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A challenge to those film and TV shows on primitive cultures

By Arthur Unger / June 11, 1982

New York

How much harm is being done to the ecology of primitive cultures by Western civilization in the ongoing invasion by its forerunners, cinema and TV?

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Two of the most spectacularly exotic television films of the year will air during the next few days -- and both of them, fascinating and informative as they are, raise as many questions as they answer.

Did the process of making them -- and the movie on which one of them is based -- upset the natural balance of man in his native environment? On reflection, is the result merely exploitative entertainment? Should they have been made at all? Grandiose film project

Burden of Dreams (PBS, Friday, 9-10 p.m.) (check local listings, since many stations will air this on different days at different times) is a unique photographic essay on the making of an esoteric film by an esoteric filmmaker in the midst of Peru's Amazonian jungle. More than 1,100 natives of the surrounding area were hired by German director Werner Herzog to help haul a 320-ton steamship up a 40-degree slope and across a muddy jungle trail from one river to another as part of the film's almost mystic ritual form.

Director Herzog disdained the use of a plastic boat, which might have saved millions of dollars and years of time (the production took four years). But if he didn't make the film that way, according to Herzog, ''I would be a man without dreams, and I don't want to live like that.'' Jason Robards and Mick Jagger obviously decided they didn't want to live like that and abandoned the filming in the jungle to return to their own natural habitat. Klaus Kinski (Dracula in Herzog's film version of that myth) took over the lead part and appears in this documentary, seemingly angry most of the time.

The film, called ''Fitzcarraldo,'' is the story, based partly upon fact, of one man's obsession to build an opera house in the jungle -- which involved finding uncultivated rubber trees to yield the money necessary to bring Caruso to the Amazon. In many ways it is inspirational, in that the film was actually completed despite overwhelming difficulties. It indicates the strength of will and determination of Herzog.

He has already made such critically acclaimed auteur films as ''Aguirre, the Wrath of God'' and ''Nosferatu.'' In this case, his obsession to make the film under nightmarish conditions parallels his subject matter.

Herzog speaks in symbols, sometimes very obscure ones, just as he uses symbols and strange ritual in his films. He remarked at one point to the Les Blank, producer of the documentary ''Everyday life is only an illusion behind which lies the reality of drama.

''Burden of Dreams'' is one of a series of innovative documentaries by independent film and video makers, with the totally un-innovative name of ''Non Fiction Television,'' administered by the Television Laboratory at WNET, New York. It is as scenic and muddy as the Amazon itself.

But about Herzog's film, one must ask if this film need have been made at all? Although it cannot be faulted as a grandiose artistic endeavor, is one man's cinematic vision enough to condone the tampering with the delicate balance between jungle and primitive tribes? Should one man's obsession with obsession be pampered by banks, studios, audiences? Should a large native population be allowed to be so corrupted by money and all the ''civilized'' luxuries it can buy for a people unprepared for ''necessities'' like McDonald's hamburgers and designer jeans?

Well, according to the final credits, the Indians are now being helped to acquire legal title to their own lands. And according to Herzog says ''All these dreams are yours as well as mine. I can articulate them. . . . That's what art is all about. It is my duty. . . .''

''Fitzcarraldo'' was shown at the Cannes Film Festival last month, where some critics complained that it was a long, excruciating bore. The Herzog cultists, however, felt it was still another mystic masterpiece by their hero. It will soon be shown in many cities and most likely will soon be on one of the cultural cable channels (CBS Cable has already shown ''Aguirre'').

Meantime, ''Burden of Dreams'' is available free on PBS. You may find it a bit exotic, esoteric, pretentious. But I guarantee you will not find it a bore. Preservationists' story

Exotic but not at all esoteric is The Last Round-up of the Elephants (CBS, Wednesday).

Jason Robards, who obviously found reading a script in a sound studio more to his liking than filmmaking in the Amazon jungle, narrates this amazing documentary about the attempts being made to prevent extermination of the Asian elephant.

Cinematographer Dieter Plage traveled to Assam, India, and Sri Lanka to film the unique methods of wildlife preservation being used to ensure the survival of the remaining 20,000 to 40,000 Asian elephants, whose origins can be traced back around 70 million years. The photography is positively lyrical.