58 mins., col., sound – voice-over commentary, extra-diegetic music.
Production : Avery Research Center for African History and Culture, College of Charleston, South Carolina.
Source : NAFC catalogue number AF 91.13.2.
Background – The NAFC also holds the rushes from which this film was apparently cut (AF 91.13.1). Although this film appears to have been primarily the work of Colin Turnbull, it is also credited in the NAFC catalogue to Joseph A. Towles, who was Turnbull’s partner in life as well as colleague in the field. It is not clear who shot the material, nor who edited it since there are no credits. The NAFC catalogue dates the film to 1964, but in fact Turnbull and Towles did not carry out their fieldwork until the period 1965-67.
This film serves, in effect, as a complement to Turnbull’s highly controversial book, The Mountain People (1972) in which he claimed that the Ik people of north-eastern Uganda, though traditionally hunter-gathers, had been obliged to become sedentary, and not being accustomed to this mode of being, their society and culture had broken down completely.
Film Content – The film is a very strange work, opening with a juxtapositioning of images of a seemingly harsh African landscape, with corny extracts from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons on the soundtrack, along with a constant voice-over commentary by Turnbull in which he makes some scarcely credible assertions as to the breakdown of sociality among the Ik; for example, that mothers only look after their children until they are three, whereafter they are left to fend for themselves. Most Ik are said to be dead by 30, though we see images of older people. There is a recurrent return to a montage of shots showing Ik people in extremis.
Later on, the images become a little more intimate as they show a group of women working in what seems a perfectly sociable manner. They are very tall, like their neighbours the Turkana, and they live in Turkana-like villages. But a tall physique is very atypical of hunter-gatherers in Africa – casting doubt on whether we are indeed observing devolved hunter-gatherers in this film. They appear to be agriculturalists, and later in the film, one sees plenty of cattle. They certainly do no appear to be destitute.
This contradiction between the assertions of the voice-over and the content of the images continues for the rest of the film. Men are shown working industriously and conversing pleasantly with one another. The village itself seems highly ordered. Yet the commentary would have us believe that in this society, not only do parents abandon their children, but children abandon their parents. This proposition is directly contradicted by an image of a young man carrying a seemingly invalid older man.
A field study carried out by an anthropological linguist, Bernd Heine, almost 20 years later, suggested that Turnbull’s command of the Ik language was very poor and that he appears to have formed a highly erroneous view of Ik social life.
Texts : Turnbull (1972), Heine (1985), Grinker (2000)