Sundance Film Festival

SECRETS OF THE TRIBE (World Documentary Competition)

secrets_of_the_tribe.jpgSECRETS OF THE TRIBE (World Documentary Competition)

The Yanomami Indians are an Amazonian tribe who lived in total isolation from the modern world until a half century ago, when one anthropologist after another started showing up to observe, document, and eventually exploit what they saw (and, in some cases, fetishized) as a virginal society. In SECRETS OF THE TRIBE (an entry in the World Documentary Competition), Brazilian documentarian José Padilha (BUS 174, Sundance ’03) pieces together testimonials from key researchers in the field and from tribe members — and progressively complicates the picture. Underlying all the bitter accusations and recriminations are the starkly opposed views of cultural and scientific anthropologists (the latter emphasize the role of evolutionary biology) and the conflicting assumptions that these native others are either noble innocents or violent primitives.

There are also scandals and controversies galore: charges of pedophilia and sexual abuse; a lethal epidemic that some say was related to the introduction of a measles vaccine. Padilha has the good fortune to be covering a juicy, often horrifying academic dogfight whose feuding parties are only too happy to rip into one another on camera (the notable exception is the French researcher Jacques Lizot, a Claude Levi-Strauss disciple who reportedly had a taste for Yanomami boys and who declined to be interviewed). It’s clear that there is no room for agreement here, and Padilha’s expertly constructed film — which keeps shifting, deftly and almost dizzyingly, among irreconcilable perspectives — turns inconclusiveness into a strength.