Sundance Review: Secrets of the Tribe

Secrets of the Tribe was a definite must-see for me so I headed to one of the crack of dawn screenings. It was a weird experience and probably not the best film to see so early in the morning, but it certainly did wonders to wake me up.

From Brazilian director José Padilha, who brought us the incredible Bus 174 and Elite Squad, the film is a look at the effects of a group of anthropologists had on the ‘untouched’ Yanomami tribe in Brazil and Venezuela in the 60s and 70s. Any assumptions that this will be an obvious tale of Western values changing the tribe à la The Gods Must be Crazy are soon shattered and this is less about the effects of the tribe but more on the anthropologists themselves and the relationships between them.

This tribe seemed to be the ultimate bounty in terms of career-making studies within anthropology and this has created extreme competition and bitchy infighting among the academics. The politics of anthropology is, unsurprisingly, not something I’m overly familiar with and it’s surprising just how catty and backstabbing they are amongst themselves. It even goes beyond the point of who has the definitive data from the tribe to far more personal attacks.

The other shocking aspect to this story is their bizarre interactions with the tribe who seem to be passed from anthropologist to anthropologist for their numerous studies. One marries a young Yanomami woman, which raises more than an eyebrow at her suspected age of 15 and he brings her back to the US and fails miserably to integrate her into society. Needless to say there is also the hideous story of one highly respected French anthropologist who used his position with the tribe to satisfy his pedophilia by bribing the young male members with Western goods, which he shipped in by the plane load.

But these aren’t even the most shocking stories, the anthropologist most famous for his books on the tribe is accused of some of the most horrible acts towards humanity and, trying to avoid spoiling the revelations, this finger pointing goes on and on between the men interviewed in the film.

The most fascinating interview of all is with one of the male members of the tribe itself who gives an amazing commentary and retrospective insight into the views of what happened from the tribe’s perspective, which helps to clear up some potential definitive facts as to who of the group of anthropologists is most likely telling the truth.

If you like seeing in-depth insights into people at the height of their profession you’ll find this a fascinating watch, it shows that even at the height of their game, competition, ambition and a race for the most prestige can bring out the worst in even the highest level of intellectuals.