Teachers, midwives, soldiers … TV viewers have grown used to eavesdropping on all sorts of Britons thanks to “fly-on-the-wall” filming. Now this technology is breathing fresh life into anthropology programmes, allowing remote people to be observed in a more natural way.
In an experimental series called The Tribe, Channel 4 has installed fixed-rig cameras and tiny microphones in four huts and communal space belonging to a lively family of Hamar people in Ethiopia.
David Brindley, the channel’s commissioning editor, pointed to the success of One Born Every Minute, the Educating series, and Royal Marine School, and said: “We came to the question of how we can move it on. The simple and bold idea was: what if we afforded one family in Ethiopia, 4,000 miles away, the same technology and applications as, say, a school in Britain?”
The producers alighted on a Hamar family headed by cantankerous Ayke Muko, who calls his boisterous grandchildren “fucking kids” while boasting that he could have a third wife. His first, Kerri Bodo, welcomes the presence of a younger wife because “I am too old to do all the housework.” Of the young Muko, she recalls: “He had big eyes and a beautiful face. He looks like a baboon now. We don’t get angry now, we just laugh at each other.”
The edited record of a month in tribal life includes a middle son taking a reluctant bride, an initiation rite of cattle-leaping, and another son acquiring a mobile phone (in a village without electricity). It can seem like a glorious, subtitled comedy, with darker overtones, but it is also an attempt to freshen up TV anthropology, without a presenter.
Paddy Wivell, series producer and director for Renegade Pictures, said: “This is a new way of doing TV anthropology … What excited the consultant anthropologist we worked with was that we were using a different tool – you don’t have a camera operator or a presenter. You can film it in a purer way. I sometimes feel too much television is presented through western, celebrity eyes … Let people speak for themselves.”
The BBC, which has eschewed the fixed-rig approach, is also planning a new anthropology show. Wildlife film-maker Gordon Buchanan, who pioneered BBC2’s popular The Bear Family and Me, is set to make a new series with indigenous people, exploring their dependence on local wildlife.
All this is a far cry from the style of adventurer Bruce Parry, who became a star in Tribe, for BBC2 and Discovery in 2005-2007, when he lived with 15 groups of remote people. He endured extreme initiation rites including life-threatening hallucinatory drugs, nose piercing, cattle leaping and a system of tucking away flapping male genitals, called penis inversion. He infuriated anthropologists.
The Hamar, a 40,000-strong group in the Omo region, have been well studied by anthropologists and filmed by many television crews: 25 years ago they featured in Under the Sun, the Hamar Trilogy on BBC2. But at the Royal Anthropological International Festival of Ethnographic Film in Bristol on 18 June, delegates will ponder whether adapting “fixed rig cameras” to indigenous societies treats them appropriately. Film-maker André Singer, president of the Royal Anthropological Institute, said: “It becomes a huge responsibility for the anthropologist acting as any film-maker’s ‘cultural interpreter’ to make sure they are treated with respect, not to leave them open to voyeuristic condescension. A minefield.”
The family were given a screening under the stars, where they cooked goats and watched on a projector screen in the homestead. They were paid a disturbance fee (undisclosed) out of the £1.4m production budget.
Consultant anthropologist Susanne Epple, of Addis Ababa University, said: “I was surprised (positively) how well Hamar culture is represented. Nothing seemed staged.” But she does think the title, The Tribe, is outdated. “The term is old-fashioned and has a negative connotation … It does not represent what one sees in the films: a lovely portrait of a family and their neighbours in southern Ethiopia whose hopes and worries after all are not so different from ours.”
The Tribe begins on Channel 4 on Thursday 11 June at 9pm
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