Monday, October 22, 2012

The worst people in the world?

That would be the Ik, a tribe in northern Uganda, according to anthropologist Colin Turnbull, who wrote a 1972 book about them titled "The Mountain People." It depicted them as a tribe which abandoned children as soon as they could walk and let the elderly starve. Turnbull apparently came to believe they represented human nature at its most base and basic: They lived in near-starvation conditions, and terms such as "goodness" and "virtue" had become irrelevant.

Writer-director Cevin Soling read Turnbull's book in high school. Nearly four decades later, he took a documentary crew to Uganda to find out whether the Ik really lived without music or humor or a sense of play, whether they really could be "the worst people in the world." He recorded his journey in "Ikland."

The film is as much about the process of making a documentary -- especially under adverse conditions -- as the results of the search. He and his crew deal with an irate elephant, bribe-taking officials, gun-toting men who may be part of the nefarious Lord's Resistance Army, dysentery and a wasp that can reportedly bore through a human skull.

His team finally reaches the Ik, subsistence farmers who don't raise cattle (rural Africa's traditional standard of wealth) and whose crops regularly get raided by other tribes. They turn out to be as compassionate and philosophic as anyone else under their circumstances; you and I wouldn't want to share their fragile, nomadic existence, but we can identify with their sentiments. (So much for Turnbull.)

I learned about "Ikland" by pure chance: Someone I interviewed months ago sent me a copy. Otherwise, this quietly revelatory film might have passed unnoticed in the immense mass of releases I never even hear about. As I watched, I wondered how many other enjoyable documentaries have vanished into the mist unseen.

The blessing of the Internet is that one can find almost everything there. But the Internet also reminds us of the infinite size of world culture. It's like having a telescope that reaches far into the universe in all directions: It's a thrill to stumble upon a new star, but it's frustrating to know there are millions of stars we'll never encounter.


Augustus Gump said...

I could have told Mr. Turnbull he was wrong. The worst person in the world is someone I once worked with, and, while undoubtedly ikky, he is not Ik.

Anonymous said...

Abandoning children is better than killing them with drones like President Peace Prize is doing. Obviously the Ik have survived and procreated. Hard to procreate when you're killed by an Obamadrone.