Jaw Droppers. Documentaries: Secrets of the Tribe, Gasland, 12th and Delaware

There’s a particular type of documentary I saw at this year’s Hotdocs (The Canadian International Documentary Festival), that I call a jaw-dropper.

Some movies, well most movies, including most documentaries, are entertaining but forgettable. But a few are really good — informative, telling about a new phenomenon or hot topic. Something you may have heard about, it’s knocking around somewhere in a corner of your brain, but you’ve actually never seen it on TV or in a movie – not with that degree of closeness. The kind of movie that takes a bite out of you, chews you up, and then spits you out again at the end. They leave you with your head shaking or your stomach churning or your brain exploding.

One really shocking movie — “Secrets of the Tribe” (directed by Jose Padilha) left a bitter taste in my mouth about an entire field: anthropology.

The Yanomami are a large group of indigenous people in the Amazon in the area between Brazil and Venezuela. Because they had been virtually without any contact with the outside world (ie European culture) until fairly recently, the anthropologists considered it an ideal case where they could study traditional practices, beliefs, sexuality, war, violence, language… the whole thing. And by getting there before they’ve been changed by so-called civilization, they can record and preserve a culture that might soon disappear. One of the leading anthropologists there, and one who made his reputation on it, is the controversial Napoleon Chagnon, the US-based French academic. Many other anthropologists in the 60’s and 70’s flooded into the region, to see this virgin, untouched civilization. The thing is, anthropologists are people too. And they touched the Yanomami.

This case, and all its ramifications, led to a real split within the anthropological establishment (which was exposed a while back, in an expose by Patrick Tierney). The movie brings the academic warfare to the screen, in all its disgustingness.

The accusations range from ideology, to crimes, to awful unethical practices, to eeeeeeeeeuuuggghh noooo!

Chagnon introduces weapons and technology that villages can use against each other, and gleefully records the casualties of this “warlike” people. It’s all about who kills the most, who gets the most wives, who has the most babies. He advances his theory that biology is what determines culture, a sort of a neo-darwinist take on civilization.

As if controversial theories weren’t enough, the movie turns into a combination documentary and late night episode of TMZ, with sordid talk of one anthropologists taking a teenaged Yanomami girl as a bride and another who slept with teenaged boys. Then it gets even more mind blowing.

It turns out Chagnon was paid by the US government Atomic Energy Commission to collect data on the Yanomami to be used as a control population. Through this data, the US government could compare mutation levels with the people affected by American bomb tests in the Marshall islands (in the South Pacific), or the population that survived the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

And then… there were the measles epidemics spreading through the amazon killing people. In this case, they decide to do something that could save the Yanomami if they get them the vaccine before the infection reached there. But the guides they take with them may be from infected villages. In addition, they were taking secret blood samples from the Yanomami – for research purposes — that had nothing to do with the vaccinations.

Anyway, each scene is more horrific and sick-making than the one before, including the vicious academic infighting and backstabbing going on… yikes!

Secrets of the Tribe is a devastating expose of the entire profession.

Another revealing movie is “Gasland” (directed by Josh Fox). It’s a gut puncher. The idea that all of this environmental destruction is going on all around us… is unbelievable.

I always thought natural gas was the clean one, the good energy. the one that won’t leave huge pits of tar sludge behind it, won’t lead to oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico creeping slowly toward the Louisiana coastline wiping out all those birds, all those shrimp. It won’t lead to collapses in the coal mines, it won’t kill everything in site, it’s clean, pure, ozone-friendly. C’mon its “natural gas”, it’s natural gas. It’s like… organic!

Um… it’s not.

Josh Fox lives in a beautiful home in rural Pennsylvania, the home he grew up in, with bubbling brooks and twirting birds, and lush green trees all around. Like most of his neighbours, he gets a letter from energy giant asking him to allow them to poke around for some natural gas below the surface of his land. And for that he’d get a nice juicy cheque! Sounds pretty sweet. But he notices something… unusual going all around his county.

The gas company is using a technique called hydraulic fracturing – also known as “fracking”. (What the frack is that?) It means they’re drilling down into the ground, then far below, they’re sending horizontal pipes to set off explosions using unknown chemicals, underground, to free the pools of gas.

This is going on all over the place, in maybe 31 states. The problem is that if you set off explosions all over the place, underground, it does release the gas, and that gas interferes with the water supply.

