“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?

Rose of Rhodesia (1918) – an aside for truth

February 1, 2012 § Leave a comment

The Bawa Falls, or the "Bawa Falls" ?From the introduction to the Screening the Past Special on that first South African fiction film, and that familiar confusion of values in silent fiction films:

Since all these were documentaries, The Rose of Rhodesia has the distinction of being the first representation of Rhodesia in a fiction film. And yet, as can be seen from a reviewer’s recommendation that “preliminary titles should be added to stress the genuineness of these scenes” (The Bioscope, 6 November 1919, 98-9), the boundary between fiction and documentary was anything but clear-cut at this time. The Kinematograph Weekly’s comment that “‘The Rose of Rhodesia’ has the qualities of an educational and of a ‘scenic’” (6 November 1919, 115) illustrates the paradox that early feature films could also be valued for their factual authenticity. Indeed, in the private collection donated to Nederlands Filmmuseum, The Rose of Rhodesia had been grouped with travel features such as The Bavarian Alps, Windsor Castle, Japan Today, and Sarajevo, The Capital of Bosnia.
Conversely, The Rose of Rhodesia also incorporates formal elements found in earlier, non-fictional films about Rhodesia. The sequence in which Ushakapilla dreams about his ancestors fighting resembles the Ndebele warriors in Savage South Africa: Attack and Repulse (1899), the Warwick Film Company’s dramatic footage of the “Savage South Africa” show staged by Frank Fillis at Earl’s Court in London.[6] The scene aboard a train in which audiences are presented with views of the “Rhodesian” veldt echoes Lauste’s A Trip on the Rhodesian Railway (1908). And The Rose of Rhodesia’s panoramic shots of the Bawa Falls recall several films about the colony’s best-known tourist attraction: The Great Victoria Falls (dir. Emile Lauste, 1907); Victoria Falls and the Zambesi (dir. Cherry Kearton, 1911); Holiday on the Zambesi (dir. Frank Butcher, 1911); and Victoria Falls and the Zambesi Gorge (dir. Walter Tyler, 1911). Perhaps with these cinematic precursors in mind, The Kinematograph Weekly’s reviewer declared confidently that “much of the grand scenery (crags, precipices, and waterfalls) is of a kind which could only be taken in Rhodesia” (6 November 1919, 115).

Not convinced that this confusion concerns only “early fiction films” — indeed I would contend that this “confusion” is part of what still makes cinema attractive if one starts analyzing it through the prism of the “suspension of disbelief” rather than through the prism of “truth”. Such reality-seeking gazes directed onto fiction films are part of audiences’ basic viewing strategies: a thrill enhancement that consists in colliding the educational and the make-belief.

Yes, a book on that, someday.

Meanwhile, all about the history of cinema in South Africa.

Thought for the day

July 1, 2009 § Leave a comment

L’imitation n’est jamais un reflet (passif) de la chose imitée, mais la construction d’un modèle de cette chose. (Paul Schaeffer, Pourquoi la fiction ?, Paris, 1999, p. 92)

Comment is free.

How We Advertised America (1920)

December 8, 2008 § Leave a comment

If you like to think that media, in the US, frame audiences’ view of reality, I have the reading just for you. George Creel, How We Advertised America, published in 1920, tells the efforts of the Committee on Public Information, created by President Wilson in 1917, and discontinued in 1919 by order of Congress. Creel was in charge of all the efforts of the Committee, and was he an active busybody for a while ! His responsibility was to organise the effort of the US government to communicate efficiently about its war effort, and to win hearts and minds, both at home and abroad among allies and enemies. (I’ll let you decide if it’s a sign of a healthy democracy or not to have a book about such a subject published so quickly after the facts — and then again, no need to read in the past our own problems is there?)

Back then embedding correspondents was not an option (rather, official tours of the front were the norm, or faked reconstitutions of battles). What Creel attempted was to bring the government news to the newspapers of the world — without it being government propaganda. It’s quite a trick to pull and it doesn’t quite work out, at least in his book. (I’m yet to check on how some of the newspapers covered his activities back then).

