By Magnus Course
A recent proposal to make a documentary on Shuar head-hunting has a led to a flurry of activity on a variety of lowland South America anthropology lists. The ensuing debate evolved gradually from the airing of concerns about the proposed documentary, to a more reflective discussion about what we as anthropologists want to see in popular ethnographic films. Following Steve Rubenstein’s suggestion that a good place to start is by looking at films we regard as successful and positive, several anthropologists sent lists of their favourite ethnographic films about indigenous South American peoples. Perhaps not surprisingly, the majority cited films made by indigenous peoples themselves. Such films of course bypass (or at least, obscure) several rather sticky problems of the ethics and politics of representation. Furthermore, many of these films are beautiful, evocative, and provocative from an anthropological perspective. The question I want to pose in this post is that of whether such films really offer a solution to the central problem we are addressing in this blog: the nature of representation of indigenous peoples in popular ethnographic television documentaries. I am inclined to say that, despite their undoubted worth, they do not. My reason is that what makes them interesting to anthropologists is precisely what makes them uninteresting to everyone else: their capacity to represent life from a truly indigenous perspective. Put simply, anthropologists are trained (and paid) to understand and appreciate these perspectives, general television audiences are not.
There is of course a much broader debate in public broadcasting, to which Andre referred, about the extent to which progamming should be determined by audience demand. Is television entertainment or education? Of course it is ideally both; simultaneously informative and entertaining. Yet the recent plethora of ‘tribal’ reality shows favours entertainment at the expense of education, while the indigenously-produced films favoured by anthropologists (at least, the ones I have seen) are heavily weighted towards the informative end of the spectrum. I would be very surprised (and very pleased!) if a film made by indigenous peoples about themselves made it onto British television at this particular juncture in time. The issue for anthropologists and broadcasters alike, then, is that of how to educate an audience, how to increase awareness of alternative understandings of the world, in increments small enough to prevent the viewer reaching for the remote, but big enough to lead to significant change. My next post will contain a few ruminations about how this might be achieved.