Kian Bergstrom reviews “Against Ethnography” documentary for Cine-File Chicago

subtext-eyeThis provocative and troubling collection of videos, curated by Federico Windhausen, explores different ways in which indigenous peoples and societies interact with, and are acted upon by, multinational late capitalism. It is an alarming program, a condemnation of representational practices that mainstream media have made seem natural and unremarkable and that have been used to marginalize, exoticize, and infantilize groups that are insufficiently participating in the worldwide commodification of their ways of life. The earliest video in the program, MEETING ANCESTORS (Vincent Carelli and Dominique Gallois, 1993, 21 min), documents a moment of cultural contact as Wai-Wai, Head of the Waiãpi in Brazil, travels to meet a newly contacted tribe, the Zo’é. Wai-Wai and the Zo’é are generous and welcoming to one another, sharing customs, ideas, hunting tactics, and so on, but the shadow of western society is never far from view here. Wai-Wai is fascinated by the technology of video recording, repeatedly appropriating the cameras and other equipment from the documentary team to show the Zo’é both what Carelli and Gallois are doing and to illustrate the ways in which they have already been appropriated by western ideologies. Though Carelli and Gallois seem unaware of it, Wai-Wai and the Zo’é clearly recognize that their moment of exchange is deeply, inherently mediated by the documentarians ideas and cultural baggage. Indeed, much of this video must necessarily have been staged, the apparent spontaneity of various surprises and meetings coached and rehearsed. For all its visual indications of decolonization, MEETING ANCESTORS remains a video structured around and speaking to a western idea of simple peoples being looked at by sophisticated ones. CONTORNOS (Ximena Garrido-Lecca, 2014, 11 min) is a beautiful meditation on borders and transit, moving through Cerro de Pasco, in Peru, in a series of shots each of which depicts a blockage of some kind—a broken fence, a clothesline draped with a cavalcade of colors and fabrics, telephone wires strung between unseen poles, a sign proclaiming an area to be private property. No human being is ever seen. On the soundtrack, a man’s voice discusses the way life used to be before the town was overtaken by mining industry. It is a heartbreaking, oneiric work of great power, both luxuriating in the majesty of the natural world and lamenting its co-option by capital. Everywhere the camera looks it sees a landscape teetering on the edge of death and also half exploding with the force of its beauty. It takes the power of western technology, the implication is, to document what the power of western technology is in the process of fouling and destroying forever. The similarly themed, and equally great, TROPIC POCKET (Camilo Restrepo, 2012, 9 min), takes us to El Chocó, in Columbia, for a dense montage of original and found footage that reappropriates images taken of indigenous peoples and places by western cameramen. Restrepo is a master of visual poetry, imbuing his video with a percussive, throbbing mysteriousness as it moves effortlessly through time and image source and creating a hypnotic pseudo-narrative that always seems just on the verge of becoming comprehensible. As such, TROPIC POCKET can be read as a kind of indigenous riposte to the Surrealist fascination with ethnography, taking their colonialist tools and using them for a politically radical project impossible to imagine from within the comfortable ideological position of 1930s France.

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