04 July 2010

'Cannibal Tours' as Filmic Anti-Journey

Dennis O'Rourke is a Sydney-based filmmaker who has made a number of documentaries about people and situations in Australia, the Pacific and Papua New Guinea. His film 'Cannibal Tours' gives us insights into the phenomenon of tourism by Europeans and Americans to coastal Papua, and offers us a series of ironic episodic encounters between tourists and locals. The film is very definitely not an observational record of a single time-bound visit to a single identifiable place. It is quite difficult to form a sense of particular places (although a small number are mentioned) and there are no clues as to time. Although the film appears to start with an arrival and ends with a departure, almost everything happens in between has an arbitrary, unlocated, unspecific character to it. The only constant is that locals comment on the visitors, alternating with visitors commenting upon the locals. And there is a sense that the visitors' perceptions are usually countered with a specific anti-perception by a local. That is clearly a very deliberate construction even if it is made to look spontaneous, and balanced in a tit-for-tat exchange process.

Perhaps the opening of the film is intended to playfully evoke Conrad's Heart of Darkness, but it could equally well be a spoof on a Tarzan film. The film starts out in a boat, a little bit out from a coast. We hear bulletins of news from different radio stations around the world. We approach slowly by water through shots of enigmatic palm trees, a young boy who stares and drops his eyes and stares again. A local man is carving a ritual object. There is an atmosphere of Mystery.

Then a white man aims a camera at the landscape - is this to make us think of Conrad's description of the gun firing into a Continent? A white tourist is shown a place where he is told by a local that 'human sacrifices' took place. He wishes to photograph it. He is clearly enthusiastic about the idea of human sacrifice. He is a plump middle-aged man, German, Swiss or Austrian (?) who reappears throughout the film. he is weighed down with cameras. He turns out to be much travelled, articulate, and aware of the arguments against the very form of tourism he is enjoying. Is he Mr Kurtz? MacCannell (1990) seeks to link him to National Socialism, even though he could scarcely have been born by 1945. (Would National Socialists have chosen to spend their holidays on the Sepik?).

One theme of the film is mutual incomprehension - but with a difference. The tourists are 'informed' superficially about Sepik culture. They know there is no longer cannibalism of any sort. They know the people have been changed, and that they once lived in some sense closer to their local environment. But they are stuffed with preconceptions, such as that with the locals you have to bargain for what you buy. Or that the locals are happy as they are, still living a life in which they can easily satisfy their wants without money.

But the locals tell us that they feel poor, and are not happy as they are and that if they were paid more for the things they sell they too could be tourists and travel. And they tell us that they really do not understand the whites - particularly, why they take photographs, but more profoundly, who they are and where they come from.

The incomprehension is partly because of the differences of power, and also, we can see, because of the lack of common languages. The visitors cannot speak the local trade language, Tok Pisin, and few of the locals we meet can speak good German or American English. We come to appreciate the sense in which the contacts are inevitably superficial, and lead to little real insight.

On comment on the film deserves to be disputed. MacCannell has written, 'The tourists are most unattractive, emotional, self-interested, awkward and intrusive. It is difficult to imagine a group of real people [i.e. non-actors] simply caught in the eye of the camera appearing less attractive. This is not because of any obvious filmic trick...' (1990). This is in contrast to the locals who are 'attractive ... lightly ironic ... clear-sighted and pragmatic ...' I wonder how MacCannell would react to a documentary about the Khmer Rouge, or the Kray twins, if these tourists are the most unattractive people he can imagine? Surely, as documentarists are fully aware, the casting of central characters is crucial here, and the selection and discarding of material, equally so. Whether we call them 'filmic tricks' is a matter of taste, but there is no reason to suppose that these tourists are thoroughly typical of all visitors to the Sepik. They have been carefully framed, in several senses.

There is one crucial difference in the attitudes of visitors and locals. The locals are clear about what they do not know or understand, but the visitors are complacently sure that they know a good deal about whom and what they are seeing. They appear, then, to make an anti-journey which takes them nowhere and teaches them nothing. Such reflection as there is, is done by the locals, and, through further layers of irony, by the audience.

[This is a slightly edited excerpt from the chapter 'First Exits from Observational Realism: Narrative Experiments in Recent Ethnographic Films' by Peter Loizos, originally published in Rethinking Visual Anthropology, edited by Marcus Banks and Howard Morphy, Yale University Press, 1997, pp. 88-90. Three short excerpts from 'Cannibal Tours' can be viewed online here and further information on the film and filmmaker is available here.]

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