Darkness in El Dorado - Archived Document
Anthropological Niche of Douglas W. Hume
Home | Darkness in El Dorado | Contact

Internet Source: Secrets of the Tribe (World Cinema Documentary Competition), Report from Sundance TwentyTen: Religion in Independent Film, Journal of Religion and Film 14:1, April 2010.
Source URL: http://avalon.unomaha.edu/jrf/Vol14no1/sundance_2010.htm#tribe


Secrets of the Tribe

(World Cinema Documentary Competition)

If we view religion as concerning itself, at least partly, with morality, kinship relations, a sense of the sacred and the responsibilities that all of these demand of a person, then Secrets of the Tribe is a story of religion gone wrong. Having said that, this documentary is about anthropologists and their interactions with people of the Yanomami tribe in the Amazon Basin.

José Padilha’s film opens with a Yanomami tribal elder who says, “Look, here they are! Taking my picture again. I don’t like to believe anything you [Whites] say, because you lie.” The Yanomami peoples were isolated. One of the first anthropologists to make contact with them and to study them was American Napoleon Chagnon. More anthropologists, linguists, scientists and others followed. The documentary is riveting as Padilha allows anthropologists and members of the Yanomami tribe to speak for themselves, and in the case of the anthropologists, to justify their actions. “They [the Yanomami] became famous through my book,” Chagnon states grandiously at one point.

The arrogance one can find in many academic settings, along with long-time debates about the nature of a discipline, move into ugly accusations of flawed data, ideological debates (Marxist materialism, Noble Savages, etc.) then deteriorate into dishing the dirt on people’s personal lives and then (it does get worse) into accounts and chilling justifications of underage marriage, rampant and widely known pedophilia by a French anthropologist with Yanomami boys, and callous exposure – in the name of science and research – of the Yanomami to questionable vaccination practices, measles and influenza. They could have included this documentary on a bill with horror movies.

In the end, one realizes that the title of the film, “Secrets of the Tribe,” refers not so much to the Yanomami people as to the field of anthropology – or at least this particular group of anthropologists. Director Jose Padhila has brilliantly turned the methods of anthropology on the anthropologists themselves, and we do come to see that the nasty “secrets” have not been very secret at all, but well-known for a long time. The result is a film that challenges us to look at definitions of self and other, and that provides a record that is almost the same as the entire history of contact and colonialism suffered by many Indigenous peoples of many lands over many centuries – but in this case condensed into thirty or so sordid and appalling years.

Ultimately, the film lays the blame for all of this not only on the anthropologists, but also on the universities that support and promote people based on this type of research, on the granting agencies that fund it, on the publishing industry that popularizes this work and makes a living off of it, and, generally, on the academic world. It is not, as one might think from this, a heavy-handed film. Padhila is too intelligent for that and the film moves along quickly and engagingly; interspersing interviews with archival footage and allowing the viewer to encounter multiple perspectives.

Returning to the topic of religion, the anthropologists interviewed in this film tell their stories and gain no redemption from it. Secrets of the Tribe instead provides us with a clear and cautionary tale of how ego skews perspective and, in doing so, creates a world of suffering. I left the theater ashamed to be a member of the ‘academic tribe.’ And having said that, this is a film that I would recommend to all – especially academics.

— MMD