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From: Raymond Hames
Date: Wed Sep 27, 2000 6:51pm
Subject: The Ax Fight a Film Maker's Response

Dear All,

Peter Biella recently sent this around cyberspace and he has given me permission to post it on this list.

Peter is an anthropology film maker who has worked with Tim Asch. In addition, he is the one who put together "Yanomamo Interactive", a CD-ROM that is available with Chagnon's fifth edition of the "Yanomamo". As you may know, Tierney in "Darkness .." claims that the footage to the famous "Ax Fight" film was staged. Below is Biella's evaluation of the claim. (Realize that he has not read the book, only the Sponsel/Turner characterization of it).

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From: Peter Biella biella@s...

Dear Colleagues,

Many people have asked me about the recent email-borne Chagnon-Asch scandal, concerning measles, concubines and faking data in the Yanomamo films. I want to send out a preliminary response. I intend to publish a more complete version of these arguments - coauthored with Gary Seaman - in Anthropology News, the AAA's newsletter. I can only speak about the Ax Fight film - having studied it and documents concerning its history for several years. The other aspects of the email scandal do not concern Asch or The Ax Fight.

To begin, it should be remembered that during, and for more than 20 years after, the Yanomamo collaboration, Asch expressed considerable animosity toward Chagnon and his "fierce people" hypothesis. He lectured publicly decrying Chagnon's apparently univocal depictions, privately spoke to generations of students about Chagnon's selective blindness to other aspects of Yanomamo. At no time to my knowledge did Asch ever suggest that data was faked: his criticism was that the sampling was biased (that there was not enough data adequately to reveal the other side of the story. He had been unable to create a memorable depiction of Yanomamo: The Ironic and Gentle People). Sample bias and faked data are very different matters.

Although the disseminated scandal letter does not name it, apparently it is the violence depicted in the Ax Fight film that is criticized. (As I write this letter, I have not yet seen the critique verbatim.) I cannot believe that Asch would remain silent on the essential matter of "faking data in order to film it" since he would have liked nothing better than to repudiate Chagnon's fierceness hypothesis (even if by doing so Asch might also implicate himself either for unknowing cooperation or cupidity). Asch had repudiated the impression of fierceness given by the film long since.

The film's structure, as I argue in my introduction to the Yanomamo Interactive CD (a study of The Ax Fight film), bends over backwards to qualify and reject stereotypic impressions of irrepressible Yanomamo violence. The film is about ways that violence is muted, restrained, and non-fatal. Essentially it argues that without police, Yanomamo manage to make their system of dispute settlement work pretty well, with nobody in in this case getting very hurt. Why would the filmmakers go to the trouble of starting a fight in order to prove the existence of outrageous, uncontrolled Yanomamo violence if their purpose were to argue that the fight is restrained and relatively peaceable? Why would they include footage of the injured Torowa getting up and walking away, unsteadily but with some pride intact, relatively unharmed? Why wouldn't they cut out those three feet of film and have the narration say, "He spent the rest of his days permanently crippled by the wounds inflicted"? Faking data in a film is not difficult when all one needs to do is leave out what is inconvenient, and then add misleading narration to cover the rest.

I know a great deal about the Ax Fight film and its creation -- about all the fits and starts the filmmakers had in understanding the footage, about what happened on the filming day in Mishimishimabowa-teri, about why the fight started, about the filmmakers' false theories on its origin. I cannot conceive of making a film in which a main feature is the anthropologists' confession of confusion, when, by hypothesis, there was never any confusion at all. I have published transcripts of tape recordings that Chagnon made six months after filming (late 1971), looking at the Ax Fight rushes with the other filmmakers, still trying to figure the thing out, going back two weeks later and looking at the rushes again, taping everything he said. Knowing all this, I simply don't believe Chagnon would have gone to all the trouble of faking ignorance in the presence of his fellow filmmakers, creating a back-trail as it were for people 25 years later to discover [!?], pretending to figure out the fight, if all the time that he had actually instigated it himself - and therefore knew why the fight started from the beginning. Chagnon in particular could not possibly have anticipated how famous the film would become, and yet we would have to believe on this email hypothesis that he created obscure evidence to the contrary in 1971. It doesn't make sense. To my mind, the 1971 taped evidence confirms that at first Chagnon knew virtually nothing about the origins of the fight.

Moreover, Asch and Chagnon let the footage sit on a shelf for four years before they edited it together, released the film. Asch and Chagnon were profoundly confused (and possibly even mortified) by the misunderstandings that the footage revealed and continued to create. If the fight had been an anthropolgist-provoked concoction from the beginning, why would the filmmakers have experienced any uncertainty about going to press? Why wouldn't they simply tell any story they wished from the beginning?

For the above reasons, the criticism that the ax fight was staged for the camera strikes me as obviously and manifestly untrue.

Finally, Zandy Moore, Chair of the USC Anthropology Department, points out a problem concerning the claim in the email letter that an entire shabono was built for the filming. Such a travesty did occur, Moore says, but it was done for a Nova television production in which neither Asch nor Chagnon were involved.

That Asch is not alive to defend himself, that Chagnon's word is sure to be doubted, that Patsy Asch's protestations would at best be heresay, makes it seem important for me to air the above information and arguments.

Peter Biella
Department of Anthropology
San Francisco State University
September 19, 2000