Darkness in El Dorado - Archived Document
Internet Source: University of Santa Barbara, Axfight Web Site
Ethnographic and Personal Aspects of Filming and Producing The Ax Fight
Napoleon A. Chagnon
The year Timothy Asch and I filmed The Ax Fight ---1971---was a particularly difficult year in my professional life, and an especially difficult field season for me. It was the year I decided to leave the University of Michigan, a decision that made me very sad because I had grown to love that University and hoped I could remain there forever. I could have, but I ultimately decided that, for professional reasons, it was best to move elsewhere. In preparing this essay I read all my notes for 1971, my letters to my wife, the transcriptions of my tape recordings in the field, and other things I wrote that year. The events of 1971 all came back vividly and it was like re-living a bad nightmare.
Numerous complex and unpleasant things took place that year, many of them in the field during my ongoing collaboration with medical colleagues, or things related to that collaboration that were developing just before my 1971 field trip or happened immediately after that trip. In reading over my notes I came to the conclusion that this material should be treated at book-length and the events of 1971 put into the larger context of the entire duration of my 32 years of field studies of the Yanomamö. I am working now on that book.
I will only touch briefly on some of the factors that had a strong bearing on my collaborative relationship with Tim Asch during the 1971 field season, but enough to provide students of documentary filming and anthropology an overview of the nature of our collaboration, but explicitly from the view of the anthropologist, not the filmmaker.
In retrospect I find it quite remarkable that Tim Asch and I managed to successfully carry out the most ambitious of the two field filming collaborations in which we engaged...and after that, the production of so many academically useful documentary films drawn from footage we shot in 1971.
In 1979 Tim Asch published an essay in Perspectives on Film that discusses some of the same topics that I will here touch on, but from his point of view as a documentary film maker collaborating with an anthropologist. I urge you to read his essay and compare it to what I write here---as the ethnographer with whom he was then collaborating. From his point of view he could take for granted that all the 'nitty-gritties' of doing the collaborative fieldwork would be taken care of by me---and they were. He got into the canoe, I took him to the village, he shot film, I explained then and later why it was important to shoot that particular piece of film, the Indians didn't harm him, I got him safely back with all his film, and spent a lot of time making anthropological sense of it in the production phase. His obliviousness to the 'nitty-gritties' sometimes annoyed me. I found his 1979 discussion of how our boat sank humorous, but self-serving. You might conclude the same thing about mine, but at least you have both versions.
This CD ROM is primarily intended for use in general anthropology classes where students are supposed to learn about culture and about the behavior of people in other cultures. But it will also be used in film studies classes or documentary anthropology clasess where there are different educational goals and objectives and where more emphasis is placed on film as a medium, how film is made, what it does, how it differs in the ways that it communicates information, and what impact it has on perceptions that might be different in kind or quality from what the written word or the recorded voice might produce. I am neither a film studies expert nor a documentary filmmaker. I am an ethnographer who sometimes uses film as a way to describe events and things, just as I might use a still photograph, a diagram, a tape recording or a written field note. Motion picture film to me is just a useful recording device, but one that can record some kinds of things much better than other devices can, and the resulting product can be treated in ways that products of other documenting devices can not. This essay is from my perspective as an ethnographer on what it is like and what it costs to be involved in a filmmaking collaboration with a filmmaker. If there is any specific group of students or colleagues to whom my essay is primarily directed, it would be those who do or want to do anthropological field research in tribal societies like the Yanomamö. My essay might discourage them to consider "collaborating" in fimmaking projects, or perhaps, any collaborations with non-anthropologists.
If there is any group of students that might feel short-changed by my essay, it would be those whose interests are primarily in filmmaking and film studies. The essay by Peter Biella in this CD ROM should have more in it for them than what I here provide.
I will also put my collaboration with Asch into a somewhat longer time-frame because the conditions and our personal relationships changed steadily over time, and in general, they deteriorated badly. In the end, shortly before Asch learned he was dying of cancer, we were not even speaking to each other. We had once been good friends and companions.
Collaborations can have negative consequences. Perhaps most of them do. The "my" portion in "our" collaboration eventually becomes everyone's problem, for we all have our own interests, and the interests of individuals in any collaboration are rarely identical to the interests of others involved in it.
Tedious Dimensions of Field CollaborationsIt seems that I have been 'collaborating' with someone or some group for a very large fraction of my research career. By 1971 I was growing disillusioned with one of the long-term collaborations that dominated my research life during the period 1966 to 1971. This was my involvement with medical colleagues in the Department of Human Genetics at the University of Michigan Medical School, a collaboration that incidentally involved Tim Asch in 1968 as I will spell out below.
It began with an agreement I made with James V. Neel in 1964, before I went to the Yanomamö to do 15 months of field research for my doctoral dissertation. Neel was the Head of Michigan's Department of Human Genetics and had developed an interest in genetic studies of tribal peoples in the Amazon basin. I met with him in 1964 and discussed a possible one-time collaboration in which he would join me with a small group of biomedical colleagues at the end of my field studies. They would collect biomedical data with my help and we would later publish a few articles together. The story is actually rather more complex and I will eventually discuss the details elsewhere, but the main point is that I entered into a collaboration with James V. Neel and his group that eventually grew and became more complex...and by 1971 it had important effects on my collaboration with Asch.
