New Internationalist

A reckless depiction of tribal life


A Matsigenka hunter returns with wild pig. Image by G Shepard courtesy of Survival.

Call it cinema vérité, fly-on-the-wall documentary, or just plain old reality TV: programmes such as Big Brother, Survivor, The Apprentice and Tribe have been big business for television production companies for more than a decade.

The obvious catch, however, is that ‘reality’ is a misnomer. More often than not, the programmes are far from ‘real,’ being filmed in fake environments with fabricated story lines, the artifice then compounded by misleading editing. Mark Burnett, the creator of Survivor, revealingly said: ‘I tell good stories. But it’s not reality TV. It’s really unscripted drama’.

And so the news that a series about an Amazonian tribe has been slammed as ‘staged, false, fabricated and distorted’ by experts on the tribe again raises serious concerns about the ethics of reality TV. Mark & Olly: Living with the Machigenga was broadcast on the Travel Show in the US and on BBC last year.  In the show, Mark Anstice and Olly Steeds lived in a Matsigenka Indian village for several months to show the ‘reality’ of life amongst the tribe.

Two experts on the tribe have now gone public with a string of highly damaging accusations, saying that many events presented as ‘real’ in the series must have been staged. They argue the programmes present a ‘false and insulting’ portrayal of the tribe as sex-obsessed, mean and savage, and that many of the Indian translations are fabricated. 

That the series may be a travesty of the Matsigenka’s way of life is cheap and bad enough. Sadly this is all too common. Today’s TV just doesn’t seem interested in any attempt to portray tribal peoples’ lives as they really are. It is a very different matter for a tribe in the Amazon to experience wholesale misrepresentation, as it is for a would-be ‘apprentice’ looking for a job, or a soap actress on skates. Fabrication is inherently unethical, but for tribal peoples the consequences can be insidiously far-reaching. The reason is simple: the murders, dispossessions and long-term abuses of tribal peoples from the Amazon to the Arctic have always been - and still are - underpinned by racist thinking. 

‘All the years of calling the Indian a “savage” has never made him one’, said Luther Standing Bear, an Oglala Sioux. But as long as those who have a public voice promote such ideas, they will be believed. Irresponsible programmes such as Mark and Olly… serve only to perpetuate stereotypical views. The distorted view of the Matsigenka’s way of life is not just humiliating for the tribe, it’s not just an unethical piece of journalism, it’s dangerous. If tribal peoples are portrayed as ‘savage’ or ‘Stone Age,’ the public will believe this to be true. This can lead to the theft of tribal lands and resources by governments and corporations. Negative portrayals feed negative stereotypes which can underpin systematic and gross violations of human rights.

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  1. #1 collery 09 Aug 11

    Dear Stephen
    Thank you for this article. I have cited it and echoed some of your thoughts in a blog post about the way Africans are depicted by the proponents of global HIV policy that insists Africans are sexually incontinent and wholly uncaring about their partners and even their children. I hope I haven't misrepresented anything you have said or taken your arguments anywhere they shouldn't have gone.

    http://hivinkenya.blogspot.com/2011/08/consequences-of-false-and-insulting.html

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About the author

Stephen Corry a New Internationalist contributor

Stephen Corry (b. 1951, Malaya) was projects director of Survival International from 1972, and has been its director general since 1984. He has worked with tribal peoples in the Indian subcontinent, Africa and, particularly, western South America, mainly Amazonia. In the 1970s, he promoted 'self-determination' in the debate about indigenous peoples which was then largely polarised around the poles of 'assimilation' or 'preservation'.

In the 1980s, he pushed to popularise tribal peoples' issues. In the 1990s, he led the opposition to ideas such as the 'rainforest harvest', which threatened to confuse economic issues with human rights. He was involved in the campaign to defend the land rights of the 'Bushmen' of Botswana, a country where he has been (wrongly) described as 'public enemy number one'. His work now is centred around building a groundswell of support for tribal peoples, significant enough both to endure for decades and permanently change the false and harmful assertion that they are backward remnants, destined to disappear.

Read more by Stephen Corry

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