Saturday, July 18, 2009

Navigating a Familiar Chasm: Evolution and The Documentary Tradition in God Grew Tired of Us

“As a helpless human, I survived by trekking across many punishing landscapes while being bombed by Sudanese air forces, while dodging land mines, while being preyed upon by wild beasts and human killers. I fed on unknown fruits, vegetables, leaves, animal carcasses and sometimes went with nothing for days. At certain points, the difficulty was unbearable. I hated myself and attempted to take my own life. Many of my friends, and thousands of my fellow countrymen, did not make it through these struggles alive.”
-Valentino Achak Deng, Preface to What is the What
”Then, perhaps, when your back is to the wall, you will let loose at last that new violence which is raised up in you by old, oft-repeated crimes. But, as they say, that's another story: the history of mankind. The time is drawing near, I am sure, when we will join the ranks of those who make it.”
-Jean-Paul Sartre, Preface to The Wretched of the Earth
“We will accede to universal rights because power is too fluid in advanced technological societies to circumvent this mammalian imperative; the long-term consequences of inequity will always be visibly dangerous to its temporary beneficiaries. I suggest that this is the true reason for the universal rights movement and that an understanding of its raw biological causation will be more compelling in the end than any rationalization contrived by culture to reinforce and euphemize it.”
-Edward O. Wilson, On Human Nature
“If we could manage to see people on other continents as part of us, drawing them into our circle of reciprocity and empathy, we would be building upon, rather than going against, our nature.”
-Franz de Waal, Our Inner Ape

If we consider God Grew Tired of Us as an archetypal or microcosmic view of human history, things look bleak yet with a slight chance of change. The stressors facing orphaned refugees are going to be extremely difficult at best for “First” world countries to grasp, and terms that social scientists use to consider more Westernized* societies (e.g., schadenfrade, ressentiment, and many others) will appear as an alien lexicon, completely unable to reckon the experiences of the individuals in this particular, non-Westernized society. It is the work of film to establish a linkage with the issue, give it a human face (so that we may feel sym/empathy with those affected), and in a perfect world, hint at what we may do about it.

The history of Sudan is given little recognition in GGTOU, except that we are told about the spread of Islam and of the fractious recent past due to this. Although humans evolved into “modern homo sapiens” in eastern Africa about 250 to 150k years before present (ybp), the first stable society there is still only dated at 60k ybp, which is just 10k years before there were permanent settlements in countries as far away as Australia. Of course the American/Western viewer can more readily relate to the spread of Islam throughout the world during the middle age, but this doesn't give a story which is so common in history its just historical due. Because of this, scenes about the 4th of July and Christmas also don't get their historical due. In a society down near the bottom of the Maslow totem pole, you're forced to pick your God and tenaciously hold these dogmas from birth. You're a member of the black Christian north or the Muslim south. And so the woes about Christmas are given a Christian appraisal, even if pagans partook of these same rituals years before. John is expressing sadness at the loss of Christian values, like holding up a prismatic magnifying glass that was forced upon you and calling out imperfections with a skewed chiaroscuro, unable to pull the lens away and see what the colors really look like. Also absent is the official United States position on the Lost Boys, and what we see is more like democratic nation-building on an individual. This proves slightly dubious as well, as black Christians will naturally accept the reins of another Christian nation, but why do the Muslims of the south not? An interesting documentary would explore, along the lines of Somit and Peterson, why these two religions continue to butt heads in nation after nation.

God Grew Tired of Us (GGTOU) shares a lot with the Grierson/Flaherty school of documentary -making. In his proto-Doc, Flaherty shot Nanook (an eskimo living in the biting cold, in Nanook of the North), giving this cultural lifestyle a human face. Nanook, like many of his culture, died of starvation and so the politicization of film began in that we would see a plight and feel for this plight and potentially do something about it. Few documentaries have really attempted to enable their audience to make concrete steps toward change. This film (GGTOU) adeptly shows the human side of the Lost Boys much better than a lecture or non-fiction book, and this is an effective documentary style. Seeing Daniel, John, and Panther go through the daily routines of refugee camp life, their elation at finding a home in a new place and the chance to set down new roots, and their day to day struggles to fit in and conform to American life. Our emotions run the gamut, from the humor at the question of the dish soap (“is this going to turn everything green?”) to what should be a sincere buyer's remorse at the attempt to explain what a shower was. Its hard to imagine life without a shower in the United States, although as water sources and aquifers dwindle we may crash headlong into that possibility. It is equally hard to imagine citizens of the United States having such a cordial and easy going response to such a drastic change of habiliment. Indeed, they argue about this in the commentary, coming to a non-accusatory point of saying that other people would do the same in a complete cultural immersion.

In these senses, the documentary succeeds admirably. Hopefully this film has sparked the interest in learning more about these atrocities and similar ones all around the globe (Darfur in the same country, for instance). We get a bit of background of the area, and a lot of very real knowledge about the day to day lives of those who have been lost (even if they're all “boys”). What we don't get is a list of links or organizations that we can (snail or e)mail to urge congress. We don't get an ecology of disparity, in which we are able to connect this to very similar things happening on many parts of the globe. Certainly one dvd can't do it all, but many viewers are likely to feel helpless and turned off by this omission.

There's not a doubt in mind that Robert Flaherty would have urged Nanook and his family to leave their harsh climates and come into the fold (of “civilization”, as it were) if he knew that they would perish in a year's time. God Grew Tired of Us is the next step, as it documents the protagonists' movement and highlights the problem. There now needs to be the third step of documentary-making, in which a beleaguered and disinterested American audience is given a toolkit with which they might start fashioning a framework for change, and perhaps a blueprint showing how their lives are connected to the lives they see on the screen.

*Westernized here means European (including Russia and its satellite states) or American, although many countries have a slough of sociological terms that wouldn't apply to a war-ravaged, refugee state.

-God Grew Tired of Us, Quinn and Walker, 2006
-Nanook of the North, Flaherty, 1922

-Barnouw, Erik. 1993. Documentary: A History of the Non-fiction Film. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
-Caton, Hiram. 2006. “Evolutionary Constraints on Democratic Nation Building. A review of The Failure of Democratic Nation Building: Ideology Meets Evolution by Albert Somit and Steven A. Peterson. Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.
-de Waal, Franz. 2005. Our Inner Ape: A Leading Primatologist Explains Why We Are Who We Are. New York, Riverhead Books.
-Eggers, Dave. 2006. What is the What. San Francisco: McSweeney's.
-Fanon, Frantz. 1963. The Wretched of the Earth. New York: Grove Press.
-Wilson, Edward O. 2004. On Human Nature. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.