Miracle in the Amazon jungle

Daniel Radcliffe stars as Israeli backpacker Yossi Ghinsberg 
in Jungle.

LIKE his warts and all style memoir about surviving against the odds for 17 days in the Bolivian Amazon jungle in 1981 – mostly alone – as a young and naive Israeli backpacker looking for adventure, Yossi Ghinsberg was determined to ensure that any feature film version of his remarkable coming of age story was equally raw, honest and true to what happened.

“That’s why it took 26 years to bring Jungle to the big screen – and in a way I was the main obstacle,” Ghinsberg told The AJN on the eve of its Australian cinema release on November 10 .

“An Israeli as the protagonist and two characters that disappear without resolution – many producers thought an audience would not accept that.

“And with the industry it is in, we would have had to dramatise things structurally and conceptually – and there’s always a lure to make one guy (character) really dangerous and turn him into a madman, but life is more complex and interesting than that.

“But I felt the real story must be told, and adding dramatisation just didn’t make any sense to me. The story was dramatic enough and I couldn’t compromise on its integrity, or the integrity of the living characters and the dead characters.”

It took until 2005 when Ghinsberg, who now lives in Byron Bay, agreed to give Israeli producer Dana Lustig the rights to make the film, and another decade before “the right constellation manifested” to start casting and filming.

“I fully trusted Dana and I was there with her for the entire process,” he said.

“I’m very happy with the end result, and Daniel Radcliffe did a tremendous job in studying, accepting and playing my character – I feel so humbled and privileged to have such a stellar performance from an iconic figure like him.”

Jungle begins with Yossi and two other backpackers setting off with a mysterious adventurer guide on a trek in search of a lost tribe and treasure in the remotest part of the jungles of north-western Bolivia in the Madidi National Park.

Circumstances, including a white-knuckle rafting accident down a waterfall, separate the group of adventurers.

From that point on, director Greg McLean focuses the action, in both excruciating and gripping fashion, on two main characters – a vulnerable, hungry and increasingly desperate Ghinsberg who must decide to will his way to survive long enough in the hope to be saved, and the extremely dangerous yet stunningly beautiful Amazon rainforest.

Among the situations Ghinsberg faces in Jungle are coming face to face with a jaguar in the dead of night, snakes, flesh eating slugs, getting stuck in quicksand, suffering hallucinations, almost starving, and clinging on only to the slim hope that somehow he might be found by the riverside before it is too late.

By the end of the film, Radcliffe – like Ghinsberg in the Madidi wilderness – is close to just skin and bones, and in the case of his rotting feet, just bones.

“I’ve got to hand it to him (Radcliffe) – he lost about 14 pounds for the film – and he had to do it twice because some scenes were shot in northern Australia as well as in Columbia,” said Ghinsberg.

Radcliffe said that Yossi’s journey, particularly once he was alone, was the aspect that attracted him to play the role.

“The sheer extremity of it, the fact that he survived, is miraculous. Once we were on set, it was amazing to be able to turn around to him and ask ‘what where you thinking at this moment?’

“Yossi’s story is applicable to anybody who has battled any kind of adversity. I feel like if there’s a message for this film, it’s you can do more than you think you can, just by persevering.”

Although Ghinsberg was not religious as a young adult – he observes Shabbat with his family these days – Judaism and the importance of heritage and family are essential elements of the film.

“That was not just important, but it represented much more than the context of where I came from,” said Ghinsberg.

“I felt it actually represents my entire generation – kids that were born in Israel but whose parents were all war refugees and Holocaust survivors who were traumatised.

“It is revealed in very little snippets, like the (concentration camp) prisoner number tattooed on my father’s arm, and his rage at me (before departing for his South American adventure) for wasting my time.

“What they (that generation) wanted for us most was to secure ourselves and to get a profession – not to go out and see the world.

“The resonance of being born free in Israel without that trauma, and in the shadow of our parents, I think was what this encapsulates.”

One of the few possessions that Ghinsberg takes on his adventures in Bolivia is a small, frayed prayer booklet written in Aramaic with a Star of David on the cover that was given to him by his uncle Nissim, a rabbi and Kabbalah scholar.

“My uncle told me the book had protected him during the Holocaust, and he died just 45 minutes after handing it to me, so I took it on my trip,” said Ghinsberg. “It gave me the confidence that I would not die.”

A decade after his Bolivian ordeal, Ghinsberg returned for three years to Madidi National Park to help set up the Chalalan eco-lodge, which is owned and run by the local indigenous people and now has 40 staff.

When asked what he most hopes audiences will take with them from Jungle, Ghinsberg reflected: “Firstly, that people are entertained and kept on the edge of their seat, completely encapsulated.

“I hope the power of the story will touch people, and inspire and empower them.

“And I also hope that it will draw attention again, as my book did many years ago, to this part of the world (the Bolivian Amazon) and its indigenous people.

“It’s been a great delight to have the Amazon and its people as part of my life and to have the privilege of being able to give something back in such a focused way.

“It’s still an active part of my life and, also existentially as a human being, I still feel I’m living that archetype – I’m still in a way a traveller.”

Ghinsberg believes he did find that elusive “treasure” that he was looking for as a 22-year-old backpacker, metaphorically if not physically.

“I do think it was fulfilled because I found my path – the treasure was my survival and my understanding from growing up from this experience, and the privilege of becoming an ambassador for the people of the Madidi and their story.

“I hope it reaches many hearts, and it is a privilege to be the carrier of that because, in a way, I didn’t choose it.”

Jungle is currently screening.

REPORT: Shane Desiatnik