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.