Neel and his colleagues, including their counterparts from Venezuelan research institutions, spent several weeks with me among the Yanomamö in early 1966 and managed to collect an enormous amount of information with my assistance.
When I finished my doctoral dissertation later that year and received my Ph.D. in Anthropology, Neel offered me a position as a Research Associate that would extend our joint research for several years. While this was an academic dead end if I didn't terminate it at some point in the immediate future, it was an attractive short-term option at that time. I had several job offers from major Universities but decided to accept Neel's offer. It would allow me to return to the field on a regular basis to extend my own anthropological and demographic studies, and afforded me a great deal of time to analyze and publish the results of my field studies without time-consuming teaching duties.
Our collaboration had several well-defined aspects. One of these obliged me to go to the Yanomamö area a week or so ahead of Neel's researchers and gain the cooperation of numbers of Yanomamö groups and do basic censuses and genealogical studies, and identify villages by their origins and determine their historical relationships to other groups. This was basically an extension of what my original field studies focused on and was a central feature of my own research goals: my objectives were very consistent with what Neel and members of his team wanted to know in order to place their biomedical data into anthropological context. A second obligation was to orchestrate the field research and the logistics of getting Neel and his researchers to the villages and persuading the Yanomamö to be at their villages when we arrived. The initial temporal design of our collaboration would require that I spend about two to three weeks in the field collaborating with the biomedical researchers, after which they would return to their laboratories and I would then be free to pursue my own field objectives for the next two to three months.
This model worked nicely in 1967, the first year after I joined Neel's department. I also had enough time later that year to begin writing the first draft of my monograph on the Yanomamö, which was published in 1968 under the title: Yanomamö: The Fierce People . It became a major success almost overnight and has continued to be one of the most popular ethnographic monographs in the history of didactic anthropology.
Late in 1966, and again in 1967, I attempted to shoot 16mm motion picture film of the Yanomamö with a hand-held Bolex camera that I borrowed from a friend. A Salesian Priest and friend of mine, Padre Cocco, was aware that I was trying to shoot film and offered to give me a brand new Bolex that someone had given him earlier that year. He didn't know how to use it, had no interest in shooting films, the film was expensive, etc.
I had no training in either still photography or motion picture filming and had to stumble along teaching myself how to do both, learning by looking at the dismal initial results that I produced in both media, but nevertheless improving in both as I went along.
One of the difficulties I immediately perceived in my attempts to shoot film was that the Yanomamö were very conscious of me filming them and unless I was filming some dramatic event that dominated their attention, much of the footage I shot was of people staring into the lens of my camera and asking me what I was doing. I was the only non-Yanomamö in their villages and, of course, the center of attention when I did something unusual, like try to shoot film or take pictures. I realized that it would be invaluable to have a filmed documentary on many aspects of Yanomamö life, but was aware that much of that documentary would consist of endless footage of people looking into the lens of my camera if I did it alone. I had to recruit a filmmaking colleague who would not be the center of attention if he would not be able to speak Yanomamö, since the Yanomamö would quickly learn to ignore him. Such a person might be able to take footage more unobtrusively than I could. I eventually learned about Tim Asch through Asen Balikci, a distinguished Canadian filmmaker/anthropologist who recommended Tim to me.
I approached Jim Neel about doing a documentary film on the biomedical, multidisciplinary and multinational work we were doing. He was enthusiastic and agreed to provide limited funding to bring Tim Asch into the field with us in 1968 to shoot film for this documentary. Funding film projects was then---and continues to be---a major problem for anthropological filmmakers, but Neel's large grant for medical research had room to include a small filming item. For my own interests, I wanted to make a film about the Yanomamö feast. Both objectives could be easily met in a single field season.
My fieldwork with Neel and his team continued in 1968, but lasted longer. Our relationships in the field were also not as smooth and cordial as they were the previous two seasons.
Asch was with us in 1968 and shot the basic footage documenting the multidisciplinary research efforts and the ethnographic footage for our first anthropological film, The Feast . However, all of the ethnographic footage in the 'biomedical' documentary had been shot by me with a Bolex between 1965 and 1967 These two films were produced and distributed in 1970 and 1971. The Feast became an instant success in anthropology...and won first prize in every film competition into which it was entered, including a Blue Ribbon award at the American Film Festival.
