“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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Chang: a drama of the wilderness (1927

November 9, 2008 § Leave a comment

Dir.: Schoedsack and Cooper titles by achmed abdullah over a still image of jungle vegetation

The Natives “who have never seen a moving picture” (even though they are very good actors, as will be shortly seen) Wild beasts “who have never had to fear a modern rifle” (even though Kru and the other villagers will use nothing but rifles to do their hunting) “before man trod the earth – then, as now, there stretched across vast spaces of farther Asia a great green threatening mass of vegetation…the Jungle…”

hokum all…(even though the rifles really are not modern, and even if this is really the first — and last — film these actors ever played in)

The beginning is about…the beginning of civilisation itself: the battle between civilisation and the jungle. Rather than a “historical” introduction, it serves to build plot rather than background. Immediately after the film shows the life of the Kru family: daily life, details of farming, husking the grain. But the difference with a Flaherty is clear: Flaherty lets each gesture go to its natural limit, taking the time it needs (the tatoo ceremony in Moana), while here all gestures are as much as possible made to fit into some suspenseful narrative (the attack of the leopard, or the planting of the rice which is right away tuned into the suspense of rain and survival). Similarly, the “night” scene (obviously shot in the day) plants the family retiring to its fort-like house (retiring the ladder, closing a gate on top), and then lets loose all kinds of dramatic encounters (tiger and buffalo, leopard and goat). In the editing, it’s enough to let you agree with Bazin that reality in cinema is better translated in the long take…(whereas the editing carries meaning, plot meaning or philosophical or political or…).

The transformation into narrative and drama is astonishing: even the flight from the elephants and the subsequent leopards is staged, the family faking the panic, the flight of the monkey edited to make it look like it catches up with the family who waits for it at some point, the father faking his near-fall in the trap, and so on. It’s more than subtitles telling a story: the editing is strongly fictional.

And even when, as opposed to Flaherty, the lifestyle may not be reconstructed. Those villagers have guns and those do seem to be their houses–though this should be checked of course.Flaherty re-creates a reality long gone, but lets actions flow morre or less naturally (though drama is there too), so that he gives us a bit of nostalgic reality. Schoedsack and Cooper take a bit of current reality and turn it into a drama, to the point where even the elephants seem to obey them (or when the villagers transform what was their village into a huge elephant trap, one has the feeling to be watching the rehearsal for a Griffith battle — feeling also of desolation: what price for those spectacular images ? the entire village ? Why did villagers submit to this extensive safari ? Why did they agree to be turned into extras ? Apparently they got help from local missionaries into selecting the actors for the film — Kru for instance played the lead role, his wife in the film was some one else’s wife).

On the one hand, reconstituted fiction turned documentary; on the other, actual reality channeled into fiction. Even if that “reality” is strongly focused on the hunting. The plot is at times nonsensical: the village destroyed, do they repair it ? No, they build an elephant trap and go capturing part of a herd.

Everyday reality, undramatic, is abandonned rather quickly indeed. But then, also unlike Flaherty, Schoedsack and Cooper are upfront about it: they wanted to make a fiction, planned it as such. Flaherty disguises his staging as documentary truth. Is it a realistic fiction, then ?

SMITHER Roger (1993)

October 30, 2008 § 2 Comments

SMITHER Roger: “‘A wonderful idea of the fighting’: the question of fakes in ‘The Battle of the Somme’.”Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television. 13, 1993: 149-168.

Etudie en détail l’authenticité des séquences du film Battle of the Somme (1916). 

3 critères pour l’authenticité: 

 – le film est conforme à ce qu’annonce les intertitres (intertitres en gros conformes aux exigences de la guerre, notamment pas bcp de détails pour éviter de donner des renseignements militaires), 

 – le film repose sur une solide base documentaire (les dope sheets renseignent sur certaines séquences, la biographie de Malins n’est pas en revanche une base très solide), 

– enfin le film est conforme à la vérité historique.  (p. 154)

Au passage, note que le film BBC The Great War (1964) qui a remis au goût du jour les séquences tournées pendant la 1ère guerre mondiale n’a pas hésité devant les manipulations d’images. Mon exemple préféré:

“film was reversed to ensure that on the whole the Allies advance left-to-right across the screen and the Central Powers right-to-left as on maps of the western front, even if this resulted in whole regiments of left-handed soldiers” (p. 153)

Conclue que Malins et les autres caméramen du newsreel ont surtout cherché à améliorer leurs images, en demandant aux soldats d’accomplir certains gestes, en faisant rejouer d’autres scènes de combat en sécurité, etc.  Le nombre de séquences jugées inauthentiques reste faible – et ce ne sont pas forcément (sauf la séquence de sortie des tranchées) les plus dramatiques ou les plus intéressantes du film.

Battle Music

October 29, 2008 § Leave a comment

From Pictures and the Picturegoer, 7 oct. 1916, p. 25, Fred Adlington’s take on the music for Battle of the Somme (1916):

Battle of the Somme – readings

October 28, 2008 § 1 Comment

Not a full bibliography on that influential and much-studied film, the 1916 British War Film The Battle of the Somme, but a list of articles and books that seemed of special interest to me. It will be updated as I read the references.

REEVES Nicholas (1997)

October 28, 2008 § 1 Comment

REEVES Nicholas: “Cinema, spectatorship and propaganda: ‘Battle of the Somme’ (1916) and its contemporary audience.” Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television. 17, No. 1, 1997: 5-28.

Etudie la réception du documentaire-newsreel “Battle of the Somme” en Angleterre au cours de la 2ème moitié de 1916. Note que c’est le réalisme qui impressionne, surtout les images des corps des morts en conclusion. Il est possible que ce film ait trop montré les horreurs de la guerre pour le goût de la propagande officiel (les films suivants sur les batailles de la guerre montreront moins les corps). Néanmoins, il est probable que, même si l’impact émotionnel du film fut fort, le sens fut récupéré par la considération que la guerre était juste (anti-Prusse etc.)

putting words on the image – 02

May 21, 2008 § 2 Comments

This is a series that started long ago here and then rebounded here, but this is its true second installment.

This is an example of words written on a moving image, in this case the runners in the background:

 This is from The Plastic Age (1925). I’ve seen this done before, and in a sports context too: The Way To Strength and Beauty, that 1924 German film shown last year at Pordenone, had a few shots of track athletes, introduced with their names printed on their moving image. 

So to conclude in this instance, the infringement of what seems usually like a pretty rigid rule (no words written on a moving image) gives a realistic, newsreel touch to the presentation.

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