If anything is sure to entrench ideas that the West is best — and that our materialistic civilisation represents the pinnacle of progress — it is a TV show that portrays people who live in rainforests as mean, sex-mad and savage.
That is exactly what happened when the Travel Channel in the United States, and later BBC Knowledge in the United Kingdom, screened Mark & Olly: Living with the Machigenga.
The programme claimed to show what happened when two adventurous Brits (Mark Anstice and Oliver Steeds) spent several months living with the Matsigenka Indians in the Peruvian Amazon.
But its makers did not count on people like Glenn H. Shepard and Ron Snell being among its viewers.
Snell grew up among the Matsigenka, and Shepard — an anthropologist — has visited them on many occasions over many years. Both speak the Matsigenka language fluently.
Shepard — in both Anthropology News [PDF] and his blog — says the film is “false and insulting” in the way in misrepresents the Matsigenka. In particular, many of the things they say are mistranslated.
According to Shepard, distorted translations suggest that a woman secluded in a hut with an ill newborn is considering killing the child, when in fact she is just obeying the traditional post-birth seclusion rite.
Other translations also paint the Matsigenka in a poor light. When one member of the community says: “You come from far away where lots of gringos live”, the translation is: “We use arrows to kill outsiders who threaten us.”
In another incident, a Matsigenka man surprises Mark and Olly in his garden and says he thought they were a herd of boar. The translation? “If you were colonists, he would have tied you up and cut off all your skin.”
The village chief, who Anstice calls a “deranged lunatic” is subjected to an embarassing interview about his sex life and when he says “I will have sex another day”, the translation is “I have sex every day”.
Sheperd and Snell — who visited the community after the film was broadcast and describes his findings here [PDF] — demonstrate that whole scenes of the film had been entirely fabricated and that the Matsigenka were paid to do things that were contrary to their culture.
Shepard adds that when the film’s production company scouted out locations to film they unleashed a cold epidemic that claimed four lives and threatened many others.
This was despite Shepard warning them not to travel to more remote upstream communities who have had less contact with Europeans (and our viruses). The problem with the downstream communities was that they were “too Westernised”.
This week, partly in response to the Matsigenka experience, Survival International released a code of practice for filmmakers who work with tribal peoples.
It is sad to think that such a code is even needed, but without it people like the Matsigenka risk being ridiculed and exploited so that viewers in the West can be entertained.