However, I was disappointed with the order of authorship in both of these films. This had a negative effect on my later collaborations with Asch. The Feast (1970) was based on my then somewhat unusual ethnological argument that the Yanomamö feast was not a 'first-fruits' or 'harvest' ceremony as had been claimed by several anthropologists, but was primarily a political event and it could be used to illustrate sophisticated anthropological theories drawn from Durkheim, Mauss, Levi-Strauss, Leach, Dumont and others. There was probably no ethnographic film in existence that even attempted to illustrate basic and important anthropological concepts and theories. The Yanomamö feast was about complex marriage and political alliances and could theoretically be filmed in a way that would illustrate this. The other film, Yanomama: A Multidisciplinary Study (1971), primarily documented the biomedical dimensions of Jim Neel's research among the Yanomamö. Virtually all of the ethnographic footage in that film was shot by me before I had even met Asch. Yet in both of these films I ended up as the last author. Asch had made the titles and credit lines for both films. He never discussed order of authors with me: "You were in the field and I had to make a decision..." he later explained.
In 1969 and 1970 my field obligations to the biomedical research team increased in duration and complexity, and became increasingly contentious and disagreeable from my vantage. Some, if not most, of the biomedical people held openly contemptuous views of anthropology and anthropologists and regularly made insulting comments to me about anthropological research amounting only to 'collecting anecdotes' as compared to their loftier work, the collection of 'scientific data'. Some of them regarded me as hardly more than a well-educated assistant who could speak both Yanomamö and Spanish, cook meals, wash dishes, repair outboard motors in the dark, keep the aggressive Yanomamö at bay and do other useful things that advanced their own respective scientific careers. I was also relatively inexpensive to a research department in a distinguished medical school. My income was probably not much different from that of the old janitor who had swept the halls of human genetics for many years.
By 1971 increasingly smaller amounts of the three months I could spend in the field each year were devoted to my own field research. Two weeks of 'collaboration' had turned into four weeks by 1970, and seven weeks by 1971. When the first batch of medical researchers got worn out after several weeks they went home and a new, fresh batch came in to replace them the day they left. By the time the last of the medical team members left and I was free to do my own "fieldwork" I was worn out. The seven fieldwork weeks I spent with Neel's multidisciplinary teams in 1971 were even more difficult and exhausting than in previous years. I left Ann Arbor on 3 January and Asch arrived in the field, with Craig Johnson, on 21 February. In the interim I ascended the Ocamo river by canoe several times----three 14-hour days of difficult travel each way--- and the Mavaca River several times, also about three14-hour days of travel each way. I took complete censuses in some dozen villages, most of them in the Ocamo River drainage, working among Yanomamö I had spent little or no time with prior to that and Yanomamö I would never continue to study in my future research. It is very stressful to work in new villages and try to get 100% censuses in short periods of time.
Near the headwaters of the Mavaca River I had walked inland 3 days to make first contact with a large village, Iwahikoraba-teri, and then back 3 days on two different occasions. I had to turn back the first time in order to meet Neel's airplane several days downstream and take them to the numerous villages I had visited and where I had gotten agreements from the Yanomamö to provide endless outstretched brown arms into which many needles would be stuck for the next weeks. I had gotten sick several times---everyone in the area was sick that year. I was almost killed by the Iwahikoroba-teri when I finally reached them on my second try. My only motor had broken several times and I had to dismantle it and replace parts, usually at night after my duties to the medical people were over. My tape recorders had both failed and my several requests by the Salesian's radio for a replacement were all ignored, but the extra needles and medical equipment requested always came in as ordered. My boat fell apart. I had fallen into several rivers traveling at high speeds after dark to meet medical schedules and frequently hit submerged logs I couldn't see, which twice knocked me out of the boat. On one occasion the heavy motor bounced back into the canoe and smashed my leg, causing me to limp for the entire three-month field trip. When Neel's final group left, he unexpectedly arranged in Caracas for yet a third wave of medical colleagues to come into the field and promised them the use of my only outboard motor, which would have grounded me and would have made my planned film collaboration with Asch impossible. I ignored Neel's radio instructions to give my only motor to the third team and wanted to get as far away from the mission radios as fast as I could.
The 1971 Filming CollaborationJust as the second of the two teams of medical doctors departed---but before the third group came to claim my motor---Tim Asch and Craig Johnson landed at Esmeralda with what looked to me like several tons of filming equipment. I shuddered at the enormous effort and work it would take to get this mound of heavy material into Mishimishimaböwei-teri, and how compromised we would be because the Yanomamö would be keenly aware that we couldn't move without their help in carrying all this material into and out of their village.
Asch and Johnson were fresh and raring to go. I was worn out and very tired when they arrived.
Craig Johnson had been an undergraduate film student at Michigan and discovered in about 1970 that I had been making documentary films among native Amazonian peoples. He sought me out and offered to help me in any way he could. I immediately liked him: he could make things work with little or no 'professional' equipment. I remember that we once spliced together some of my early work print film to show in my class "Indians of South America". We 'edited' it by letting the work print stream onto the floor, running it through our hands as we held it up to the window to find the right place, and then cutting it with a razor blade, using a naked light bulb as our 'movie scope' for this more technical procedure. We spliced it together with scotch tape and then wound what I wanted back onto a reel and marched off to my class to show the film. When Asch and I agreed to work in the field in 1971 we had to recruit a soundman. I insisted on bringing Craig Johnson with us. Tim was not pleased with my choice and never really hit it off well with Craig---either during the short period of time they worked together at DER before going into the field, after we got there, or when we returned.