What does that mean in real terms? Josh gets in his car with a handheld camera and starts driving around the country talking to people with those cute little gas pods on their land or nearby. And he keeps finding noxious fumes, disgusting sewage, and a horrible mixing of the gas – and the chemicals used in the fracking — with their water supply. The gas companies say, no! no!, it’s fine, don’t worry, be happy, but the people all show Josh Fox what this means: they turn on their sink, and hold up a lighter to the water – their tap water… is on fire!

Turns out this is all Dick Cheney’s fault. No, seriously.

Anyway, this is a fun, well made, Michael Moore-style documentary about how the big energy companies are screwing the little guy, and how deregulation has eliminated the safeguards that ensure clean air and clean water.

I would have preferred they weren’t jiggling the camera quite so much – I got a bit carsick watching this movie – but, aside from that, this is a great documentary.

“12th and Delaware” is a unique movie about a topic that’s been talked to death. Abortion. The filmmakers, Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, (who directed the movie “Jesus Camp”), found an abortion clinic in Florida, that’s at one corner of a street, with an anti-abortion center, a Crisis Pregancy Clinic parked right across the street. The two sides are not friends, to say the least. You get your old ladies screaming at anyone going into the abortion clinic and waving little plastic babies at them. (They have pink ones and brown ones, depending on whom they’re showing them to). They go right up to the closed blind windows and taunt them through glass. The anti-abortion side leaves photos and signs on the grass in front of the abortion clinic to scare people away.

So… big deal, right? I’ve seen all this before. And, actually I didn’t want to see any more about it. But…

These filmmakers take it inside the clinics, both of them, at the same time. So the camera teams have been allowed free access to talk with the people inside the centres on both sides of the street, show them talking to the women, and talk frankly to the camera about what’s going on.

Basically, a lot of the people going into the right-to-life place called a pregnancy crisis clinic think they’re going into an abortion clinic. They’re both at the corner of 12th and Delaware. These pregnancy crisis centres are positioned all across the US, many of them placed in exactly the same way – right across the street from the abortion clinics. The woman in the white coat is not an abortion doctor, she’s an anti-abortion counselor. But she doesn’t tell them that. (A lot of them figure it out eventually.)

It’s almost like a race. There’s a priest – a Stephen Colbert doppelganger – who explains it’s a battle, a battle between darkness and light. Then there are the doctors on the other side of the street who are mainly just pissed off at the crazies: “Why don’t they just leave us alone – we don’t bother them…” They peek through their venetian blinds and look at the security cameras to see if the protesters are getting close enough to the clinic that they can call the cops on them. The doctors literally have to disguise themselves as they drive into the clinic. There’s even a really scary stalker dude following the doctors on the street to track down where they pick up patients.

Amazingly, they get all of this on camera, sharply shot. It’s a real eye-opener. And shot with both sides of the chasm allowed to openly express their views to the camera. Not a topic I’m fond of hearing about, but “12th and Delaware” shows it all in an entirel new way.

2 Responses

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  1. Stan said, on December 27, 2010 at 6:16 am

    Re: Secrets of the Tribe

    The book that the documentary is based upon has been eviscerated by both anthropologists and disease specialists. Here is just one response:

    http://www.anth.ucsb.edu/ucsbpreliminaryreport.pdf

    Please note that this information is almost 10 years old. Since the documentary largely parrots Tierney’s arguments I think it’s safe to conclude that its creator is either completely ignorant or maliciously and intentionally dishonest in representing the facts.

    • CulturalMining.com said, on December 27, 2010 at 2:43 pm

      Thanks for the comment!

      While the movie’s clearly polemical, I think it gives ample screen time to all sides (including the central players, like Chagnon) to respond on camera, at length, about their views, and the book itself.

      I’m not an anthropologist, but there seems to be a clear rift within that academic community. The documentary gives both arguments — interspersed with some gutter-level mudslinging between the pro- and anti-Chagnon sides — and exposes the infighting within both “teams”. Far from settled, the controversy within the anthropological community seems to be ongoing.

      And Chagnon admits to many of the charges on camera. For example, I believe he confirms that his studies were funded by the Atomic Energy Commission (I saw this almost a year ago, so I may have misremembered) who used the Yanomami as a “virgin” population, a control, to compare to the south pacific islanders displaced by the atomic bomb tests.

      The link you sent me may have discredited parts of Tierney’s book, but it is not an official academic report; it seems to be one side circling the wagons: “The report reflects the findings of this team, however, and is not an official statement issued by the University of California or the Department of Anthropology.”


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