  • On the one hand, he is adamant that no censorship was ever established, but that he communicated the facts, and only the facts. This is his defense of the Division of News in his Committee: 

 “On the part of the press there was the fear, and a very natural one, that the new order of things meant “press-agenting” on a huge scale. This fear could not be argued away, but had to be met by actual demonstration of its groundlessness. Our job, therefore, was to present the facts without the slightest trace of color or bias, either in the selection of news or the manner in which it was presented. Thus, in practice, the Division of News set forth in exactly the same colorless style the remarkable success of the Browning guns, on the one hand, and on the other the existence of bad health conditions in three or four of the cantonments. In time the correspondents realized that we were running a government news bureau, not a press agency, and their support became cordial and sincere.” p. 73

colorless style”: enough here to give fodder to those who see how Hollywood’s famed transparent style as masked ideology…(1)

  • but on the other hand, he is equally clear about the role of the Committee: to win the support of the American (and later, the world’s) population for the war, including a fascist-like call for the fusion of the individual with the State:

“What we had to have was no mere surface unity, but a passionate belief in the justice of America’s cause that should weld the people of the United States into one white-hot mass instinct with fraternity, devotion, courage, and deathless determination. The war-will, the will-to-win, of a democracy depends upon the degree to which each one of all the people of that democracy can concentrate and consecrate body and soul and spirit in the supreme effort of service and sacrifice. What had to be driven home was that all business was the nation’s business, and every task a common task for a single purpose.” p.5

The interesting point, for me, is how he reconciles the obvious contradictions between truth and government message. He is aware of the contradiction, since he himself points out that such committee could only exist in war-time,

since “peace is far from simple, and has as many objectives as there are parties and political aims and prejudices. No matter how honest its intent or pure its purpose, a Committee on Public Information operating in peace-times would be caught inevitably in the net of controversy, affording the highly improper spectacle of a government organization using public moneys to advance the contentions of one side or the other.” p. 401-2

But he’s not too concerned with it either. Concurrent with a time when news was faked, when documentaries pretended to show the real thing (an example of that is given in this note on Homer Croy) but did not, truth and the ideological opinion I have of truth tends to be the same thing for him.

 We did not call it propaganda, for that word, in German hands, had come to be associated with deceit and corruption. Our effort was educational and informative throughout, for we had such confidence in our case as to feel that no other argument was needed than the simple, straightforward presentation of facts. p. 5

But later, this educational and “informative” emphasis gives way to something more sinister:

it was not only that the committee put motion pictures into foreign countries. Just as important was the work of keeping certain motion pictures out of these countries. As a matter of bitter fact, much of the misconception about America before the war was due to American motion pictures portraying the lives and exploits of New York’s gun-men, Western bandits, and wild days of the old frontier, all of which were accepted in many parts of the world as representative of American life. What we wanted to get into foreign countries were pictures that presented the wholesome life of America, giving fair ideas of our people and our institutions. What we wanted to keep out of world circulation were the “thrillers,” that gave entirely fallse impressions of American life and morals. Film dramas portraying the exploits of “Gyp the Blood” or “jesse James” wee bound to prejudice our fight for the good opinion of neutral nations. p. 281

Creel wants to have it both ways. He wants to show America in a good light (and he is proud of his success, pointing that “From being the most misunderstood nation, America became the most popular. A world that was either inimical, contemptuous, or indifferent was changed into a world of friends and well-wishers” p. 11), and he wants the world to believe that this is the truth about America.

In other words, this is another hit taken by the already much-maligned notion of authenticity. He’s not blind to ideology, he just plainly states that his is the authentic version. 


(1) That would be…basically everybody today ? It probably all started taking shape with NARBONI Jean, and COMOLLI Jean-Louis: “Cinema/ideology/criticism.” in John Ellis éd., éd.: Screen Reader. Londres, SEFT, 1977, pp. 5-8.

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.

HAGGITH Toby (2002)

October 29, 2008 § 1 Comment

HAGGITH Toby: “Reconstructing the Musical Arrangement for “The Battle of the Somme” (1916).” Film History. 14, no. 1, 2002: 11-24.

Toby Haggith a reconstitué l’accompagnement suggéré par J. Morton Hutcheson (colonne “Music in the Cinema” publiée à l’époque dans la revue The Bioscope), en tentant d’identifier et de retrouver toutes les partitions (pas toujours facile: certaines ont disparu, d’autres survivent mais dans d’autres arrangements…). Hutcheson recommande pas moins de 33 morceaux différents, et choisit surtout des morceaux que le public pourra reconnaître (seuls 9 morceaux du 19è siècle).

Comparaison avec d’autres arrangements, modernes (notamment du pianiste Andrew Youdell qui avait enregistré la musique du DVD du film en 1993): plus de musiques différentes dans la version de Hutcheson, plus de marches militaires, un message portant sur la nécessité du sacrifice plus clair, mais aussi des passages tout autant élégiaques, ou émouvants, notamment sur les images des morts. 

