Off the grid.

‘Uncontacted Peoples’ is a term I hear more and more these days, and is tied into this whole rampant globalisation discourse – and the reaction against it – that dominates print and online journalism. The term itself is misleading, the narrative a skewed one as in many cases very limited contact has been made, even if it’s a ‘mere’ aerial lens capturing of a tribe.

I do find it totally unfathomable, though, that in an era of non-stop tweets, ‘trending’ on social media, 24-hour news, and the now seemingly complete interconnectivity of every facet of human existence, these people are still wading through rivers jabbing fish with spears, cultures whose capacity for art is alleged to be on a par with the sketches made by our caveman ancestors.

In an age in which an Instagram snap of one’s dinner evidences the meal, such Uncontacted Peoples perplex us with their scant concern for or awareness of anything beyond their own enclosed world. And yet we are curious about them, hence the plethora of anthropological works addressing their way of life, shaping a Western-oriented metanarrative of the ‘other’. What is often overlooked in such documentations is the effect upon the subject of the study itself, the presence of the evidence gatherer – journalist, photographer, filmmaker – and how this can not only misrepresent the indigenous subject but also materially influence it.

Ethnographic cinema, then, has its own set of problematic specificities, as evidenced in the notable historical depictions of previously unknown (to us) peoples.

Representations and the Observer Effect.

Nanook of the North (1922).

With its clumsy, trite staging of scenes and portraying them as ‘real life’, Nanook of the North (1922) elevates the artifice of ethnographic film to the ridiculous. The most infamous of these incidents is footage of Nanook – his actual name Allakariallak – hunting with a spear when in reality he used a gun. It’s anthropological cinema made to strengthen existing notions of how the ‘noble savage’ lives and works, a fallacy that does more to point out the deficiencies of the filmmaker and his effect on the material than a sincere depiction of an unfamiliar way of life.

The Ax Fight (1975).

The Ax Fight (1975), filmed among an ‘isolated’ Yanomami village in Venezuela, is dominated by an 11-minute unedited sequence of film showing an increasingly violent fight between two neighbouring tribes, the causes of which the filmmakers are ignorant of. The participants, however, are fully aware of the presence of the film crew, and discussion continues as to the influence the crew may have had over proceedings. Tim Asch and Napoleon Chagnon, its directors, maintain that their presence in the village, and the fact they had previously handed over machetes to individuals, had no effect on the causes or intensity of the fight.

Jean Rouch and cinéma vérité.

Jean Rouch, director of the seminal Chronicle of a Summer (1961), and widely considered to be in the vanguard of ethnofiction, seemed to find a way to illustrate a filmmaker’s interference – the Observer Effect – by consciously drawing attention to it, often appearing with his subjects in the films he made, fully aware that a camera can never be candid and impartial.

With the present ubiquity of discreetly placed GoPro recording devices and the like, this has now brought up new dynamic possibilities concerning the truth-legitimacy of the camera. Perhaps the only solution to achieving an uninfluential depiction of the ‘uncontacted’ would be to furtively place cameras in their locale and observe incognito, this introducing its own set of moral and ethical complications.

Maybe it’s just best to leave them alone.

Further reading:

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