We left Esmeralda for Mavaca on February 21 in two dugout canoes that were heavily loaded with gasoline barrels, equipment and film. I hired a Mission Yanomamö from Ocamo who had been trained by Salesian Priest Padre Cocco to run an outboard motor. He would come part way upstream with us, primarily to carry fuel for our ascent and descent of the Mavaca. We spent a night at Mavaca to repack and refill and reload our fuel barrels. I put my small, light aluminum boat on top of one of the canoes in case we needed it to ferry things short distances once we reached the headwaters.
When we reached Mavaca all the Yanomamö there had gotten colds since I last saw them. There was much sickness that year in all of Yanomamöland.
I learned that a group of Mishimishimaböwei-teri men had recently walked all the way from their village to visit Kaobawä's people, which must have taken them well over a week by trail, perhaps close to two weeks. Most of them had left Kaobawä's village a few days earlier to return home---after managing to persuade the Catholic Priest to have his motorista transport them most of the way in one of the mission's dugout canoes. I was annoyed to learn that the Priest had requested from and had been given gasoline by the Venezuelan Malarialogia unit at Mavaca in MY name---and that I was obligated to replace the fuel. A few Mishimishimaböwei-teri had remained behind. They eagerly accepted my invitation to return to their village in my boat.
On the way up the Mavaca our load got lighter and less bulky: we burned a lot of fuel and left the empty barrels along the river to pick up on the way downstream. We also periodically concealed tanks of fuel in the jungle for our trip back. When we got to within about a day's canoe travel of our destination, I sent the Yanomamö motor operator back to Ocamo. This left us with one heavily loaded dugout canoe and the aluminum boat we had been carrying on top of one of the canoes.
We went as far as we could with the dugout, but eventually there were too many fallen trees, sunken logs, and the water got too shallow to go any further. We tied the canoe to the riverbank, unloaded it, and put a large amount of equipment into the small aluminum boat and transferred the motor to it.
The Yanomamö left where we docked the dugout and headed inland, carrying some of our equipment. They said they would reach the village in a half-day and would send carriers back the next day to transport the bulk our things to the village.
I got the aluminum boat upstream another hour or two before deadfalls completely blocked further progress. We had to stop there and wait for the Yanomamö to arrive to take our equipment to the village.
The aluminum boat was badly overloaded and was very 'tippy'. Asch stood up, picked up a heavy box of film, and nonchalantly stepped on the gunwale of the tippy boat to lean forward and put the box onto the bank. The boat immediately tipped in the direction of his weight and water began pouring into the boat, swamping it in seconds. I jumped into the river and frantically held the back of the boat up as high as I could to prevent it from sinking, yelling at Asch and Johnson to get out of the boat and help me keep it afloat. They had frozen up, dumbfounded, watching the water pour in. I was in water up to my armpits. Asch's version of this incident in his 1979 essay makes it sound as though I were some kind of ranting, unpleasant, unfair, and uncharitable curmugeon, but did not mention the fact that his carelessness caused the boat to sink in the first place. I had repeatedly cautioned him and Craig to be very careful about moving their weight around in a boat so tippy because even a small shift in our center of gravity could sink us.
Tim tended to do dumb things like this. He once threw a rock at a dog that had been snapping at him as he filmed in the village of Patanowä-teri in 1968. It never dawned on him when he threw it that in a round village the rock would eventually end up in someone's house and might hit someone, which it did. The Yanomamö used about every word in their vocabulary to angrily describe his stupidity for not knowing this as I tried to apologize for him.
While I held up the back of the boat, Asch and Johnson frantically unloaded the soaked boxes and wet containers onto the bank. I lost a large number of my magnetic cassette tapes and a few minor stationery items, but the biggest single concern was my only functioning tape recorder. I depended very heavily on it for note-taking. It submerged with my hip pack, which had been sitting on the seat next to me when we swamped. It was a Sony TC 55, quite small but heavy for it's size. It had a short strap on it, fastened by a small, round steel ring. I began whirling the tape recorder to force water out of it. The ring broke and the tape recorder sailed out into the middle of the river and sank. That really bummed me out. Craig Johnson plunged into the river, found it, and brought it back. By a stroke of luck and several days in a sealed container full of silica gel, the recorder continued to work for the rest of the trip.
With the help of a large number of young Yanomamö men, we transported our enormous pile of supplies to the village. The Yanomamö helped me make storage racks for our equipment out of poles, vines and palmwood and within a day of getting to the village were relatively well organized and had begun filming. It took several additional days for some of our equipment to dry out.
