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Anthropologists do well in movies, indigenous peoples not so much

Films such as Avatar idealise indigenous people as Noble Savages, enjoying simple and uncorrupted lifestyles until contact with colonisers. Nicole Hanusek

Last month, four intrepid anthropologists – led by Gavin Weston of Goldsmiths College – embarked on a journey into uncharted lands. The team faced spear-wielding cannibals, shamans, vampires and giants, all without leaving the couch. Their mission? To study diverse representations of anthropologists in cinema and report their findings to the wider world.

Despite the low-risk nature of their fieldwork, this was by no means a frivolous undertaking. Ever since anthropology emerged as a discipline in the context of European colonial expansion the figure of the anthropologist has been much romanticised and maligned.

Part warrior, part explorer, anthropologists are fixed in the public imagination as pith-helmet-wearing adventurers, hacking at jungle vines and dodging poison darts. National Geographic and similar publications have presented anthropology as a quest for exotic or “lost” tribes, which are themselves caricatured as fossilised representatives of our “primitive” human past.

It’s an image that anthropologists have been struggling to shake off since at least the 1920s, when the social evolutionist ideas that dominated the previous century were roundly discredited from within the discipline.

So, too, social scientists of all stripes began to acknowledge their own complicity in human exploitation, questioning condescending representations of minorities and listening more attentively to indigenous perspectives.

Convincing the wider public to follow them has been a harder hill to climb. Governments wishing to justify heavy-handed policies still refer to antiquated notions of indigenous peoples “lacking” the advantages of human progress.

Meanwhile, proponents of New Age philosophies have been guilty of treating indigenous knowledge as a fount of pre-modern wisdom – a resource for remedying the negative effects of modern living. Yes, 19th-century anthropology casts a long shadow.

Shifting the focus

When anthropologists turn the tools of their trade on themselves, placing their own profession in the role of the passive or exotic “tribe”, the results can be illuminating. Weston and his colleagues watched films that feature anthropologists, from obscure movies such as Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death (1989) to the better-known Gorillas in the Mist (1988), The Nanny Diaries (2007) and Avatar (2009).

What they discovered surprised them. Of the 53 films they watched that had at least one anthropologist as a character, just under half belonged to the horror genre. Why should that be the case?

It turns out that much of the uncanny or mystical phenomena that gives us the heebie-jeebies is precisely what many anthropologists have been drawn to analyse. Beliefs and practices surrounding the supernatural – including spirit possession and vampires – have been the subject of important anthropological studies.

But more to the point, anthropologists have a unique expertise that allows them to mediate between worlds, and this turns out to be a useful skill set in the event of a zombie apocalypse or an exorcism gone wrong.

Scholars of cultural diversity serve as convenient plot devices for explaining the unexplainable to the viewing audience and helping the hero make better decisions. Just like the ingenious nerd who knows how to repair a wrecked spaceship or delve into a government mainframe, so too fictional anthropologists are available to “hack” the behaviour of otherworldly actors.

Indigenous brutality

When indigenous minorities feature in schlock movies things look a little different. Consider the tired trope of fierce savages, shocking viewers with displays of violence or cannibalism. In a reprise of Cowboys-and-Indians the audience is invited to imagine themselves as potential victims of indigenous brutality.

In effect, “scary natives” occupy the same role as scary monsters, aliens and other beings whose behaviour cannot be predicted. But as it happens, fictional anthropologists are typically on the side of indigenous people, defending their acts of savagery as a consequence of the greater sin of colonial violence.

And yet these “sympathetic” narratives are hardly redemptive when cultural minorities are cast as mere props to aid the enlightenment of rational Westerners.

Non-horror films such as The God’s Must be Crazy (1980), Dances With Wolves (1990), and Avatar (2009), idealise indigenous people as Noble Savages, enjoying simple and uncorrupted lifestyles until contact with colonisers. In most cases, this nobility is also a weakness, requiring the protection of a Great White Saviour who has the power to move between both worlds.

In the worst examples of this genre, the naive natives accept the newcomer as a god. Take the Ewoks in Return of the Jedi (1983), who end up worshipping C-3PO, or the cannibals of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (2006), who revere Jack Sparrow as a deity.

Fictional distortions can have serious consequences. French anthropologist Laurent Dousset was astonished by his encounters with white people in remote Australian communities whose ignorance of Aboriginal social organisation was less shocking to him than the fiction-inspired fantasies that filled the knowledge gap.

When nurses, police officers and teachers rely on comic-book stereotypes of primitivity or nobility to guide their interactions with Indigenous Australians, the results can hardly be satisfactory.

But while indigenous people are caricatured in fiction, representations of anthropologists in cinema are more diverse and often surprisingly accurate. In the real world, anthropologists find themselves plagued by moral dilemmas over power imbalances, their professional credibility, and the unforeseen consequences of revealing findings to the public.

Actual polemics in anthropology have seeped into cinema. Traces of Napoleon Chagnon’s controversial theories of Amazonian violence, Margaret Mead’s disputed account of Samoan sexuality and Carlos Castaneda’s alleged fabrications of data in Mexico have all provided fodder for films such as Cannibal Holocaust (1980), American Geisha (1986), Krippendorf’s Tribe (1998), In a Savage Land (1999), and The Mating Habits of the Earthbound Human (1999).

Fiction, it seems, is ready to represent anthropologists as flawed human beings mediating between strange worlds of which they have imperfect knowledge. Maybe it’s time for indigenous people to receive the same treatment.

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