Is anthropology to blame?

Truls Lie
Editor-in-chief, Modern Times Review. Also head of the Norwegian monthly newspaper NY TID. Based in Oslo/Berlin.

Secrets Of The Tribe | The erotic man

José Padilha | Jørgen Leth

USA 2010, 1h 50min | Denmark 2010, 1h 25min

The new film by Jose Padihla, Secrets of the Tribe – shown at Film From the South Festival in Oslo in October – looks into the consequences of anthropology. Padihla based his film on archive material and about 100 interviews.

In the 60s and 70s, American anthropologists travelled into the depths of the Amazon Jungle to find local tribes untouched by modern civilisation. One result was the book Yanomamo: The Fierce People by Napoleon Chagnon. This newly educated man postulated that the tribe was violent due to their low protein diet. A large part of the mature male population was used to killing. Those who kidnapped women from other tribes also got the most children. The book has been part of the curriculum for generations of anthropologists. Kenneth Good, on the contrary, describes the tribe as peaceful and innocent. He also married a teenage girl (13), which was common practice within the tribe – they stayed together as is seen in later recordings.

Chagnon and his fellow anthropologists have been accused of genocide, since they brought with them viruses such as measles and influenza to which the natives had no resistance. Hundreds died. The older Chagnon appears very confident of his results, denies any atrocities, and makes fun of Good’s research. White Western men didn’t care much about their research objects, it seems. Or they “cared” too much, exploiting them for sex – like Jacques Lizot (a student of LéviStrauss) who exchanged Western goods (and weapons) for sex with young boys. Of course Lizot refused to be interviewed by Padihla. Western researchers also tested various doses of radioactive material by injecting them into the natives – without informed consent. It’s common knowledge that Hitler used anthropologists to identify the traits of other “races” – in deciding who should be sent to the concentration camps and who should not. Today the US Military uses anthropologists in Iraq and Afghanistan. To “understand” the Other who just got their family massacred? To help the military understand the behaviour of their enemies? Those wars doesn’t strengthen communication with these Other cultures, that’s for sure.

Secrets of the Tribe

So why travel to the ends of the world to attain knowledge that may free us from the fetters of our own culture? At DocLisboa, the film Claude Lévi-Strauss: Return to the Amazon (2009) showed the return of this world famous anthropologist to Nambikwara where he had conducted research as a young man 70 years earlier. The natives regard him as a myth today. When asked about the biggest problem the world is currently facing he answers: overpopulation – explaining that he won’t experience it since he is too old (he died a year ago, at 100). But isn’t he aware that hunger can be politically solved by making it a global distribution task? No, anthropologists don’t care about politics, or the consequences of their research. They deal in interpretations, not ethics.
Another man travelling around the cultures of the third world, is the Danish filmmaker Jørgen Leth (73). He often refers to the Polish anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski, who wrote books about sexual life in primitive cultures in the 1920s. Leth’s new film Erotic Man premiered this autumn at festivals [see critique at page 38].

The film is impressive as it searches or something that cannot actually be seen. Like Leth says, to reframe the erotic is like looking for God. It has visually powerful sequences. The voice of this man, returning to places later in life – to search again for some old experiences now lost – is existentially thoughtprovoking. As Malinowski once said: “Desire starts in the eyes …” , we see Leth especially filming the eyes of women from different countries. Like the anthropologists, he is also a white, Western man looking at the Other. We see him on a river boat in the Amazon looking at and dreaming of how to have sex with a beautiful woman. Surfaces, surfaces. But still he is a better observer than the ones mentioned above. He is also humble, as he once said to me about living in Haiti: “I have come here to learn, not to teach them my norms.” Still, is film number forty-five able to dig dip enough into the erotic without letting the Other – the women – speak? Is it a limitation only to be able to hear Jørgen’s thoughts through his voiceover, or in his lines read by the women? Not necessarily; since film is a visual medium, that “speaks” for itself.

So to what extent will we really be able to understand different cultures, or the Other? The Indonesian director Garin Nugroho travels around filming in Indonesia. This country of 238 million people and 17,500 islands, with 400 tribes and 500 different languages, is impossible to “understand” as a whole. There will always be a lot of Others. His last film Blue Generation is about the Indonesian pop band Slank. But what do this western looking band sing about ? Paradoxically they sing about unity. Let me end with the NorwegianPeruvian director Marianne Eyde – who has lived more than forty years in Peru while making films there: She tells me at a seminar at Films From The South Festival: “you are always on the outside”.


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