Yesterday I saw a remarkable film.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Avatar_(2009_film)

On a trivial, if entertaining, level, it is a state-of-the-art mostly CGI Sci Fi motion picture with lots of special effects designed to show off its 3-D format. But it touches on things which concern us as Anthropologists.

The setting is a planet with an indigenous population and a highly integrated eco-system that is threatened by human invastion for exploitation of its mineral resources. The link to us is that the humans wield military force, led by a caricature of a hard-bitten retired officer who sees violence as the best answer, and they use 'anthropologists' to find out about the natives so that they can understand and thus manage them (ie, move them on to make room for the excavations). The 'Avatar' of the title refers to the construction of creatures that can blend in with the local population (who are humanoid-ish but not human) and can be occupied by humans through a technical link - a sort of sci-fi version of the embedded amthropologist doing fieldwork.

The emotional level of the drama rests on the ethics vs practicalities (from the human point of view) of embracing local culture with the purpose of exploiting it. As anthropologists in touch (we hope) with popular culture, we need to understand the issues that this raises and, I suggest, be prepared to discuss them with non-anthropologists.

This could be a very good opportunity for us to talk anthropology to anyone and not just to the inner circle of professionals. We can use this to put anthropology where I personally believe it should be - into the World where it belongs and not chained up by specialist language in the Academy.

All the best - Happy New Year,

Charles

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I'm glad you brought this up, Charles. I saw the movie last night (in 2-D). I won't engage your question, which was also mine, at the moment. But did the word anthropologist actually ever come up? Sigourney Weaver's character was a botanist, I think, and I don't remember hearing that any of the other scientists were "anthropologists". That doesn't change the question, since the structure of embedded participant observer, with the main character going native (getting "lost in the woods" as that magnificent war machine colonel put it), is explicit.I heard the movie cost $250 million. If some anthropology project were granted that kind of budget, just imagine... Happy New Year.
Yes, Sir! It is really good movie! I have just watched the movie! A good movie can effectively fax message to the common people ! Anthropologists mainly write scholarly books which are beyond the understanding of common people. By the way, how many people read the anthropological books? I remember that people are much impressed by the 'Earth Song by Micheal Jackson than voluminous books from EARTHSCAN and OTHERS ! Happy new year!
I just read an article in the NYT, Designing to an Afro Beat, which takes off from Avatar to claim that "Another Afrocentric wind is rising, and Africa's visual influence is touching film, music and fashion." This happens to fit with my claim that Africa should be exporting cultural commodities to the world; but it also shows how selectively a film may be intepreted.
I haven't seen the movie yet, but this is the second time this week that I bump into a discussion of this movie in an anthropologist forum -- there's already an extensive discussion of the film over at the group blog Savage Minds (http://savageminds.org/2009/12/24/avatar/#more-2975).
I agree with you Charles. I have just watched this movie. It talk about many things: what is science?, link between nature-culture, local knowledge, what is terrorism?, so on... I had recommended to all my non-anthropologist colleages to watch it, also my own family and friends. This movie is about special effects, but we (anthropologists) must to be honest that many times we need this kind of "popular culture" to make echoes of "anthropological issues". Nevertheless, we have to be very critical when we talk about: how movies can help us to explain to other people what is anthropology, what does an anthropologist do, what are the risk of fieldwork, and how anthropological knowledge can (dangerously) be use to exploit local communities.
Happy new year !
In addition, I am thinking, why the hero is destitute? Why their bodies are transformable? I think it is a symbolic! The indigenous is not just a representation of any particular tribe or indigenous group, but the indigenous of the whole world! During the East India company or British India, the habitat of the Tharus, in the Himalayan frontier, was destroyed heavily destroyed, later their last shield Malaria was eradicated and many hill and southern people dared to invade into their land, Burmese tribes were displaced and their jungle was cut down for the Japanese empire, we can remember the works of Eric Wolf that explains (he coined the political ecology) how the Latin American Indians suffered, in Malaysia and Indonesia bhoomiputras are loosing their habitat and now in Amazon jungle the Indians are facing the same problem! Horse and long hair-tail are the symbols of Amerindians! These are the examples of the suffering of some indigenous people! I have read somewhere, that Amazonian Indians are not less exploited by the anthropologists or other scientists, journalists, photographers than capitalism and its associate powers! The works of anthropologists always having been misused, and sometimes misinterpreted too !
Here in Brazil the film has provoked interesting responses. To cite one example, a philosopher recently published in a popular newspaper an article in which he criticized heavily Avatar by putting the issue of nature and society in an irreconcilable paradox: "us or them." Hype aside, I considered the important film for playing at crucial points of anthropology today: the notion of knowledge produced in the network, the ethical consequences of the knowledge produced about people "tribal" and the issue of science versus knowledge. One scene I liked most is that when the protagonist learning to be a Na'vi (and being considered a fool by them). Who has not been like him in the field work?
Hi,... I saw this movie some days ago. Besides the image show, I’d like to put, first of all, that the anthropology question in the movie was very present all time for me too, but what I ‘ve sensed was a inocent view. I think that maybe the "tribal" people represented in the movie have been a romantic version of them, as they put Nature against "the evil society and its culture". But this difference, in one point, is not considered. Take the feelings, for example love and sad, that are must present in the movie; their emotion is based in what we would feel if… and not based in their different culture.
And why do they put the natives as the religious and the scientists as the sceptic? Haven't the Church done absurds in the name of her "God"... or... don't we have reasearchers that have their oun beliefs? They exceeded in the opposition between the two sides.
Another annoying thing in the story is the "american hero", that appears repeatedly in all hollywood production, they are allways the best... so boring!!!! And he is so good that he is able to be better than the "natives" in things that they do since they was born... hahaha...
Well, for the last, apologies for the my bad English, I hope it’s understandable.
And greetings for you all in this new year… may it be a pleasant 2010!
I agree with you. Also, I remember some words of this movie. When sargent Jack is recording his "videoblog", he says something like this: "Why are they (Na'vi) going to leave their land? We (the Army and the "anonymous culture" that they represent) have nothing that they want? Are they going to abandon their place for a light beer or for some cowboys jeans?"
Greetings
Josué

