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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The idea of "seeing" the other is an especially powerful trope in the film, as Norman points out, and it has been picked up by the popular press, including in the New York Times. While I find the attempt laudable (cliched invocations of a new-age alien namaste notwithstanding), I think we would do well to pause and question just what it is that we are "seeing". The Na'vi are, for better or worse, a monolithic, timeless culture, a pastiche of eco-indigenism that makes Dances With Wolves seem subtle. What we "see" is, in many ways, a reflection of our own ideas of what native people are, as filtered through colonialism and white guilt.

This is absolutely not to deny that there are many unique and valid worldviews which incorporate very different understandings of ecology from our own. But I worry that viewers will pick up on the essentialism without a grasp of individual agency, change, or internal diversity.

Another random note on the film - did anyone else find it curious / revealing that the Na'vi had real, physical connections to the animal and plant life? It is as if, fearing a backlash against metaphysics or the possibility that viewers might reject the perceptions of the other as primitive and irrational, the filmmakers instead felt the need to make the metaphor literal, and legibile to modern scientific sensibilities.
I'll have to catch it this weekend...it was sold out last time I tried to take my son. Some friends did discuss it with me at the Society for the Anthropology of Lowland South America meeting recently. My sense was that it would be an interesting intro to anthro exercise to have students watch the film after reading Steven Rubentstein's book 'Alejandro Tsakimp: A Shuar Healer in the Margins of History'. Rubenstein's good at showing how New Agers, politicians, and anthropologists have for a long time produced different accounts of Amazonian natives that nonetheless converge in denying them temporality, or a history...They have a 'culture' that is fixed, that reproduces itself as a functioning organism over time, but which doesn't take on change. This image can be reproduced both in claiming that natives are worthless savages whose ways can be dispensed with, and in claiming that they are noble savages in spiritual touch with all that is good and beautiful. I look forward to the special effects in Avatar...I suspect there's going to be a bit of history-denying there, even if the premise seems generally philanthropic.

Norman Schräpel said:
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”…
Since I started this thread Avatar has become the most successful film 'of all time' (as they say every year as another record is broken). I think that this thread has raised a number of interesting and exciting issues. But have any of us had conversations about the anthropological angles with our non-anthropological friends who have seen the film? I am sure the opportunities are there and I am much better armed with insights from reading what we have said, but as I work in an engineering department (don't ask how!) I have yet to meet anyone in my work place who has gone to see it!

Best wishes,

Charles
I think this is one of the most exact criticisms I've read about the movie (which I loved, by the way). The filmmakers obviously had a very clear message they wanted the audience to get, and weren't at all subtle in its delivery...
Paradoxically, this results in a very simplistic and narrow "seeing of the other", contrary to the outspoken ideal.

Well, you know what? I'm willing to let it fly. Sci-Fi and Fantasy often caricaturize in order to create a certain distance between the story and reality - a distance anthropologists find so terribly fundamental to good research-ability and observation. One can much easily talk about (and criticize/praise) the Na'vi and their culture than about a real human culture, which is exactly why this movie is such a good opportunity for opening a discussion between anthropologists and the general public.
For example, my friends would say "but they're so primitive and undeveloped", which could spark a discussion on cultural approaches to wellbeing and development, or they could say "but this link to nature doesn't exist in reality", to which we can provide a serious viewpoint on nature-culture relations and the way different cultures/groups grasp their environment.

Also, another interesting idea is to look at this movie not only as "filtered through colonialism and white guilt" (which rings absolutely true to me), but also as expressing the panics, fears, hopes and intentions of us white colonialists and our culture (or at least - certain aspects of it).

Fredric Hohlen said:
The idea of "seeing" the other is an especially powerful trope in the film, as Norman points out, and it has been picked up by the popular press, including in the New York Times. While I find the attempt laudable (cliched invocations of a new-age alien namaste notwithstanding), I think we would do well to pause and question just what it is that we are "seeing". The Na'vi are, for better or worse, a monolithic, timeless culture, a pastiche of eco-indigenism that makes Dances With Wolves seem subtle. What we "see" is, in many ways, a reflection of our own ideas of what native people are, as filtered through colonialism and white guilt.

