New Internationalist

The Human Tribe

Issue 119

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TELEVISION [image, unknown] Translating the exotic

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The human tribe
Are brief films of exotic tribes merely forms of cultural pornography that titillate more than they inform? Andre Singer thinks not. It is possible, he argues, to portray the strangest community in a human and constructive way.

THE ADVENT of new TV channels and the prospect of numerous outlets for films via cable and satellite have sent a charge amongst documentary film-makers, the like of which has not been seen for thirty years. Eyes are being cast on every possible topic that might tempt finance and much attention is being paid to the Third World, a natural reservoir for social concern spiced with the exotica.

We are, it would appear, in for a massive diet of Third World histories and world cultural surveys. A history of Africa, of the Caribbean, of Russia, of the Arab World; The Society of China: Third World development; a history of spices: the tribes of Africa, and soon down the list. Hardly a day will pass without an insight into the strange workings of a black, brown, red, yellow or white society'. Does this mean that we will be able to understand our fellow man with greater perception and thus with greater tolerance?

For someone responsible for a series concentrating on isolated tribal society it would be horrifying to feel that the mere fact of showing the 'exotic' necessarily perpetuates stereotypes of the 'primitive' or the 'savage' — the 'tits and spears' syndrome. Yet doubts remain, even about specialised programmes like Disappearing World.

But prejudice and negative stereotyping develop from ignorance. What needs to be asked is whether the representation on the small screen provides accurate, or sufficient. knowledge to overcome this ignorance. Can a mere 52-minute portrayal of the 'Bongo Bongo' ever be enough to humanize our image of them? The only answers can come from the responses to such films in the past.

There is no doubt that images of alien society on the screen are popular. And things are made treacherous by the constraints of companies that need audience ratings to sustain programming. If the public was not interested in seeing the wild and woolly, such programmes would not be made.

But many of the films have also had a positive reception from the peoples filmed. It has been impossible in most instances to return to the people themselves but our policy has been to give copies of the films to the closest authorities possible. A film of the installation of the Shilluk King in the Sudan was given to the King and shown with much approbation in the local town.

Our film about the Kirghiz of Afghanistan was given to the then Afghan authorities and shown in Kabul to a group of Kirghiz. This enabled me to return in 1980 to be welcomed by the same tribe and to make a further film about their plight as refugees in Pakistan.

But although Jean Rouch, the great French verité film maker, often claims his films are for the people he is filming, no such idealistic claims can be made for those of us backed by commercial television.

The impact upon the Western audience, however, is very difficult to evaluate. If all the images were of beautiful naked nubile tribes-folk indulging in exotic sexual practices, then a very high rating would be assured — and a deeper entrenchment of prejudice guaranteed at the same time.

There is a great responsibility on those of us who believe that filming other societies can be positive for the temptation to excite and dramatise whilst so doing is never far behind.

In the Dervishes of Kurdistan in 1973. the fact that small boys stuck skewers through their cheeks as part of a ritual was an obvious emotional and visual temptation and only by trying to reflect, through the words of the Kurds themselves, the importance of such apparent barbarity were we able to counter accusations of sensationalism.

A recent film I made on Witchcraft Among the Azande of the Sudan had a theme that could be similarly interpreted wild and savage black men dancing with feathers in their hair whilst performing what are considered to be primitive practices. But we allowed the Azande themselves to explain and place these performances in their social context. As the TV critic of the London Guardian wrote: 'What struck me most forcibly about the Azande was their vividly familiar 'well, hello there' kindred humanity. That they all believe and practice witchcraft seems beside that only incidental.'

Similarly in The Mursi of Ethiopia there were tall black naked men with holes in their ears, their wives wearing lip plates, walking to and fro discussing where to graze their cows. Not a great prospect for an insightful hour's television — although with great potential for ridicule. Again, by allowing the Mursi to speak for themselves and by seeing that their problems about cattle were as important to them as unemployment is to us, the film left most viewers, as judged by letters and verbal responses, seeing the Mursi as individuals debating issues much as local councillors might do back at home.

We cannot just sympathize but can empathize with them. We forget the physical differences, noting social and human similarities. The differences become irrelevant.

André Singer is series producer for 'Disappearing World'
at Granada Television in the UK.

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