PRINT September 1991


Biodegradable Culture

THERE IS A CURIOUS trend in white mainstream culture in the U.S. The first inkling of it occurred to me when I heard someone talk about Dances With Wolves. This person couldn’t stop exclaiming how unique and authentic the film was. “It’s a great film!,” she cried. “There are real Indians in it who speak Lakota, and the movie is subtitled when they speak. You must see it!”

I got suspicious, though, when I found out that Dances With Wolves was a Hollywood film made by Kevin Costner. A few days later, my suspicions were again aroused when I came across a new Paul Simon album with a title like an anthropology book, The Rhythm of the Saints. On the cover was a photo of Brazilian Indians running. On the back, and this got me excited at first, was a photo of several Balinese people walking along a wooded path. Eager to see Balinese names mentioned or credits to Balinese music, I quickly scanned the album notes and credits. To my dismay there were none. Puzzled, I tried to figure out the connection between the Brazilian Indians and the Balinese, two very different peoples.

My Dances With Wolves friend saw the answer very plainly. “Actually,” she said, “when I saw the Lakota in Dances With Wolves, I immediately thought of the Balinese. There’s something common to both cultures. I don’t know what to call it ... I’ll call it ‘biodegradability’ for lack of a better term; you know, a sense that both the Lakota and the Balinese do not destroy the environment. When I visited Bali I was struck by how people respected nature. There’s a respect for the earth and a spirituality in both cultures. That’s something we lost when we became industrialized.”

Well, dear reader, I must admit that I exploded. Because to someone whose parents are from Indonesia and who has lived there, the idea that the Balinese live in a premodern back-to-nature society is ludicrous. They are as rapaciously capitalistic and hence polluting as any of the other large ethnic groups in Indonesia. But more important, as I tried to explain to my friend, they live in the present. This means our time, not some deep-frozen biodegradable precapitalistic past.

And so I understood the equation: Indian = Balinese = biodegradable (what used to be called “primitive”). Anthropology helped to make this kind of thinking official; after all, didn’t Margaret Mead extol the peaceful beauty of Bali in her ethnographies, blind to the oppressiveness of the Dutch colonial regime and the extremely bloody civil war raging around her?

Of course, it’s not entirely my friend’s fault. Bali advertises itself as an unspoiled island paradise of dance and trance. Tourists automatically avoid Den Pasar, the capital of Bali, as they avoid Jakarta in Java. (It’s not unusual to hear tourists in Jakarta say, “We can’t wait to get to Java.” Unbeknownst to them, they’re already there.) Who wants to see third world people who are modernized, spoiled, and impure? No, these travelers, the majority of whom are young, white, and upper middle class, want squat-down toilets. They want to sit in bamboo huts and bamboo cafés, oblivious to the fact that few—if any—natives actually drink or eat in them. They’re what a friend of mine calls third world café society. In fact one of their direct predecessors is Mead, who in the ’30s used to escape what she called “her” village, in the Balinese mountains, to go to the lowlands, where she hung out with white artists and intellectuals like Walter Spies, Miguel Covarrubias, and Jane Belo.

But you need never fly Thai Air to have the third world café experience. You can simply go see that Dances movie or delight in the ancient precursors to Dances from the ’20s and ’30s, many of which were recently restored and shown last April in the “Age of Exploration” series at the Film Forum, New York. Movies like Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North, 1922, Flaherty and F.W. Murnau’s Tabu, 1931, H. P. Carver’s The Silent Enemy, 1930, and Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack’s Chang, 1927, used native “nonactors” to reconstruct the past before “first contact.” In other words, these rare films, which have been salvaged from various archives, are about salvaged “vanishing cultures.”

I was surprised by the curious lack of perspective in the press response to the Film Forum series. Critics who normally pontificate about the constructed nature of a Jean-Luc Godard film seem to have lost their tongues when confronted with movies like Chang or Flaherty’s Moana, 1926. Perhaps we of the TV generation have digested the verity of too many National Geographic specials. No matter that the igloo in Nanook is a roofless igloo set and that some of the film was shot in the proximity of a hotel, or that the tattoo ceremony in Moana and the dangerous fishing expeditions in Man of Aran (Flaherty, 1934) were no longer actually practiced at the time the films were made: this kind of movie makes it easy for the viewer to buy the “you are there” quality. Or perhaps one buys a “you were there” quality.

In the ’20s and ’30s, movies of the “Age of Exploration” ilk became a favorite form of media cannibalization of indigenous peoples. Common to these films and their precursors was a “travel back in time” aspect, which derived from the scientifically sanctioned idea that physical and cultural differences reflect evolutionary differences. Cultures said to be without written language or without technology were placed at the bottom of the evolutionary ladder. The notion of “primitive” lumped together such disparate groups as the Australian aborigines, the peoples of Oceania, the indigenous peoples of the Americas, the sub-Saharan Africans, the peoples of the Arctic, and others of the often politically despised (the Irish, for example, were classified by turn-of-the-century British anthropologists as slightly ahead of the higher primates). Implicitly, then, the viewer of any of these films is in the evolved present, watching others from the not-yet-evolved past. You, the viewer, are in control. Perhaps that explains the repeated insistence in these films on the natives’ ignorance of film technology. The figure of the native who “does not understand the camera” was as prevalent then as the figure is now of the doomed-to-die African-American soldier named Washington in Vietnam War movies.

