Unrated, because it was made for Australian television in 1988. There's some nudity because of cultural differences. If you stay into the credits, there's a lady making a bunch of phallic jokes based on art she purchased from the people. Someone does a lot of sunbathing in a 1980's bikini. There's nothing wholly inappropriate, but it also isn't something you just have playing in your house when you are expecting company.
DIRECTOR: Dennis O'Rourke
Oh boy, this is going to be incestual. I don't know how much I have to say about this film. I watched it for a night class. It's barely the limit of what could be considered a film. It was shown from YouTube in its entirety, which is about 67 minutes long. There isn't much to actually discuss except for the fact that the first world is terrible.
Okay, I want to go deeper than that because that's what Cannibal Tours is trying to get me to say. The message is on its sleeve all over this film. For those many who are probably unaware of what Cannibal Tours actually is, it is a documentary about rich folks visiting the native peoples of Papua New Guinea. Over the course of this documentary, which we view by cutting between interviews with the native people and the tourists, we quickly realize that the native people devoid of technology and "proper" civilization probably have their heads screwed on a little better than the first world awful people. It's not subtle. Most of the things said by the native people is relatable. Most of the things said by the tourists are cringe-worthy and make me hate myself. I know that there's entire genres of film and art devoted to making me hate myself, but this one does a marvelous job of making me truly loathe myself in ways I haven't felt in a while. Now, here's the thing, because I see my readership splitting on this. There's a weird extra level to this whole thing that the documentary kind of seems to ignore. The obvious level is that the first world tourists are exploiting the people of Papua New Guinea. The documentarians, in turn, are exploiting the tourists. But I kind of want to take it a step beyond that and see if I can find something in this ourobouros of a 67 minute documentary that has been so kindly rounded up to 70 minutes on IMDB.
There are two ways that I want to take this. They are kind of related, so I hope I don't really step on my own feet by writing about both of these ideas in the same analysis. The documentarians, by some transitive property, are the ones exploiting the people of Papua New Guinea. I don't want to oversimplify that because there is exploitation regardless of documentary crews on set. But what is happening is that the documentarians are filming the native people and stressing what turds the first worlders are. They are pretending to be their friends to get the shots that they need for the sake of their documentary. The documentary, from there, is submitting their footage to ABC or whatever station is running this documentary for money. The message of the film is that the visitors to Papua New Guinea view a complex and rich civilization as quaint for the sake of their own vacation and to pet themselves on the back for being so advanced. But the documentarians are the ones looking down on everyone involved. This is a commentary on intellectualism and how it is anything but. I bet most of the people on that tour thought that they were these enlightened individuals. There are times where some of the interviewees wax poetic about art or history or civilizations, but they come across as morons when juxtaposed to the innocence of the locals talking. These people could have taken another trip to Disney World or Six Flags, but instead, they chose to visit some place to try to meet a new culture. Rather than staying isolated, they tried their best to get some hands on learning and growing. I think the mistake lies not in the attempt to visit these people with their money, but misunderstanding that it takes a long time to understand cultural barriers. Financially, the Average Joe cannot devote the resources, the finances, or the time to properly get to understand another culture. So they are trying their best. I'm not on the side of the privileged white culture...I don't think. But there is no malice when it came to these things. One of the results of this documentary is the message, "Don't try." The movie kind of wants me to stay home and avoid meeting new people. Yeah, the people there are visiting and they absolutely suck at their first contact. They are bullies and rude, but this is a wildly forced situation. People fall back on old habits when taken out of their comfort zone and that has to be taken into account to some degree.
But here's the real kicker. By viewing this study in a literature / anthropology class, aren't I worse? I was sitting in a room with a bunch of adults who were cringing as much as I was. It was a train-wreck. Every nightmare I have ever had about meeting new people from different walks of life was on screen and I couldn't handle it. The questions and the commands and the privilege was so palpable that you probably could have seen me bury the heels of my palms into my eyes. It was so easy to criticize them, but then I also realized that I was in Northern Kentucky. I was spending ungodly amounts of money to sit comfortably in a room and watch a movie instead of having a formal lesson. I got to experience Papua New Guinea through the diluted lens of a documentary that didn't focus on the rich cultural heritage of Papua New Guinea. Rather, it was from the perspective of how horrible people act when encountering new people. I didn't even have the guts to go to New Guinea and attempt to be better than the people on camera. I had to imagine that there were people on that expedition (is that the right word for this?) that were completely chill. They probably weren't the ugly tourists that we were all warned about when I went abroad. I went to comfortable, first world locations and tried to blend in. The people on screen came from different worlds. Yes, the narrative and commentary of the locals is completely right. The complaints that no one buys anything and tries bargaining against the poor is completely valid, but that could easily be solved by giving the visitors proper etiquette about visiting New Guinea. If the people there don't like being haggled with, warn the visitors not to haggle. If the people there want to be paid for their time, then tell the people ahead of time. This is more of a commentary on who is organizing these tours and how misinformation is spread rather than an accurate attack of the educated. And remember, by me writing this, I am part of that educated. I may want to distance myself from the people in this movie. (Oh man, I really want to distance myself from the people in this movie.) But here I am, absorbing their lack of education while I claim to be educated. Now I'm all spiraling about the nature of judgement.
We're wired to judge. The people meeting the natives are constantly standing in judgment of them. The documentarians are in judgment of the tourists. I stand in judgment of everyone but the people of Papua New Guinea. I click between my tabs of this and South Park Susan, who happens to be the terrible person of the day. (No, you are allowed to judge her. She's the worst...for today.) I can say that I left the documentary with an understanding of the people of Papua New Guinea, but it is more along the lines of what documentaries have done to the native people. The natives in these videos are really aware of what is going on. Good, they should be. People shouldn't stay ignorant of being exploited. But they also can't return to a state of grace and innocence. Rather, the very nature of cameras being there has turned everything that the natives have done into a form of the Wild West Show. This documentary is more like the behind-the-scenes special features on a DVD. Instead of actually celebrating their own culture (I mean, there are still elements of that), everything is kind of a puppet show in the long run. The culture has become this weird liminal culture. They are not what they were before, but they aren't what the first worlders are. It's just this odd awareness that they know that the rest of the world views them as backwards. I guess this comes down to elements of faith, but how does one wholeheartedly throw oneself into a belief when the curtain has been torn away.
I found myself oddly bored at times in this awfully short documentary. O'Rourke got me on his team when I was watching it. I only had this epiphany about the incestual nature of it all yesterday or the day before. Everyone is right about it, which means everyone is terrible. But once that message is there, it is repeated a thousand times. We get insights from all of the locals, which all echo one another in various degrees of anger and annoyance. But it isn't exactly a fun documentary. It just makes me feel bad. I don't mind things that make me feel bad if I didn't have to keep peeling away layers and realizing that this very documentary is toxic in itself. Regardless, I rarely regret watching things and I did get something out of this movie. Even if that one thing is a contribution to my ever spiraling depression.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.