Once in the village I discovered that several families from Ironasi-teri were visiting there. They had been invited by Wadoshewä and his brothers, one of the more important political factions in the village. The Ironasi-teri had all been part of the Mishimishimaböwei-teri village a few years earlier, but as the village grew larger and larger, more and more fights broke out. The village must have been extremely large when it fissioned, since Mishimishimaböwei-teri alone had over 250 people in it and Ironasi-teri had well over 150 people. While the several Ironasi-teri families were technically "visitors", they were not strangers. They had been born in and grew up in Mishimishimaböwei-teri and were therefore their close kinsmen. Indeed, Wadoshewä and his brothers wanted this particular group of Ironasi-teri to rejoin the village because of the large number of intermarriages between their respective families. Wadoshewä had even expended the extraordinary effort of clearing jungle and planting crops for them to entice them into rejoining the group.
The ax fight broke out on the afternoon of our second day in the village. Because I had visited and worked in Mishimishimaböwei-teri for the previous three years, I knew almost all the people by sight and name, and was able to identify most of the main actors in that event. The narration in the film seems to imply that none of us had ever been in that village until a day before the ax fight event occurred. It would have been impossible to make that film without the previous three years of field studies in that village, or the repeated return trips I made to that village after 1971. Anthropological documentary films like The Ax Fight are not possible if the filmmaking collaborators go to an unknown Yanomamö village and spend just four weeks in it, nor are Interactive CD ROMs like this.
During the four weeks we stayed in Mishimishimaböwei-teri in 1971 Asch shot approximately 60,000 feet of film with synchronous sound taken by Craig Johnson. I also shot several rolls of 16mm film with my Bolex, cutaway scenes for a film I was independently making by myself, Magical Death . I had filmed the main portion of this shamanistic event the year before in this same village.
I made the Magical Death film with relatively primitive equipment to convince Asch that the most important ingredient in a successful anthropological film is not so much the footage itself or the sophistication of the equipment, but the ethnographic and ethnological content that makes the footage meaningful. If the filmmakers among you do not believe this, then look at the footage of the ax fight without the soundtrack and imagine what it would 'mean' with no ethnographic content. Indeed, when we returned from the field in 1971 we showed the raw footage with the synchronous sound (but no narration) to sophisticated anthropological groups and asked people to write a brief essay about what they thought the film meant. The results were interesting, but very wide of the mark. One picture may be worth a thousand words, but the right thousand words makes all the difference in an ethnographic film. Without them, ethnographic film is just meaningless pictures to an ethnographer, whatever they might be to non-ethnographers. There is not a democracy of ideas and interpretations in a real world. Not every idea or interpretation is as good as any other insofar as explanation and generating understanding are concerned.
Post Fieldwork ProductionAsch and I produced 18 films after completing the 1971 field collaboration, Ax Fight being only one of them. He always seemed to make the titles and assign authorship "when I was in the field" and put his name as first author on disproportionately large numbers of these, without discussing authorship as we had agreed. This was largely rectified in the last four films, all of them on myths and therefore depending heavily on ethnographic content. Production of those last films was not even certain when we made The Ax Fight film. In fact, there are several other 'myth' films we could have produced but never did because we ran out of money to do them. Asch had made the final titles and credits that listed himself as first author on 11 of the 14 films we had made to that point, not including the "multidisciplinary study" film or The Feast in both of which I was the last named author, or Magical Death , a film in which he did not play any filming role. I did not invite Asch to co-author Magical Death , despite his persistent requests to put into it just one tiny sequence that he shot so he could be legitimately listed as a co-author. He resented this and his resentment appears to have grown over time. He ultimately seemed to despise Magical Death , and from what I have since learned from him and others, he used it in classes at USC to persuade inner-city students that it was an example of ethnocentrism in filming, and twice tried to persuade me that we should consider withdrawing it from distribution because "..his black students from the inner city were turned off and abhorred by it..." This alleged reaction from inner city black students was no doubt in large measure due to how he prejudically presented it to them and discussed it with them. Knowing Asch as well as I did, I'm quite sure that his attitude would have been very different had he been a co-author on this film. It did, like the Ax Fight , win a Blue Ribbon Award in the American Film Festival.
I left the University of Michigan in 1972 and joined the faculty of the Pennsylvania State University. All the films based on footage shot in Mishimishimaböwei-teri were made after I moved to Penn State. Production of the Ax Fight became the final straw in the deterioration of our personal and professional relationships. Since this particular film's success depended heavily on my ethnographic input, we decided at the outset that I would be listed as the first author. It's intelligibility depended on intimate knowledge of kinship, marriage alliances over time, genealogy, descent, and information on the histories of personal relationships and village fissions.
Asch visited me at Penn State several times as we worked on this and other films between 1972 and 1974. Penn State then had a very small, struggling film production department, but Penn State was also the repository of the Psychological Cinema Register (PCR), the largest existing collection of films in the behavioral sciences. PCR was started by Clarence R. Carpenter, a distinguished primatologist, and ultimately became one of the most successful and famous film archives in the world on human and animal behavior...and still is.
Carpenter's long-time academic friend and associate, Les Greenhill, had played a prominent role in developing and expanding the PCR collection and was then the overall director of PCR. At my insistence all the Yanomamö films we produced would be co-distributed by PCR, although Documentary Educational Resources (DER) would be the primary distributor.
