“Barbaric, primitive man” — white man condescending, the 2015 model

September 8, 2015 § 2 Comments

I had not heard such stories in a long time, and I did not even think they would be possible. But Ballyhoo’s on the rise again, and there’s no headline big enough. Still, I was surprised to stumble upon this story this morning, regarding the soon-to-be-released cannibal horror flick by Eli Roth, The Green Inferno. Roth is here talking about the production in Peru:

“So when we shot it, I wanted to film somewhere that was really, really, really in the Amazon. Really, authentically off the grid. We scouted in the summer-time and went up the river for hours and hours and found this village where there was no electricity, no running water, grass huts. Ten people in a shack. And it looked incredible; it looked like a village from another time, so we asked if we could film there. But I was told that we have to tell them what a movie is because they have no idea. They’ve never seen one. They’ve never even seen a television. So they went back with a television and a generator and showed the village Cannibal Holocaust, which I couldn’t believe. And the villagers – thank god – thought it was a comedy. The funniest thing that they’d ever seen. And they wanted to play cannibals in the movie. So we had the entire village acting in the film. And they speak Quechua – which is like another language from another time.” (from a 2013 interview with Roth)

I have right now no way of knowing where Roth actually filmed (though his admission that “they call the river Aguirre because the last film to  shoot there was Aguirre The Wrath God” would indicate that he was in the Ucayali region), or indeed whether the story is true or spurious. As usual, with Ballyhoo, it is probably both. And Roth’s own words in his tale are small comfort for anyone trying to take him seriously: either the shoot is genuinely dangerous (“we could have died any number of times — there were floods, and there were rock-slides, there were tarantulas, snakes, animals walking through shots. It was crazy…it was brutal”) or it is really a merry “jungle adventure — we had cameras and everyone was just so up for it”. Either the village has not made contact and the tribe lives in complete isolation (“no electricity, no running water, grass huts”), or there is enough electricity to play with iPads (“you became friends with all the kids and all the old people. And then by the end they were all playing with iPhones and iPads. We’ve completely polluted the social system and f*cked them up”). Ballyhoo, of course, can have it both ways.

But what attracted me to this story is that I had read it before–in fact, I had read it all (including the bit where villagers are shown a movie “for the first time”, and were then induced to act out as cannibals in a movie) in an account of Edward Salisbury’s expedition to shoot a “documentary” entitled Black Shadows (1922) in the Solomon islands. The excerpt is from “Eighteen Months on the Trail of Cannibals”, ostensibly written by Edward Salisbury himself, published in The Atlanta Constitution, 5 nov. 1922, pg. F9 [which is available, I believe, through Proquest]:

“In the meantime I had to teach the natives, like children, that they were in a play when going through their usual avocations and amusements before the motion picture camera, for I wanted to make pictures of all their life and pursuits as well as of their warlike proclivities.
It proved impossible for the islanders to understand what the small box which stood on three legs had to do with recording their history, so I decided upon taking the risk of showing them a motion picture of themselves by way of convincing them.
Swarthy forms filled the Wisdom’s deck before a curtain strung across it on the night when Vella Lavella saw its first motion picture. The shock of its appearance was greeted with a yell of terror. Up sprang the warriors in a confusion of struggling limbs. Those nearest the rail jumped overboard and swam ashore. Others pressed behind, remembered their record for bravery, hesitated and stood their ground.
“Oh, oh!” howled Buli. “Devil-devil!”
“See!” I shouted, clapping my friend Buli on the shoulder, “he is alive. He is not hurt!” I made them feel each other to prove that no one was dead or injured.
Meantime this new devil-devil, whose spirit was in the beam of light which shone upon the curtain, awakened all manner of fears in their startled minds. They found their voices. A panic of cries and pointing fingers broke loose. Here and there Berche-la-mer asserted itself.
“Oh, him no b’long here! Him no b’long here.”
How could Buli be sitting among them the while his spirit danced upon the curtain?
Although still badly frightened, a number of them were induced to touch the sheet and convince themselves that the devil-devil was novel [?], making pictures of their acts while they, themselves, were unharmed.
The savages examined first one side of the screen, then the other. How was it possible for a man suddenly to become so thin! The projection machine stopped. The figures on the sheet disappeared. I had to quell another panic. “Where had the warriors gone?”
Through Buli I explained that in my box was a magic eye which saw everything they did and several days afterwards this eye would tell on a sheet what it had seen them do. I told them that when I returned to my own island the magic eye would tell my people what a brave nation of warriors they were, and how they lived and danced and fought.
“Great medicine!” they responded, and told one another that this box of the magic eye was white man’s big medicine, which could drive the ills out of a sick body and do many wonderful things.”

I’m just putting this out-there, but there would be other stories from the colonial past that would be similar. In fact, there’s another example available on Picturegoing, and Tom Gunning wrote an entire article about this figure of the “(in)credulous spectator”, ranging from the myth of the “first” audience running away from the Lumière film L’arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat, to

“the state usually attributed to savages in their primal encounter with the advanced technology of Western colonialists, howling and feeling in impotent terror before the power of the machine”. (Gunning Tom. “An Aesthetic of Astonishment: Early Film and the (In)Credulous Spectator.” Art and Text 34 (Spring 1989): 31-45.)

I think the onus is on Roth to explain how he squares the contradictions, also obvious in the 1922 text, between the pretense of “discovery” of an uncontacted tribe — the pretense, to be more precise, that this status as “uncontacted” truly matters — and the “corruption” that he makes light of (or, in Salibury’s text, the pretense that the film is a “documentary”, and the grooming of villagers as actors via film).  At least in Roth’s story the tribe is so media-savvy that they immediately recognise that the cannibal horror film is a joke–and so we are led to think that the on-film portrayal of the tribe as “barbaric, primitive” (Roth’s words!!) is also just a joke.

I have my doubts as to whether Roth’s film itself will endanger uncontacted tribes, as AmazonWatch, for instance, and other such NGOs that do tremendous work protecting these tribes, have argued. And I certainly don’t think censoring the film is a solution. But what is for me very clear is that the whole trope of the “primitive” tribe being “cannibal” and learning about “modern” civilisation through watching movies but remaining somewhat “primitive” has a long and disgusting history. Maybe, as Roth argues, it’s all a joke–but it’s a sad, tired joke, and surely we can do better.

Or, in an even more disquieting way, does it speak about some sort of on-going Western panic attack about all these Others knocking on our rich world’s doors, in a way that No Escape, apparently, also does?

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§ 2 Responses to “Barbaric, primitive man” — white man condescending, the 2015 model

  • Naïve Spectator says:

    Really enjoyed this post. There are indeed LOTS of these stories. Stephen Bottomore has a whole appendix of them in his article, “The Panicking Audience?” http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/014396899100271?journalCode=chjf20#.Ve7tlM4_7E4
    He seems to take them mostly at face value, as evidence of the shock of watching moving images for the first time, but I would argue that there’s always a re-interpretation embedded in the telling of these stories, that typically they function to render and renew the sense that we have about the cinema’s radical novelty. These ideas are, of course, bound up in colonialist teleologies that order human cultures according to what degree they’ve incorporated modern technologies into their lives. I wrote about it in my dissertation, if you’re interested, check out Chapter 2. of “Primal Screen, Primitivism and American Silent Film Spectatorship.” http://search.proquest.com/docview/1491390125

  • Fabrice says:

    Hey thanks for the comment, really appreciate your linking to the references–sounds like I need to read your dissertation!

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