“Truly living with nature” – CANNIBAL TOURS (O’Rourke, 1988)

Cannibal Tours is a documentary by Australian director and cinematographer Dennis O’Rourke. The scenes in it are presented without comment, but its irony and disquiet at the nature of ‘cannibal tourism’ is blindingly obvious.

The soundtrack of the film is a mixture of music, sounds of nature, and a symphony of camera shutters.

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The film follows European and American tourists as they travel the middle Sepik River in Papua New Guinea. Most of the villages in the film are inhabited by the Iatmul people. The tourists enjoy bargaining for local handcrafts such as woodcarvings and baskets, snap endless photos of the colourful savages, hand out cigarettes, watch dance performances, and offer naive comments about native people and how they live in harmony with nature.

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It intersperses the scenes of the tourists with black-and-white photographs from the era of German colonialism of New Guinea.

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The pervasive ethnocentrism of the tourists casts them as the savages, as they dehumanise and exoticise Sepik River life.

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Some of the tourists’ observations are reproduced below without comment, just as O’Rourke does on camera.

German tourist: I heard that German colonists were very popular!
Where have they killed the people? Here?
Local: At those stones we would dance and cut off heads.
German tourist: Now I need a photograph!

An Italian tourist observes:

They are truly primitive. I wonder though if their way of life is better than ours. Truly living with nature. Not really living, more like vegetating. The experts assure us they are satisfied. Happy and well fed. Nature provides them with the necessities of life. And they don’t have to worry about thinking of tomorrow.

Local: The previous generation saw the Germans arrive by boat and thought their dead ancestors had returned. Now, when we see tourists, we say about them ‘the dead have returned!’

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There are lengthy scenes of tourists bargaining for carvings and masks.

Native woman – tourists come and look but never buy. You white men have all the money! We village people have no money!

Talking about the Spirit House, one local person recalls:

The Germans, the English and Australians took all the sacred objects. The missionaries destroyed all the most powerful symbols kept in the spirit house. The missionaries threw them out saying “It’s the devil! Get rid of it!”

 

German tourist [into his tape recorder]: Now we see the remains of a house where, in the past, cannibalism was practised.

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…for reasons of survival. And custom too, I think. It was symbolic. I think cannibalism was a cultural practice, not a necessity. Because wildlife must have been plentiful.

Local: We sit here confused while they take pictures of everything. We don’t understand why these foreigners take photographs.

Italian: we must try to help them advance in the world, bringing to them some values and convictions. Naturally, this will involve going into their villages as the missionaries do to teach them. To educate and stimulate them to behave differently.

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… living in a world completely overwhelmed by nature. They are also human.

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even though our evolution could still be disputed by some.

There is much hilarity when the tourists find a phallus for sale.

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Back on their boat, the tourists wear native warpaint and play at being savages.

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Maggie Kilgour wrote that

“the figure of the cannibal was created to support the cultural cannibalism of colonialism, through the projection of western imperialist appetites onto the cultures they then subsumed “.

The imperialists now have cameras rather than guns. The film really asks – who are the cannibals?

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The film is available (at time of writing) on YouTube:

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