed his lifelong experience of documenting the Amazon rainforest through photographs and audio into a musical initiative that united over 16 professional performers and cultural guardians from the region’s Indigenous communities. 

“That was the beginning of the Wild Symphony,” Samper said. “The big symphonic orchestra is the living forest itself. We invited soloists to accompany that big orchestra.” Through a series of workshops, Samper gathered professional musicians and area Elders in the jungle. 

“For six days we had long sessions of improvisation in the forest,” said Samper, describing the tarpaulin-covered ring of stools that became the film’s scoring stage. “Everything is set up with microphones in their places. Then we start to listen to the forest to connect with the place. Then someone, without any instruction, would start a note or a song. 

“The idea was not to interrupt, just to let it flow.” 

Samper occasionally prompted the contributors with hand signals. One finger invited a song. Two fingers invoked an impromptu story. “Storytelling for me is equally important as singing,” he said, “especially when storytelling is a recreation of a myth. Often in its inflections, stories will carry musical properties and fragments of songs.” 

Guitars and traditional percussion instruments accompany the vocal performances. In the finished film, these blend with the aural texture of the rainforest, thrumming with sounds of life. 

“The [Amazon rainforest] is about the size of Australia,” said Samper. “That means it’s only two percent of the whole area of the planet, yet it contains 50 per cent of the species of the planet’s living species.” 

Visually, Wild Syphony is framed by only two segments of moving pictures. In a dreamlike sequence, a paddler crosses a boundless body of water. The rest of the film is composed of Samper’s photography, layered and animated to suggest the complex interplay of elemental forces and human myth-making. 

“This is not a film that has a dialogue or a voiceover that tells you a story,” Samper said. “It’s just the sounds of the place and the soundtrack that we created in this place. They let your mind go far away. It becomes more like a personal journey into the forest.” 

Wild Symphony will be screened at the Gibsons Heritage Playhouse on Thursday, Sept. 29 at 6:30 p.m. A teaser trailer can be watched online at www.vimeo.com/691646369. Tickets are available via heritageplayhouse.com.