DER had been largely built around the extensive film archive on the Kalahari Bushmen produced by John Marshall, and supplemented with the Yanomamö footage that Asch and I had shot together. None of us in 1970 were certain that DER would survive, one of the reasons I insisted that PCR be included in the distribution of the Yanomamö films. PCR would guarantee their continuing didactic use in the academic community whether or not DER survived.
On one of Asch's visits to Penn State to work on The Ax Fight in about 1973 we did some of the editing in Penn State's small film production department. We also did some of it in my attic, where I had a primitive editing bench equipped with rewinds, a two-gang synchronizer, splicer, and movie scope viewer. Asch noticed that the film department had an Oxbury Animation Stand, a very expensive machine that enabled film editors to do sophisticated things with motion picture film, such as convert scenes to slow-motion, freeze-frame them, blow up particular sections of frames, and other useful technical things. The machine was available to Penn State faculty at no charge if they were producing a film that would be distributed through Penn State's PCR archive and identified as having been produced at the Penn State film unit. This machine was also available for rent at an extraordinarily high price to outside clients whose films would be produced and distributed by non-Penn State entities.
We discussed the conditions for using this machine with the head of the film department and agreed that if he would let us use the Oxbury Animation Stand at no cost to us because I was on the Penn State Faculty, then we would acknowledge his Department's resources in producing the film, distribute the film through PCR and give PCR primary distribution rights. Penn State's film production department was in danger of being eliminated in the overall University program because of budget cuts. The film production people viewed our agreement as something that might contribute substantially to their viability as a department...and their continuing jobs. Ax Fight would also tie them more intimately with the very successful PCR unit within Penn State, something they needed and wanted. They were also aware that I would be producing more films on the Yanomamö and were anxious to be involved in these.
We used the Oxbury Animation Stand to produce the final version of the Ax Fight and we knew, when we were done, that it would potentially become an important anthropological film.
After the film was finished I again became immersed in preparations to return to the field and left it up to Asch to complete the final details of the production work and make the titles etc. But he began having second thoughts about putting my name first on this film. He started calling me at my office and my home, pleading with me to rescind our agreement and put his name first on the film "...because he had worked so hard on it." I kept explaining to him that the film made sense only because of the ethnographic content and, besides, we had agreed at the outset that my name should appear as the first author because of the lopsided allocation of his name first on so many of the other films. His calls were ceaseless and increasingly annoying to me---they often came at dinner time and seemingly lasted for hours. As the time of my departure for the field grew nearer, I became more and more preoccupied with the numerous and necessary plans, purchases, printouts, data files, etc. that I had to take to the field. Tim's calls and his whining were beginning to wear me down, distract me, and annoy me. The last time he called I angrily told him to put whatever titles he wanted to put on this film as he had done in the past and to stop calling me. He was elated, and very grateful that I saw things his way and presumably acknowledged his greater contribution to this film.
When the film was released in 1974 I was astonished that DER was the exclusive distributor and that Penn State only had ancillary rental rights. Penn State's film production people were not even mentioned. When I questioned Asch about this, he told me the following. While I was in the field he had decided that this film might become important and therefore crucial to the survival of DER. He decided to visit Penn State while I was in the field and talk personally with Les Greenhill about rescinding our prior agreement with the film production unit. He agreed to pay DER, Penn State, or somebody there, "out of his own pocket", the cost of what the rental time would have been on the Oxbury Animation Stand which, he apparently argued, was the only reason we agreed to give the distribution rights on The Ax Fight to PCR. I was dumbfounded that he would do this without consulting with me and literally do it behind my back at my University. I was also astonished that Les Greenhill agreed to his proposal without consulting with me, a Penn State faculty member, co-producer of the film, and on the Editorial Board of PCR. Asch has apparently convinced him that he was representing both of us in this renegotiation.
The Penn State film production unit was eliminated about the same time. Some of their personnel were justifiably and openly rude to me whenever we accidentally bumped into each other on campus during that unhappy process. I doubt that Asch ever paid a penny to any unit at Penn State to compensate for the free use of the Oxbury Animation Stand and I inherited a number of enemies at Penn State.
My personal relationships with Asch plummeted. He eventually went to Australia to collaborate in filming projects with other anthropologists. We didn't have any contact for many years.
In 1984 I accepted a position at the University of California, Santa Barbara. By then Asch had returned to the US and had taken a position at USC, one of the more prominent centers of documentary anthropology in the US and the world. We were now living near each other---two or three hours drive by auto.
Shortly after I moved to California Asch called me to ask if he and Patsy, his wife, could come to Santa Barbara to visit us, welcome us to California, and talk about the good old times when we collaborated on our Yanomamö films. I happily invited them to visit us at our home. It was an innocent and expectable get-together. My wife, children and I had spent a very pleasant week on Block Island with Tim, Patsy and their children in the mid 1970s and his suggestion for a reciprocal visit was welcomed. Tim had been our house guest many times in the past when we were working on films, and I had spent many days as his and Patsy's guest in Cambridge for the same reasons. We had not only been professional collaborators, we had become good friends as families. I was willing to forget about the most recent and unpleasant dimensions of our relationship, for I was out of the filmmaking business.
