Darkness in El Dorado Controversy - Archived Document

Internet Source: TC man featured in Sundance film, Traverse City Record-Eagle, January 29, 2010.
Source URL (Archive.org): http://www.record-eagle.com/features/local_story_029074515.html?keyword=topstory

TC man featured in Sundance film

Anthropologist's work -- and controversy -- at the heart of film


TRAVERSE CITY -- A documentary film that premiered last week at the Sundance Film Festival is thrusting a Traverse City man into the international spotlight -- again.

"Secrets of the Tribe" by Brazilian director Jose Padilha was screened Jan. 22-28 as part of Sundance's World Cinema Documentary Competition. At the heart of the film is Napoleon Chagnon's 35 years of research on the Yanomamo Indians and the controversy surrounding it since the publication nine years ago of a book criticizing Chagnon and his colleagues.

Chagnon is professor emeritus of anthropology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He has lived in Traverse City since retiring in 1999.

During his career Chagnon made several expeditions to the Amazon Basin to study and film the Yanomamo, a so-called "virgin" society located on the border of Venezuela and Brazil.

In "Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon," author Patrick Tierney accused the anthropologist and his colleagues of, among other things, starting a measles epidemic among the Indians that killed hundreds of the tribe.

The charges led to an inquiry by the American Anthropological Association and damaged Chagnon's career. Though he was exonerated by an AAA task force on the most serious charges -- and supported by some of the world's most prominent scientists -- a task force report calling his work "damaging to the Yanomamo" remained on the AAA Web site until September. Others have also come to Chagnon's defense.

Chagnon said the controversy had more to do with academic politics, or "the more anti- or non-scientific direction" anthropology was taking at the time, than with the Yanomamo.

Nevertheless, the new film could open him up to a fresh barrage of criticism.

Indeed, a promo for the documentary on the Sundance Web site says, in part: "The field of anthropology goes under the magnifying glass in this fiery investigation of the seminal research on Yanomami Indians. In the 1960s and '70s, a steady stream of anthropologists filed into the Amazon Basin to observe this 'virgin' society untouched by modern life. Thirty years later, the events surrounding this infiltration have become a scandalous tale of academic ethics and infighting."

Chagnon and a colleague, the late ethnographic filmmaker Tim Asch, provided many hours of film for the documentary. Their valuable footage of the Yanomamo has been used to produce 22 documentary anthropological films and resides at the Smithsonian Institution's Human Studies Film Archives.

Chagnon, who also provided suggestions and still photos to Padilha, said that in 2003 the director approached him and Documentary Educational Resources, a nonprofit ethnographic and documentary film producer and distributor co-founded by Asch. Despite his skepticism, Chagnon agreed to participate in the film -- made in Spanish, Italian and English with English subtitles -- based on Padilha's assurances that the director was dedicated to "truth, scientific method and the empirical value of scientific research."

"If he did what he assured me and DER he was going to do, it should be a wonderful, marvelous film," said Chagnon, adding that he was promised a copy of the documentary by the time it premiered but has not yet received one. "I haven't seen the film so I can't comment on its content, but the reviews I've read lead me to believe he has not done what he promised.

"I'm concerned that the film is basically appealing to the prurient interests of the audience rather than scientific issues," he said. "If that's what he did, I'm going to be very disappointed."

Traverse City Film Festival officials were at Sundance this week to preview films for this summer's festival but said they were not aware of the film's local connection.

"I have heard good things about this one, but it's not on the list of 33-ish films I was able to see while I was here," said festival Executive Director Deb Lake via e-mail. "But it's definitely on the list of films we will screen -- we'll be requesting a screener (copy) to look at."