Anthropologist Bites Dog

I recently had an opportunity to watch José Padilha’s “Secrets of the Tribe” which purports to put “the field of anthropology… under the magnifying glass in [a] fiery investigation of the seminal research on Yanomamö Indians.” This film has been a big success at festivals, screening at Sundance, Hotdocs, etc. and has also been shown on HBO and the BBC, making it one of the most successful recent films about anthropology, yet it seems to have gotten scant attention from anthropologists.

What attention it has gotten has largely been positive, such as this glowing review in CounterPunch, or this blog post by Louis Proyect. A review in VAR was slightly more critical, but not by much. Still, the following comment from Stephen Broomer’s review gets to the heart of the matter:

Padilha’s contribution to this debate is confined within the limits of documentary form. Secrets of the Tribe is a narrative-driven documentary, and as such it privileges dramatic contrast over the reinforcement of facts or proof.

Indeed, I would go much further. The film struck me as little more than tabloid journalism, reveling in salacious scandals, academic cat fights, and conspiracy theories in the name of discussing research ethics and scientific methodology. It reminded me of one of those local news stories where a reporter exclaims how shocked he is to discover that there is prostitution in his city while the camera indulges in digitally blurred closeups of exposed female flesh.

In comparing this film to tabloid journalism I don’t mean to impute Padilha’s motives. Padilha is clearly someone who cares deeply about Brazil’s indigenous population. He also deserves credit for actually interviewing Yanomami for the film. But Padilha is not an anthropologist. As one review put it: “A student of math and physics, Padilha turned to filmmaking after a brief, unsatisfying career in banking.” (He is most famous for “Bus 174” about a hijacked bus in Rio.) For this reason he seems unable to meaningfully engage with contemporary debates about fieldwork practices or the nature of anthropological research.

I don’t really know which bothered me more: the lumping together of pedophilia accusations against Jacques Lizot and Kenneth Good with Patrick Tierney’s accusations against James Neel and Napoleon Chagnon, the fact that the film completely ignored Tim Asch even as it relies extensively on his footage, or the way it presented anthropological epistemology as a simplistic choice between the hard-science of sociobiology on the one hand and mushy-headed cultural relativism on the other.

What really upsets me is that these are serious issues, which warrant serious discussion. By simplifying the scientific debates and lumping them together with pedophilia accusations, the film missed a unique opportunity to make an important contribution to the popular understanding of anthropology. Too bad.

7 thoughts on “Anthropologist Bites Dog

  1. What an odd post. Totally annoyed with Padilla but without saying exactly why. I imagine that Friedman has a point of view on the Yanomami controversy but if so, it is not apparent.

  2. Unfortunately, or not depending on where one stands, films (be they fiction, documentaries, or whatnot) are art. They are the effort to convey information, ideas, opinions, from one or a few, to many. Unless one is prepared to create something similar of equal or greater cost and resulting ‘value’, to counter the impact of such a ‘work’, it is pretty much a waste of time, effort, and money.

    Someone in an empty auditorium shouts a truth.
    Someone in a packed auditorium shouts a half-truth.
    Who had the greater immediate impact on the world?

    Art is money. Money talks. Nobody walks.

  3. “I don’t really know which bothered me more: the lumping together of pedophilia accusations against Jacques Lizot and Kenneth Good with Patrick Tierney’s accusations against James Neel and Napoleon Chagnon…”

    Is it worth mentioning that Tierney devotes part of his book to the pedophilia accusations, which may account for the apparent “lumping together” of these topics in the film? Tierney’s theme is the anthropological exploitation of the Yanomamo, which is just as evident in the pedophilia cases as in his accusations against Chagnon.

  4. Kerim —
    I get where you’re coming from. I just watched the film again, or part of it, when it aired on SBS here in Australia a couple of days ago. I found the film to be a bit of a morass of sordid accusations, united only by the overarching theme ‘anthropologists exploited the Yanomamo.’
    Chagnon and many of his supporters have repeatedly tried to paint anyone who criticizes his work as ‘unscientific,’ even when the criticisms have nothing to do with critiques of science. I don’t know if it’s a conscious strategy or simply the inability to hear or impatience to listen to the fact that the critiques are different to this. But it does have the desired effect which you describe: it confounds a set of issues into an undifferentiated mess and threatens anyone who approaches it with getting sucked into this maelstrom.
    In addition, I always feel like some of the accusers want to get audiences on side, using accusations of other parties as ways to try to earn clemency for their own dubious dealings. For example, I know nothing personal about Ken Good, and he may be a deeply decent guy, but holy crap I wouldn’t want to be lumped in together with him just for the purposes of critiquing the research of Chagnon, let alone with Lizot!
    I think the whole series of sordid episodes was probably best analysed by one of the Venezuelan commentators, who said (and I’m paraphrasing) something to the effect of ‘you should check these anthropologists out at home before you let them come over here to live with the Yanomamo.’ I don’t agree with Pascvaks cynicism, perhaps, but he’s right about the overall effect: anthropology comes out looking pretty bad from this whole episode. Of course, if you took only the popular reporting on a subject to represent what was happening in a field, we’re hardly alone in this respect (I work with professional athletes and coaches, and watch people’s reputations get chewed up on the front pages of papers with pretty startling frequency).

  5. Another thing about this lumping together is the more common lumping & labelling we find in all stereotyping. Only the ‘crazy’ or eccentric or ethically-challenged anthropologists are discussed, and they are meant to stand for all of us. It seems accepted that, at the least, anthropologists who choose to work with the Yanomami or other Amazonian indigenous peoples might just be a little dysfunctional themselves. And yet, I know many plain, ordinary plodders – just like you and me (if you’re an anthropologist) – who have worked in the Amazon & worked hard to be ethical and fair, to nurture their relationships with the people they worked with, to think through ideas carefully, and have apparently done nothing to attract the attention of the public. These do not stand for anthropology, apparently.

  6. It’s the journalist’s axiom in action: “Man bites dog” is a story; “Dog bites man” is not. When one of the supposedly good guys turns out to be a bad guy, the betrayal is newsworthy—also a classic dramatic device. The good guys doing their good guy thing? Not unless what they do is really, really interesting to people outside their field.

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