Rôle de la musique pas négligeable: aide le message de propagande (la nécessité, la noblesse du sacrifice consenti gaiement), et aide la structure du film (en renforçant la narration: la musique permet d’éviter notamment un sentiment de répétition entre Part 1 et Part 5).

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.)

Pordenone diary – day seven

October 23, 2008 § 1 Comment

More music in silent film stuff.

Count me in as one of those that wasn’t overtly impressed by Michael Nyman’s playing for either Jean Vigo’s A propos de Nice or Dziga Vertov’s Kino Pravda. A propos de Nice, a naughty, irreverent and poetic piece, I had seen last year already, with, per force, a different accompaniment. I can’t say the four or five musical themes that Nyman brought to the film and kept on repeating time after time after time did much for me. On some dreamy plane they did fit the film, but I suspect it’s because of the inherent nostalgic feeling most black and white silent films create in viewers. The repetition of lush musical themes will nicely contribute to the same feeling. But there was something utterly mechanistic about Nyman’s accompaniment, where one musical theme was tightly identified with one theme in the film (music for workers; music for people strolling; etc.). And to read, the next day, in the local newspaper, an interview where the maestro explained how what he wanted to do, with his music, was to surprise the listener…that’s too much for me to bear.

But then, I don’t have much feeling for celebrities. I like the old Hollywood adage: 

you’re as good as your last film.

which Stroheim used as a sign of Hollywood’s utter philistinism (Stroheim enjoyed being lionized for his past achievements in Europe). I only wish it would apply to more professions…

Now day 7 for me: nothing about Shiryaev here. Couldn’t get past the social context, of a rich Russian enjoying life filming himself and his family in little summer playlets while Cossacks and poverty went raging through the land, and therefore I still fail to see the significance of all this

(but, as Urbanora said, “we’ll all be wiser” by the end of the festival…)

So I went to see the 1916 British newsreel/documentary film The Battle of the Somme. There was an introduction to this by the restoration team from the Victoria and Albert War Museum, with the keynote address being, for me, from pianist (and composer) Stephen Horne (the only pianist playing at Pordenone to have a groupies’ website on Facebook ?). How to restore the original score for the film ? 

Indeed the film had premiered with the 1916 score at Pordenone in 2006, and the restoration DVD will feature both that score and a new score by Laura Rossi (her goal: to find music that fits the mood of the soldiers shown on film). But the film, while very moving, was also essentially a propaganda piece at the time, and the music was supposed to reflect the upbeat, optimistic mind frame that military authorities were trying to project on what was a very bloody battle. To me the interesting point was how to gauge audience reaction by the music: did musicians in 1916 all play the upbeat music provided by the British Bioscope ? New Yorkers seem to have reacted to the devastation portrayed in the film with horror…would they have accepted a gay march to accompany the film ? Definitely more research in the reception of this film (or more reading!) is required.

Next: our last Pordenone day: Fields, Marion Davies, and Griffith, ever the visionary, starts the last film he ever made with a strong Obama endorsement.

News flash ! Trotsky was an extra at Vitagraph circa 1910

June 24, 2008 § 2 Comments

Yes, you’ve read it right. Leon Trotsky. The one and only.

That’s what we learn thanks to Vitagraph founder, Hollywood veteran, and Motion Picture Magazine founder J. Stuart Blackton, in an article he wrote on his magazine’s 14th birthday (Feb. 1925). Blackton is reminiscing about the differences between cinema in 1910 and cinema in 1925. Ah, the good old days before the star system when all hands were on deck to help out:

Except for Cos [Maurice Costello], every actor, cameraman and director hammered sets, ran errands, rummaged the neighborhood for props, and generally took the place of the
 machinists, carpenters, architects, designers, interior decorators, animal trainers and efficiency experts we have today. Anybody who wasn’t needed as a lead in a picture cheerfully played as extra. Perhaps, on the whole, this is the greatest difference between then and now ! I have stills in my desk showing Earle Williams, Norma, Constance and Anita [Talmadge] as a part of the mob. There was one silent, foreign chap who often worked in mob scenes for two dollars a day, who is now the ruler over fifty-million people. His name was Leon Trotsky.

Nothing is too good for Hollywood lore.

Where Am I?

You are currently browsing the truth in films category at flycz.

%d bloggers like this: