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Some Hurried Thoughts about Tim Asch and Patrick Tierney

By Jay Ruby

By now virtually everyone interested in anthropology has heard about Patrick Tierney's book Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon . It has the potential to disturb anthropology's place in U.S. society, particularly with the National Book Award nomination. I will leave it up to the biologists, geneticists, and others competent to examine the validity of Tierney's accusations about possible misdeeds by Neel and others, and to Chagnon to answer Tierney's claims of his misconduct. A superficial look at the responses to Tierney from the scientific community casts serious doubts on his book. I am only interested in a relatively minor part of the story - Tierney's critique of the filming activities of Timothy Asch. This was written in haste without attempting any systematic refutation of Tierney's largely unsupported assertions about Asch's films.

Let me position my comments. I knew Tim Asch since the mid-1960s. We were friends and colleagues until his death. I saw The Feast while Tim was editing and was a supportive reader for NSF for his grant to return to the Yanomamo. I have seen all of his films and have taught with some of them for decades. I interviewed Tim about The Feast and Ax Fight and published "Out of Sync: The Cinema of Tim Asch " in Visual Anthropology Review in 1995 (vol. 11, no. 1:19-37). More recently I revised the essay and included it as chapter four in a book, Picturing Culture (University of Chicago Press, 2000). Briefly stated, my position is that since Tierney cites the article he knows its content. Therefore the errors of fact and interpretation I found in his book are deliberate and calculated to further his dubious assertions and not simply errors based on ignorance.

I obtained photocopies of Tierney's Chapter 6 "Filming the Feast" and a portion of chapter 7, "A Mythical Village." I believe these are uncorrected page proofs. Recently a W. W. Norton representative has stated that "corrections" will be made prior to publication in mid-November. As the points I take issue with are relatively minor in comparison to the accusations by Tierney of massive misconduct by James Neel and Napolean Chagnon, I doubt the errors I discuss below will be corrected.

1. "...cinema verité became the principal source of income for many Yamomami along the Orinoco." Page 84.

To suggest that large number of Yamomani made a living from the "income" they received from visiting filmmakers is absurd. Chagnon and Asch gave them trade goods -metal pots, soap, machetes, etc. - hardly enough to live off of. Certainly in the time period when Asch filmed the Yamomani did not have a cash economy. I doubt they do today. So exactly what filmmakers could give them that could be considered their "principal source of income" is beyond me to imagine. Overstatement is a commonplace ploy used by Tierney.

2. "Napoleon Chagnon was a pioneer in this frontier of film..." Page 84.

Tierney constantly overstates Chagnon's role in the making of the Yanomami films because he wants to demonstrate that the films were part of a sinister plot against the Yanomami cooked up by Neel and Chagnon. Read the interviews with Asch in "Out of Sync" to see Asch's view of Chagnon's role. Apart from A Man Called Bee, Chagnon's role was primarily one of providing intellectual direction for these films. Asch did most of the editing without him. Tierney only discusses four of these films. A glance at Documentary Education Resources' catalog reveals there are twenty some films by Asch on the Yanomami. Most of these "minor" films were made with little input from Chagnon. None of them deal with war or violence. Tierney's assumption that the motivation for making the films was to put Neel's work in a good light and to show Yanomami violence and warfare is easily disputed when one looks at the entire corpus of films.

3. " Dead Birds was Chagnon's model and he took his first footage to Harvard's Gardner for advice." Page 85.

When Chagnon went to see Gardner, Harvard with its Program in Ethnographic Film, was the center for ethnographic film. Tierney tries to imply that the emphasis on violence and warfare in Dead Birds was Chagnon's model for his films. In truth he went there to ask Gardner to help him locate a filmmaker and was introduced to Asch. All Tierney had to do was read the interviews with Asch in "Out of Sync" to know this.

4. "Doctors at the University of Michigan who did not consider his anthropological studies to be real science constantly taunted him. He had found the Fierce People but no proof they actually fought." Page 85.

