Thursday, December 1, 2011


Erin and I watched Pavol Barabas's exploration documentary, Pururambo, and I can't say I'm entirely positive how I feel about it. I've been a delinquent blogger (but perhaps a better grad student) and I thought this movie might be something interesting enough to share.

Barabas is a Slovak film maker and explorer; Pururambo documents his trip into the interior of New Guinea and his various encounters with distinct groups of Kombai native people. I tried to find an English version on Youtube, but no luck. We watched it on Netflix and it's available for streaming.

Barabas travels through thick jungle swamps, encountering wary people, and establishing goodwill with packets of tobacco and sugar candy. He stops with each encounter to highlight something about the group he's with, reveal larger aspects of Kombai life, or pontificate on the deleterious effects of Western cultures on indigenous peoples. Barabas is particularly tough on missionaries for corrupting and destroying cultures, even dedicating the final, frustrating moments of the film to the Kombai's hypothetical cultural death after exposure to missionaries. Of course, his criticisms stand - missionaries wreak havoc on indigenous cultures, inculcating them with ideologies and rules they are not culturally prepared to understand. All the antibiotics and Salvation Army jean shorts in the world can't buy a culture. The result is infrequently conversion to Christianity, but often the loss of the original culture. Yet, as Barabas strolls into villages, quelling arrows and gaining shelter, food, and guidance before a camera lens, one has to wonder whether some of the vitriol he aims at missionaries isn't on some level to ameliorate his own conscience. His presence disrupts each village he enters and he offers gifts of food and reveals technology. More often than not he narrowly escapes being shot by obviously alarmed and bewildered men before gaining confidence and hospitality. If you're a Star Trek nerd, you might say he violates the Prime Directive.

Keeping in mind that the film is translated from Slovak, Barabas's word choice might not quite meet professional anthropological standards. He refers to the Kombai as "barbaric" and "headhunters." I admire how he presents his discomfort and even fear, but at times I felt unguided when trying to determine if he described the Kombai or his own anxiety about them with this language, and I think that distinction matters.

Finally, the film ends abruptly with no explanations. The Internet furnishes no clues, so prepare to be frustrated. That sounds like a lot of criticism, but of course some of it is my attempts to reconcile what it means to be of Barabas's tribe and consider he represents us to the Kombai, whether he intends to or not. With all my ethical reservations, the footage is remarkable and it certainly raises awareness. The film exists to be seen now and even a 55 minute glimpse of a culture so vastly different than ours deserves seeing. At minute 6:50 in the clip I provided, a man explains how they count using places on their bodies rather than with their fingers.


Anonymous said...

I was thinking what has been made of this look at the most primitive peoples remaining on earth. Thanks for your perceptive comments. I was thinking how sealed away many of my fellow citizens (Americans), with their conscious or unconscious exceptionalism, are from the fact that by simple luck they were born in a very advanced environment where they and their childrens all-consuming task is not the procuring of food.

tightsandtea said...

enjoyed the documentary from a cinematic perspective, cringed a little from an anthropological context. wish I could find more information on it, but I can barely find anything on Barabas.

makes me a little upset that people watch it for the wrong reasons--i.e. cultural voyeurism (is that even the right word? no other comes to mind). the sole reviewer on amazon considers herself a '3rd world traveler', fascinated by the 'cave people' and 'head hunters' with 'cave man tools'. having spent my childhood in a 3rd world country before moving to the states, I'm particularly sensitive to those 'gee, I'm a world explorer' types.

I too found the counting system fascinating. I wonder what, if any, are their metaphors for abstract concepts like time (time-moving or ego-moving when they mention events?), and if those vary greatly from tribe to tribe.

It almost seems like the fear of the unknown--other tribes, spirits, etc--is what perpetuates the extreme isolation. What I couldn't really grasp from the film is how connected the tribes are, or what constituted a tribe.. wish I knew more.

alan said...

My take is they killed the last man we see in the movie, he was getting really aggressive and obviously had a huge grievance with the intruders.

The underlying reality of New Guinea's environment is the reason for their way of life. It looks like a rich jungle, but it is poor in terms of foods, so a tribe or family needs a relatively large area to forage. They lack animals any larger than pigs, arable land or other resources sufficient to build and store wealth. That's why they need to eat insects and plant starch, otherwise they starve. The island is rugged, the geography and foraging needs of groups tends to isolate tribes from one another. The result is they spend all their time foraging and fighting off other tribes impinging on their territory. They also spend a lot of energy coping with the jungle itself.

If they were to get more tools, like axes and chainsaws, they would quickly exhaust their meager resources. They seem to be in a pretty stable balance with the difficult environment as stone age people.

To me, this ended up just being voyeurism, even though seeing how the locals lived was interesting at times. The visitors were plainly naive and clumsy, romanticizing the reality of the locals' existence in a very western manner. From this layman’s point of view, they way they entered villages was pretty clumsy, even aggressive. I’m not surprised they were nearly shot several times.