'Soul Surfer's' Ross Thomas shines a light on Peru's indigenous people

ross-thomas2-gi.jpgIn "Soul Surfer" (opening April 8), Ross Thomas plays the brother of a teen who has her arm bitten off by a shark, but overcomes the tragedy to return to surfing. An inspiring story, and one that Thomas was elated to add to his resume.

"I play her older brother," Thomas tells Zap2It. "The whole family played a really significant role in her comeback."

In this case, Thomas means not only the on-screen family of Helen Hunt, Dennis Quaid and Annasophia Robb -- but Bethany's Hamilton real parents and brother, who were on the Hawaii set while much of the filming took place. Ross recounts surfing with the Hamiltons, where he and the rest of the cast were able to witness the family's "really strong sense of hope and faith and determination."

That's a theme that resonates with Thomas, who spent months in the Southern Peruvian Amazon in 2010 shooting and producing the documentary "Extraction: The Plundering of the Amarakaeri Preserve." Thomas hopes the film will bring awareness to the encroachment of Hunt Oil on an area that had been protected for the indigineous people, but has become increasingly valuable to oil companies.

"To me it's amazing to think that I'm living here in Los Angeles and looking out my window looking at a concrete jungle," says Thomas, "while there are people out there in the jungle who are living off the land. So, I started traveling to these remote locations to see these people and that gave me the opportunity to study and learn from them."

"I learned so much and it had such a positive impact on my life," continued Thomas, "so I made a pact with myself that I couldn't just go and take for myself. And when I say 'take for myself,' I mean on a knowledge level. I knew that there were some very pressing issues that were happening to indigenous people all over the world and to the environment they were living in, from India to Africa to Brazil to the Equadorian Amazon."

Deciding he needed to choose one issue, Thomas went to Peru with a camera ("I was basically a one-man-band," he says) and linked up with German anthropologist Jessica Bertram who took him to the Amarakaeri Reserve in southern Peru where, Thomas says, an indigenous environment is under threat from Hunt Oil.

"Hunt Oil basically came into the reserve without any permission from the people and began seismic exploration looking for crude oil," says Thomas. "It would be like if you were sitting in your back yard and someone just kicked the fence in and barged in and you had no idea who they were or why they were there."

So Thomas made his documentary to raise awareness about the issue. See a brief clip below:



He continues to work with Survival International and Amazon Watch and plans a return visit to the Amarakaeri Reserve soon.
Photo/Video credit: Getty Images
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