film production + social action

‘Wiring the Amazon’

This article by Web Director, Michael Kleiman, was originally published in the New York Times OpDocs Opinion Section.

This Op-Doc video chronicles the four-year struggle to get a remote Peruvian village connected with the outside world. I began filming the project in 2009, while making a feature-length documentary film about the global spread of information technology. I was following the work of One Laptop per Child (O.L.P.C.), a United States-based nonprofit that has designed inexpensive laptops for primary education. The organization is particularly active in Peru, where the government has purchased and distributed hundreds of thousands of O.L.P.C.’s laptops to its poorest communities. One such village is Palestina, deep in the Amazon rain forest. It has only 65 people.

To get there, I took an Air Force cargo flight that departed Lima only every 15 days. The plane dropped me in the regional capital city of Puerto Esperanza, in the middle of pristine jungle. From there, I took a 10-hour boat ride down the Purus River to the small village. Palestina has no electricity, no running water and no roads.

I spent three months over the course of a year in Palestina. During that time, I documented the approximately two dozen laptops given to the primary school students, as well as a solar-powered satellite dish that provided wireless Internet access to the village. While there was no formal electrical grid in Palestina, most households had small car batteries charged by solar panels. At night, the schoolchildren charged their computers using these batteries.

Halfway through my stay, the first telephone was installed, offering another opportunity to document a major milestone in Palestina’s technological development. Suddenly, the tiny village in the middle of the jungle had multiple means of communicating with the rest of the world.

While this transition offers many reasons for hope as we consider our shared digital future, various hurdles the village experienced remind us how complicated it can be to bring connectivity to such isolated locations. The O.L.P.C. program has received mixed grades in terms of educational gains and, with no quick fix to simple technical problems, Palestina’s technological evolution has been riddled with setbacks and derailments. This Op-Doc raises many questions about how we fulfill our responsibility to the world’s innumerable villages like Palestina and the importance of understanding their needs and desires.