The best of these early precursors to Dances, such as the films by Flaherty and Carver, came up with radically new ways of filming and editing to adjust to a different kind of subject matter and to contend with filming “on exotic location.” Yet they are also often infused with a romanticism for “biodegradability,” a yearning for unspoiled, uncivilized humanity. Nature is often a main character, together with the Noble Savage, the Gentle South Sea Islander, and the Evil Medicine Man sort.

To take two examples, Chang and Tabu seem to be evolutionary parables about how civilization began and paradise was lost. The films are really about Western myths whose authenticity is confirmed by the bodies of these real-life “primitives.” Chang is set in Thailand. The patriarch Kru must fight and conquer the jungle in order to ensure his family’s survival, which means that he must use “brain against brawn” in his struggle with stampeding chang, or elephants. The film is meant to be a reconstruction of man before he became civilized, when his biggest enemy was the jungle and wild animals. Kru and his fellow villagers are represented as pure, but are often compared to animals, a typical feature of this film genre. Repeated crosscutting between a village elder and a monkey represent the elder as simian. It’s not surprising that Cooper and Schoedsack brought up the simian/primitive motif again in creating their ultimate primitive, King Kong, who lives both in contemporary Sumatra/Africa and among dinosaurs in the prehistoric age.

Tabu, a collaboration between Flaherty and Murnau, shows us paradise lost, which means the onslaught of capitalism. The image of the South Seas here is typically ambivalent: the culture is wholesome, the life-style idyllic, yet it is a barbaric place as well. In the early scenes, it is decreed that the beautiful Reri is to be sent away to become the consort of the chief of the islands, and thus she is taboo to all other men, including her love Matahi. When the couple flees to an island with a visible French colonial presence, however, they must work to pay off bribes to French officers and greedy Chinese storeowners. Eventually they are discovered: Reri is taken away and Matahi dies. Their encounter with the outside “free” world is a disaster.

In the worst of these early ethnographic films, one finds sheer exploitation and sensationalism, and the indigenous peoples are seen as “missing links.” The W.S. Van Dyke II’s Trader Horn, 1930; Osa and Martin Johnson’s Congarilla, 1932; and Clyde E. Elliott’s Bring ’em Back Alive, 1932, all incredibly racist and exploitative films. Perhaps it is no mere coincidence that the ’20s and ’30s was a period of eugenics and Rassenhygiene (racial hygiene). These films are about the hunt and destruction and feature that most evolved being, the white man, as hero-hunter; they reflect the perverse side of the fascination with the “primitive.” In fact, Trader Horn is notorious because it is alleged that an African man was actually killed by a crocodile in one scene—it’s snuff ethnography, if you will.

These myths are what connect the Lakota to the Balinese and what account for the current commercialization of both. The nostalgia for the “Age of Exploration” means that these “vanishing cultures,” which now only exist thanks to the power of the screen, are seen as authentic. Even Mead talked about the impact of these films on her, saying, for example, that Flaherty’s Moana influenced her view of Samoa when she did her fieldwork on the sexual lives of adolescent Samoan girls.

What gets ignored is the question: who is doing the reconstructing? To quote the 1917 diary of the father of Mistah Kurtz anthropology, Bronislaw Malinowski, on the Trobriand Islanders: “Feeling of ownership: it is I who will describe them or create them. . . .” There is something very powerful and compelling in the notion of the “primitive” that sustains it to this day. But these kinds of representations obscure present-day cultures that have their own internal contradictions and have endured complex histories of slavery, oppression, and colonialism. They perpetuate the popular belief, scientifically legitimized by anthropologists like Mead and Ruth Benedict, that one can reify cultures as personalities; that one can say “the Balinese are so spiritual” without recognizing that there is nothing monolithic about the Balinese, just as there is nothing monolithic about being a citizen of the U.S.

The question of who represents and who is represented is seen by many to be an ethical issue: groups who were and are popular subjects in “ethnographic film,” like the Maori of New Zealand or Australian aboriginal tribes, are demanding rights to these cinematic images. One antidote to the destructive power of the images in the “Age of Exploration” films is an engagement by several native peoples in their own television and film projects. I believe in salvaging the old films, but I also believe in discussing the constructed mythologies that surround them, and in questioning the replay of this fascination for “biodegradable” cultures.

What hits me is the othering and the hierarchy of othering, that is, the notion that these others are more authentic than those. And you see, that’s how the Trick works. I learned about the Trick several years ago when I saw King Kong for the first time. I sat down to watch the film as I would any Hollywood movie, prepared to escape into the story. When the men ran out onto the beach of King Kong land, I registered them as “savages,” until I realized with a jolt that I understood what they were saying. They were speaking a weird Indonesian or Malay (later I learned it was a mixture of Swahili and Indonesian). The illusion of the film instantly vanished. You see, the Trick only works when you think they are different.

Fatimah Tobing Rony is a Ph.D. candidate in the history of art at Yale University. She is writing her dissertation on the “ethnographic” in early cinema.