We had a very pleasant visit, talked about old times, ate dinner in my back yard, and generally had a good time. As he and Patsy were leaving, Tim revealed why he had really come: he wanted me to consider a resumption of our field collaboration and make new films among the Yanomamö. I listened politely and agreed that we made some of the best films that ever resulted from a collaboration between a 'filmmaker' and an 'ethnographer', but bluntly told him I was not interested in resuming our collaboration.
This decision was not simply about not wanting to work again with Asch on new films because of my dissatisfaction in our earlier collaboration. Between 1976 and 1985 I did not return to Venezuela to continue my field research for a number of reasons. Other reasons for not wanting to resume the collaboration included the following. First, a small but influential number of Venezuelan anthropologists critical of me and my work had managed to prevent me from returning to the Yanomamö for 10 years (1975 - 1984). One reason was their hostility to my filmmaking. They repeatedly claimed that I was 'making millions of dollars' on the films I had produced on the Yanomamö and was exploiting them for personal financial gain. This was absolutely false. I never earned a penny on any film I made on the Yanomamö. All our films were distributed by non-profit organizations, no royalties were paid to anyone, and in fact it cost me money out of my own pocket to shoot and produce some of these films. Asch never made a penny either. It was hard for these Venezuelan anthropologists to believe that I didn't earn a 'profit' on the Yanomamö films, but they persisted in falsely claiming that I did. Since additional filmmaking would fan the fires of opposition to my field research, I had decided to not become engaged in filmmaking among the Yanomamö again. Second, some of the films I made with Asch had been deliberately 'modified' by my opponents in Venezuela, perhaps with help from non-Venezuelans, to enrage the Yanomamö and provoke them into hostility toward me. In 1985, after returning to the Yanomamö for the first time in nearly 10 years, I was astonished that some Yanomamö, particularly those near the Salesian Mission of Boca Mavaca, were openly hostile to me. They had been my friends when I left. When I asked why they were so angry, they said they were angry because I made "shami" films of them ("filthy" films). On further inquiry I discovered that a few of them who had learned how to read and write had been taken to Caracas and shown some of my films. By their descriptions they were taken to a projection room and shown the titles to one of my films, freeze-framed so it was clear to them that my name was on the film, and their host took phonetically took them through my name, syllable-by-syllable, as he pointed to the title---to make sure they knew it was my name. They were then shown a film. The film was probably Magical Death , but a 'doctored' version of it. One of the scenes in Magical Death shows the shamans magically scooping up the symbolic 'body fat' of their victim from the ground, and licking and sucking this 'body fat' off their fingers. Someone had apparently spliced into the film close-up pornographic footage of non-Yanomamö men repeatedly sticking their fingers into vaginas, and then switching back to my footage showing the Yanomamö shamans licking and sucking their fingers. The Yanomamö men were portrayed as licking vaginal fluids off their fingers. The third reason was that Asch indicated that he was interested in filming Helena Valero, a Brazilian who was captured by the Yanomamö when she was a teenager and who spent most of her life as a captive among them. Almost every westerner who has initiated any contact with this poor woman has exploited her, and I adamantly refused to be party to anything that might be construed as exploiting her. Helena Valero had returned to live with the Yanomamö with her eldest son, Jose. They lived at Boca Ocamo at Padre Cocco's Salesian Mission. I knew Helena Valero quite well and went out of my way to stop in and say hello to her each time I returned to the field, give her some money and tobacco, and then continue upstream and inland to do my work. I always spoke to her in Yanomamö. I never asked her any questions about her 'life' among the Yanomamö, and simply told her what I knew of the many Yanomamö with whom she had lived and who had asked me to give her messages. She asked me to give them messages also. She was always pleased to learn about people she hadn't seen in many years. A fourth reason I did not want to enter into another film collaboration was the fact that I was planning to travel extensively and with minimal equipment, and go to many villages, many of them being inland considerable distances. I intended to travel as unencumbered as I could and not have excessive amounts of equipment that would hamper my freedom of movement and make me extremely dependent on carriers from the inland villages I would visit. I intended to bring only what I needed to do my work in each remote village, and my own carriers to get me there and get me back.
But then Asch learned there was a Venezuelan graduate student in my department, Jesus Ignacio Cardozo, who had decided to join me and Hames in our 1985 field studies among the Yanomamö. Cardozo's original intent was to study a more accessible Venezuelan group, the Panare, but when I joined the UCSB faculty it was reasonable for him to decide to work with me among the Yanomamö and I encouraged him to do so. Cardozo came to the field with me and Hames in 1985, but departed company with us in resentment and anger after spending just a few days in one of the villages with us. That's a different story to be told elsewhere.