Fabiane Vinente dos Santos said:
Here in Brazil the film has provoked interesting responses. To cite one example, a philosopher recently published in a popular newspaper an article in which he criticized heavily Avatar by putting the issue of nature and society in an irreconcilable paradox: "us or them." Hype aside, I considered the important film for playing at crucial points of anthropology today: the notion of knowledge produced in the network, the ethical consequences of the knowledge produced about people "tribal" and the issue of science versus knowledge. One scene I liked most is that when the protagonist learning to be a Na'vi (and being considered a fool by them). Who has not been like him in the field work?
I'm glad someone has started a discussion about this film. As of now, I've only seen the previews and read some articles. I found an article on NPR about Paul Frommer, the professor from the University of Southern California who was commissioned to create the Na'vi language used in the film. This would be of interest to linguistic anthros or anyone fascinated by languages. I'm not sure how to add a link, so if you want to check out the article here is the URL to copy and paste: www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=121350582
From the Times of London: Avatar will make the case on climate

Going green is just another luxury that we have learnt to do without in the recession Yet the planet may be saved — not by human beings but by 10ft Picassoesque aliens in turquoise Speedo bodysuits with tails. These creatures, who inhabit the distant moon Pandora, live in branches and worship Mother Earth. They drink water that is pooled in giant leaves, chant around trees that whisper of their ancestors and use pterodactyls for transport (although they do still eat meat, apologetically). They are the stars of Avatar, the film that has become the fourth-biggest blockbuster of all time in less than three weeks.

The Na’vi may be armed only with bows and arrows, they may live 150 years in the future, but their message to humans is clear. You have no vegetation left on 22nd-century Earth. You have messed up your planet and wasted your resources, now don’t come and destroy ours.

When humans are sent to exploit their mineral wealth (called Unobtainium, of course) with a campaign of shock and awe bombings, they fall in love with the Na’vis low-emission lives and the hero chooses to become an alien and reject selfish humanity.

The script could have been written by Al Gore. This is An Inconvenient Truth for children, but instead of a middle-aged former Vice-President lecturing you about destroying the planet, it’s extraterrestrials who are better dressed than ET with their covetable jewellery.

How come you know so much about it, you’re thinking. It sounds ludicrous. Having seen the film twice in three days with my nine-year-old, I admit that I don’t need to see it again, but he and his friends do — and not just for the £237 million 3-D effects, the battles, the Bambi-like scenery of Pandora or the popcorn. My son believes in these creatures’ message and has started lecturing me on my environmental commitment. Why do we need to cut down a tree for Christmas? Does he really need all that packaging round his new iTouch (he does, however, still need the iTouch).

The film is brilliant PR — smug and simplistic but effective and energising. James Cameron, who won an Oscar for sinking the Titanic, now wants to save the world and may just succeed in converting the next generation. Avatar has made $1 billion from ticket sales around the world in the shortest time yet and could overtake Titanic, which took $1.8 billion.

No wonder the American Right hates it, with one commentator calling it “a deep expression of anti-Americanism”. They understand that any nation that loves this movie will not want to continue pumping oil out of the Alaskan National Park.

The director sounds a bit ridiculous when he says: “We’re going to find out the hard way if we don’t wise up and start seeking a life that’s in balance with the natural cycles of life on Earth,” Disney put it more succinctly in The Lion King with “The Circle of Life,” but Cameron is clearly a believer who is not in it just for the box-office receipts. He spent 15 years perfecting the film.

It may not be every 40-year-old’s first choice, but anyone with children — which includes most politicians — is likely to see it. President Obama chose Avatar for his family’s new year outing. The political elite is beginning to get the message — audiences do care about the planet, they just don’t want to be lectured about it by hypocritical politicians. They want help to do their bit, not hectoring.

Avatar isn’t Star Wars, Apocalypse Now or even The Lord of the Rings: it’s not a classic. But few films manage to change perceptions. The Sound of Music rehabilitated the Austrians, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner ridiculed racism, Philadelphia maybe changed our views about Aids, Kramer vs Kramer tackled divorce. Dr Strangelove made the best case for unilateral nuclear disarmament. Avatar — rather than Ed Miliband talking about Copenhagen — could do the same for global warming.
For all German readers I wrote a comment on the film here http://www.wildes-denken.de/2009/12/avatar-film-ethnologie/
I discus the fact that anthropological knowledge plays an important role in the film in two ways: 1) It is used against the Na'vi in order to replace/attack them 2) it is the protagonists, Jake Sully, chance to "see the forest in the eyes of them". This going native seems to be crucial in the film not at least when he becomes the leader in the fight against “colonisation”…

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