This is absolutely not to deny that there are many unique and valid worldviews which incorporate very different understandings of ecology from our own. But I worry that viewers will pick up on the essentialism without a grasp of individual agency, change, or internal diversity.

Another random note on the film - did anyone else find it curious / revealing that the Na'vi had real, physical connections to the animal and plant life? It is as if, fearing a backlash against metaphysics or the possibility that viewers might reject the perceptions of the other as primitive and irrational, the filmmakers instead felt the need to make the metaphor literal, and legibile to modern scientific sensibilities.
Avatar is real’, say tribal people
25 January
http://www.survivalinternational.org/news/5466

Following the film ‘Avatar’’s win at the Golden Globes, tribal people have claimed that the film tells the real story of their lives today.

A Penan man from Sarawak, in the Malaysian part of Borneo, told Survival, ‘The Penan people cannot live without the rainforest. The forest looks after us, and we look after it. We understand the plants and the animals because we have lived here for many, many years, since the time of our ancestors.

‘The Na’vi people in ‘Avatar’ cry because their forest is destroyed. It’s the same with the Penan. Logging companies are chopping down our big trees and polluting our rivers, and the animals we hunt are dying.’

Kalahari Bushman Jumanda Gakelebone said, ‘We the Bushmen are the first inhabitants in southern Africa. We are being denied rights to our land and appeal to the world to help us. ‘Avatar’ makes me happy as it shows the world about what it is to be a Bushman, and what our land is to us. Land and Bushmen are the same.’

Davi Kopenawa Yanomami, known as the Dalai Lama of the Rainforest, said, ‘My Yanomami people have always lived in peace with the forest. Our ancestors taught us to understand our land and animals. We have used this knowledge carefully, for our existence depends on it. My Yanomami land was invaded by miners. A fifth of our people died from diseases we had never known.’

Director James Cameron received his Golden Globes awards for ‘Avatar’ last week, and revealed one of the central ideas of the film.

‘Avatar asks us to see that everything is connected,’ he said in his acceptance speech, ‘All human beings to each other, and us to the earth.

Cameron was inspired by the Maori language of New Zealand when devising the language spoken by the Na’vi.

Survival’s director Stephen Corry says, ‘Just as the Na’vi describe the forest of Pandora as ‘their everything’, for most tribal peoples, life and land have always been deeply connected.

‘The fundamental story of Avatar – if you take away the multi-coloured lemurs, the long-trunked horses and warring androids – is being played out time and time again, on our planet.

‘Like the Na’vi of ‘Avatar’, the world’s last-remaining tribal peoples – from the Amazon to Siberia – are also at risk of extinction, as their lands are appropriated by powerful forces for profit-making reasons such as colonization, logging and mining.’

‘One of the best ways of protecting the our world’s natural heritage is surprisingly simple; it is to secure the land rights of tribal peoples.’

*
A feature article about ‘Avatar’ and tribal peoples is available for publication from Survival.

Contact Miriam Ross:
E mr@survivalinternational.org
T +44 (0)20 7687 8734
Ariel Appel said:
Also, another interesting idea is to look at this movie not only as "filtered through colonialism and white guilt" (which rings absolutely true to me), but also as expressing the panics, fears, hopes and intentions of us white colonialists and our culture (or at least - certain aspects of it).

