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?
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.
In Sri Lanka the government, cognizant of the need to safeguard the elephant, has set aside a series of connected national parks in which the elephants are encouraged to live in order to prevent them from competing with the natives for cultivated land.
In Assam, Mr. Plage takes us on elephant hunts with the Singpho tribe, which captures wild elephants, then tames them for sale to preserves, governments, zoos, and entrepreneurs. In another kind of hunt, Mr. Plage shows us the technique for rounding up and preserving elephants for transfer to the safety of India's national parks. Throughout the documentary the script takes a very defensive stand about the capture techniques which seem to humiliate and degrade these beautiful beasts. It is disturbing to see these gargantuan yet graceful creatures downed by darts and misled by Kapo-like tamed elephants, totally controlled by manipulative men.
One begins to wonder whether we are really helping these creatures at all when our survival methods tame and temporarily take away their dignity. Are we destroying in the name of conserving? Do films like this merely exploit the elephants by encouraging the capture of more of them and their removal from their natural habitat? And how does the making of such films, with all the local expenditures, affect the ecology of the region?
''The Last Roundup'' is more than just another wild-life documentary -- it is a last-chance look at an animal ''on a collision course with the human race.'' It takes an honest, if slightly exploitive, look at our society's guilt and its current efforts to get rid of that guilt by searching desperately for easy ways to reverse past mistakes. The documentary is a cinematically sensational, sociologically sensitive study in ecological brinkmanship. Chat with Survival Anglia chief
John F. Ball, president of Survival Anglia Ltd., which produced the elephant special, is a bit perturbed by the question ''Isn't your photographing of the capture of elephants part of the extinction problem more than the preservation solution?
''No!'' he says; ''in our civilization, at a time when the elephants are competing with people for subsistence, you have to round up the elephants in order to move them to places where they can survive. When you do that, you look like you are harming the elephants, so the picture goes out of its way to make the point that all of this is good for the animal even if it doesn't look it.''
Survival Anglia, according to Mr. Ball, has 16 photograpahic teams in various parts of the world, constantly working on new wildlife films. ''Unlike Hollywood , we give our guys the luxury of time -- as much as two or three years -- to come up with a film. Hollywood can afford to allow only six or eight weeks. That's why Disney and Wolper seem to be out of the wildlife business. It is just too expensive to do a film properly. We are the only ones on commercial television.'' (National Geographic and Cousteau documentaries still appear on PBS, however. And there are still syndicated wildlife shows on independent stations.)
Mr. Ball is proud of the fact that Survival Anglia Ltd., originally a British-owned (now British-American) wildlife film company, had a camera team in the Falkland Islands when the Argentine invasion occurred.
''Our photographers, Cindy Buxton and Annie Price, were marooned on South Georgia Island for six weeks,'' he said. ''The British landed and they were flown out with spectacular footage of the king penguins which dominate the island. Also, there is the backdrop of the war. It's a compelling film which would be especially relevant now but which will be effective two years from now as well. We don't want to rush it to market too fast.''
Mr. Ball says that Dieter Plage, the famous cinematographer, was attacked by a rogue elephant while shooting the film (some of those scenes are in the documentary), but managed to escape. ''Once, he was almost thrown off an elephant's back while he was shooting. He tells me that you are safe on the back of an elephant because the elephant scent covers your own scent. But, once you are on the ground, the human scent is very distinctive to the elephants and elephants in the wild are likely to attack because they have been shot at so often by natives.''
Although Survival Anglia is one of the last, if not the only, major film company making wildlife films for commercial TV, Mr. Ball feels there may be a resurgence of interest in his kind of films, now that the networks are being forced to search for high-quality programming to compete with the encroachment of cable TV. ''Maybe we won't ever have to make a film titled 'The Last Round-up of Wildlife Filmmakers,' '' he says hopefully.