Asch began visiting Santa Barbara more regularly, putatively to visit me, but I would usually learn that he had come to visit Jesus Cardozo. I remember one visit when he looked at his watch and said: "Well, it's time for me to get back to LA", and then learned from graduate students a few days later that he had spent the next day in Santa Barbara with Cardozo. He and Cardozo had apparently agreed to collaborate in a filmmaking trip to the Yanomamö, but for reasons I still do not fully understand, they wanted to keep this a secret from me. If they wanted to collaborate in a film project together, they would have had my blessing and support. I just didn't want to be part of it for the reasons spelled out above.
Tim's puzzling secretiveness about his new Yanomamö filming initiative came up in other circumstances. He once called me to ask me to cover for him at a session at the American Anthropological Association meetings where he was scheduled to comment on one of our earlier films, but last minute urgent business would prevent him from going. I agreed to cover for him. As the speaker called me to the stage and explained to the audience that Asch was unable to make it because of last minute conflicts, he casually added that "...Asch is in the field filming the Yanomamö with Jesus Cardozo..." I almost tripped on my jaw as I walked toward the podium and this announcement was made.
Cardozo returned to Venezuela in 1986 without finishing his Ph.D. and tried to established himself among his Venezuelan colleagues as their local Yanomamö expert on the basis of a few weeks of field research. He shortly thereafter denounced me and joined ranks with my opponents in Venezuela---which also alingned him with my critics in Brazil and the US. Asch joined with them, apparently believing that this would be the most certain way to get into the Yanomamö area to continue his filming interests. He began giving talks and publishing comments that were critical of me and my field research. In 1991 Cardozo organized and hosted an international conference on the Venezuelan Yanomamö, held in Caracas. Tim Asch helped him organize this conference.
I was not invited to attend the First International Congress on the Venezuelan Yanomamö, organized by my former graduate student, Cardozo, and my former long-time filmmaking collaborator, Tim Asch. The most vociferous handful of my opponents and critics from Brazil, France and the US were invited and, from what I have subsequently learned, the congress was frequently punctuated with ad hominem denunciations of me. Tim Asch presented a gratuitous paper later published in La Iglesia en Amazonas, the local journal of the Venezuelan Salesian missions. By 1991 the Salesian missions were also opposed to my return to the Yanomamö area, and Asch's joining their ranks was useful to both of them. This is discussed in Chaper 8 of the 5th edition of my monograph, Yanomamö (Chagnon, 1997).
Tim Asch and I had a very productive collaboration for many years, and we did make good films together. Maybe some of the best. But, at the end I found that I could not forgive Tim for his unprofessional and, in my estimation, deliberately hostile acts either intended to or clearly having the effect of harming me personally and professionally, and preventing me from continuing my field research among the Yanomamö.
I think there is a larger, and ironic message in this for both anthropological filmmakers and the ethnographers whose collaboration they solicit, champion, and invite. These are invariably costly to the ethnographer. Probably no anthropological filmmaker has spent more time proclaiming the virtues of "collaboration" between filmmaker and anthropologist than Timothy Asch. He has done this repeatedly and eloquently. But the message I have for the filmmaker is to be more aware of the costs to the ethnographer who agrees to collaborate with you, and the costs to both of you if the filmmaking goals get out of hand and jeopardize the ethnographer's research opportunities. Filmmakers need ethnographers more than vice-versa to make sophisticated and compelling anthropological documentaries. The message I have for the ethnographer is, simply, to not allow a filmmaking collaboration to jeopardize your ethnographic research. You hold most of the cards. Cameras are ultimately less expensive than what you might end up paying in time and career risk if you enter into a filmmaking collaboration with someone who is insensitive to and unconcerned about your own long-term field research prospects. They can find another ethnographer who 'knows the people, the language, etc.' but a disastrous filmmaking collaboration that causes you to have to get to know another people and learn another language is an extraordinary price to pay. A high-quality video camera is cheaper.
Close to the time of his death we were both participants in a conference call with other members of the Board of Directors of DER. I could not bring myself to speak directly to him, and he apparently felt the same about me. We both spoke to all others participating in this call, but never to each other. That bothered and hurt me. I don't know how he felt. By then he knew he was dying.
This interactive CD ROM on The Ax Figh t was begun at USC before Tim died, but work halted on it when he died. Gary Seaman and Peter Biella approached me in late 1995 to explore the possibility of me collaborating with them to complete what they started with Tim. After seeing what they had managed to do with the information provided by Tim Asch and what I had published in some of my books and articles, I realized that a much stronger and potentially more useful product could be made and I agreed to collaborate with them to finish what they and Tim began. I hope this interactive CD ROM is better for my contribution to it, and I hope that I am correctly predicting that it will become a novel and exciting way for students to get more deeply involved in the anthropological quest and to learn about and better understand other peoples.
We dedicate this Interactive CD ROM on the Ax Fight to Tim Asch, who did not make the final titles and credits this time, but is deservedly in them in a prominent way.
|Content is copyright © by the authors, websites, or companies that originally published and/or wrote the text of this document.|
|Page design and layout is copyright © 2015, Douglas W. Hume.|