I agree. Put another way, Fourth World indigenous political movements have gained in strength since the 80s, especially in countries of temperate zone new settlement like Canada and New Zealand, but not only there. These movements would not have been so successful, whatever the forces driving them internally, if the dominant white settler class had not been increasingly doubtful about earlier claims to represent a superior civilization, doubts encouraged paradoxically by neoliberal attacks on the social democratic consensus of the immediate postwar decades. This leads me to make an oversimplified generalization: indigenous peoples fared worse when industrial societies were strong and better when they were weakened by free markets.
I haven't seen the movie yet but reading all the comments here one thing came to mind pointed out by a French anthropologist called Marc Auge: "One day, perhaps, there will be a sign of intelligent life on another world. Then, through an effect of solidarity whose mechanisms the ethnologist has studied on a small scale, the whole terrestrial space will become a single place. Being from earth will signify something. In the meantime, though, it is far from certain that threats to the environment are sufficient to produce the same effect"
I just heard a story on the radio, on PRI's The World, called "Avatar in the Amazon":

"If there were ever a place that came close to the magical world of Pandora in James Cameron’s new film Avatar, it would probably be the Amazon. There may not be butterflies that look like flying squid, but in the Amazon can you eat giant worms and lemon flavored ants for dinner in a forest that is home to both the jaguar and the pink dolphin. Reporter Melaina Spitzer joined a group of indigenous leaders from the Amazon in Ecuador’s capital Quito, to see Avatar on the big screen in 3D."

Here's the story on the "PRI's The World" web site. (There's also a video version of the story on the web page.)
I think it's interesting the response the movie has gotten among some media critics of popular culture. There's an interesting popular discourse among some of the film being racist in some way. I've even heard the term, "White Messiah," in describing the theme of the movie. It's funny that as an anthro., I didn't get that at all when I saw the movie, because it was the outsider that was transformed, not the native culture.
Some times I think that people invoke these well worn themes in order to take upon their selves a particular hero narrative. I see this in the low income communities that I work in. There's often an anger for the sake of anger, not among residents, but among outsiders that claim to represent residents.
You may also be interested to read the article by the journalist and activist George Monbiot - 'The Holocaust We Will Not See: Avatar Half-Tells a Story We Would All Prefer to Forget'. See: http://www.monbiot.com/archives/2010/01/11/the-holocaust-we-will-no...
Thanks, Piers - I find the article compelling - what about the rest of us?

Charles

Piers Locke said:
You may also be interested to read the article by the journalist and activist George Monbiot - 'The Holocaust We Will Not See: Avatar Half-Tells a Story We Would All Prefer to Forget'. See: http://www.monbiot.com/archives/2010/01/11/the-holocaust-we-will-no...
Please forgive me for reviving an old thread. Maybe it will be timely, as Avatar has just come out on DVD.

In any event, the visual display and story had the sci-fi dork that is me in its grips, that's for sure.

It took the intellectual and anthropologist me a few days to fully process what I was uncomfortable with. At first, I thought it was a general unease at seeing people who (presumably) know very little about prehistoric, hunter-gatherer cultures (let alone any one specific culture) portray what it is to see from the inside of those kinds of cultures (wow! No generalizing there!). It immediately grabbed me that the tropes, along with the tragedy, belongs to mainstream (American?) culture.

After a day or two, it hit me that I kept thinking about The Last Samurai every time I thought of the film. (Then again, the movie Dune could be seen as Lawrence of Arabia in space). I see, acknowledge and sympathize with the significance of the story, as it resonates with a growing set of discourses in our industrialized society, and among discourses and movements of native revitalization. Perhaps this story would not have been tellable over 100 years ago, when there was still a shadow of an "Indian problem" in the United States. Then again, could we really make something like Lawrence of Arabia today?

I find it interesting that the mainstream white male doesn't just go native, but also literally becomes a native, in a mystico-biological sense. The Lone Ranger actually becomes Tanto. Perhaps this element of the story also speaks to an underlying subtext of racial identity that resides side by side with white guilt and the need for exoneration?

There's something else that's vital, and that never gets discussed. Even our discourses of ecological soundness and social justice are deeply intertwined with our capitalist industrialist society...the same society that is resulting in a lateral consumption of land and resources over the whole globe. The story has a good point, but what about the energy and processed materials that had to be consumed in the fabrication of this film? What about the DVDs that have to be mass produced, as well as all those cool plastic action figures, themselves wrapped in their own little plastic and cardboard bubbles? It seems that even our best efforts at social and ecological consciousness are unavoidably tied to industrialism, consumption and waste.

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