If you bother to read the footnote (No. 17, page 342) that offers support for this statement it is clear that those doctors were critical of the ethnographic field methods employed by Chagnon not his lack of evidence about violence. These scientists were simply voicing a lack of understanding of the merits of qualitative research and nothing more.

5. "What ensued was a formula for Yamomami filmmaking. The way to make a successful Yanomami movie was to build a new shabono, sponsor a feast, create a new military alliance, and record a raid by the newly created power. A frequent sequel to this stock sequence was an epidemic, which might kill a quarter of the Yanomami actors." Page 88.

If this was a "formula" for making Yanomami films why doesn't Tierney cite some examples. Are there any? He could have gotten a list of Yanomami films shown at the conference Rouch organized to compare Yanomami films made by different cultures to support this notion. He is describing the Feast and The Multidisciplinary film but not the dozens of other Asch Yanamami films.

6. Talking about The Feast Tierney claims that "They wanted to illustrate feasting as a dangerous political-military event..." Page 88.

Tierney implies that making a film about warfare was primary to Chagnon. Chagnon, like Asch, was interested in a film that would illustrate Mauss' notion of reciprocity not violence. Again, Asch's "Out of Sync" interviews make that quite clear.

7. Once in the field with Chagnon, Tierney claims that Asch felt that "...he was alone in the jungle with aliens." Page 88.

The quote Tierney uses to support this contention actually says "He had, it seemed to me, begun to change in the last few hours. I felt he was taking on attributes of the people he had studies (sic) so long, and it seemed I was all the more alone...[T]hey looked like a very grim bunch of friends indeed, painted black and charcoal." (Footnote 42, page 334.) Hard to understand why Tierney uses the word "alien" here except it is useful as further evidence of Chagnon's character.

8. "...Asch's memoir prompted scholars in recent years to politely question the authenticity of The Feast as the film scholar Jay Ruby did in an issue the Visual Anthropology Review dedicated to Timothy Asch." Page 91.

In the first place, I know of no Asch memoir. My discussion of The Feast was based upon several interviews with Asch and nowhere in my article do I "question the authenticity of The Feast." as Tierney claims. Calling me a "film scholar" and not an anthropologist is a minor mistake but indicative of Tierney's lack of interest in accuracy.

9. "It was violence and the expectation of violence that appealed to film juries and students and that gave The Feast its edge." Page 102.

There is no violence in The Feast , only a final title card stating that after the feast the two villages raided another village together. Tierney offers no evidence to support this statement. Which juries? As film festivals often circulate a statement about why a particular film is awarded a prize, it would have been possible to cite statements by juries in support of this contention but none are offered. Has Tierney taught with The Feast ? Has he discussed the film with other teachers? How does he know what students think? He offers no evidence to support this contention. I have taught with this film since its release in 1968 in dozens of courses with hundreds of students. I have been in numerous academic settings in which the film was discussed and not once have I heard the film discussed in reference to "violence and the expectation of violence." I doubt that Tierney knows what he is talking about here.

10. In talking about Asch's second trip to the Yamomani, Tierney states that he had "...orders to record a war." Page 105.

Who "ordered" him? NSF? Considering the sometime nature of Yanomami warfare such an order would have been impossible to fulfill. Being able to shoot the Ax Fight is an accident of being someplace at the right time. It is just silly to think that some anonymous person or agency "ordered" them to make a film about war.

There are other statements by Tierney that call for rebuttal - like calling anthropologists, Peter Biella and Gary Seaman "two USC film professors" (Page 117) - but with the few quotations I have disputed, it is clear that Tierney has chosen to systematically misrepresent the work of Asch to further his character assassination of Chagnon. Too bad the publishers, W. W. Norton, did not bother to employ a reader that knew something about these matters. I assumed that a publisher with a reputation as good as Norton would employ a fact-checker. If they did, this person failed to do their job.