September 24, 2009

Deconstructing Birdwatchers

Birdwatchers betrays the troubled tribespeople it depicts

Marco Bechis's film Birdwatchers urges us to help Brazilian tribes keep their traditional way of life. But is that what they want? And why do we persist in patronising such people as noble savages?

Posted by David CoxMarco Bechis wants to do more for Brazil's Guaraní-Kaiowá people than simply recount their plight. His new drama, Birdwatchers, ends with a call to action. As we make for the exits, we're urged to back efforts to resolve the tribe's predicament. But what's the solution for which our support's being solicited?

Watch the film, and you'd have to assume it's this. The white farmers whose genetically-engineered soya fields are overrunning the Mato Grosso do Sul should push off. The land they've appropriated should be allowed to revert to forest, within which its rightful owners, the previous inhabitants, would be free to hunt and gather like their ancient forebears, worshipping their Eternal Great Grandfather, Ñande Ramõi, and remaining joyously free from the loathsome temptations of urban consumerism.
I haven't seen Birdwatchers, but Cox's presumption about what the Guarani want is stupid. Most indigenous people don't want to be "noble savages" existing as their ancestors did 500-plus years ago. They want the best of both worlds: the Western conveniences that make life bearable and the Native values that make life worth living.It's a proposition that may beguile some European filmgoers, but not, perhaps, a helpful one. Brazil's indigenous peoples constitute less than 0.5% of the current population. The remaining 180 million aren't simply going to hand them the land on which their livelihood depends. So far, despite the supposed rape of the Amazon, less than 10% of Brazil's land surface has been cultivated, but agricultural production employs a quarter of its workers.Even if it's true, Cox's statistic about cultivated land is worthless. Developers are cutting down much of the Amazon for logging, mining, or ranching operations, not farms.

Okay to keep stealing?So what, you may think: the land was stolen from the Amerindians, and they're entitled to have it back. It's possible, however, that the Guaraní themselves acquired their territory through just the kind of land-grab of which their white adversaries currently stand accused. The ancestors of Brazil's current "indigenous" peoples may have been interlopers from Siberia who displaced existing settlers from Australasia. No one knows for sure, but the point is that none of the country's peoples enjoys ownership as of right of the national freehold.Wow. How many ways is this pathetic paragraph wrong? Let's count:

1) Cox's entire position is based on unsubstantiated speculation about the origins and rights of indigenous people. That makes it worthless from the get-go.

2) Most traditional Natives would deny their ancestors came from Asia. They'd say they've always lived at their present location.

3) There may be some evidence that Polynesians visited South America in the last couple of millennia. I don't think there's any evidence that they arrived here 12,000-plus years ago, when Siberians allegedly migrated across the Bering Strait.

4) Suppose traditional Natives did acknowledge the scientific theories about how the first Americans arrived. Does Cox seriously believe they'd say something like this? "We accept Asians as our ancestors. But if anyone else was here--Polynesians, Africans, Europeans--we repudiate them. We're pure Asians and we deny that any other race tainted our blood."

That's the exact opposite of how a traditional Native might think. Instead, he'd probably say something like this: "It doesn't matter who was here first. Whether our ancestors were Asians, Polynesians, Africans, or Europeans, they all merged into the people you call Native Americans. So the Polynesians were just as much our ancestors as the Asians. We embrace and accept them all.

"Therefore, it's meaningless to say, 'Our ancestors stole the land from someone else." Our ancestors stole the land...from our other ancestors? Whoever was here first, whoever claimed the land first, they were our ancestors."

5) I love how white apologists for genocide use the "two wrongs make a right" defense. "The Indians stole the land from somebody," they say, "so it's okay for us to steal their land." Try that moral defense in a court of law and see how it works.

6) The theory about conquest determining ownership doesn't apply when it's been so long you can't identify who the previous owners were. Or even if there were any previous owners. That's why Indians can rightfully claim their homelands but countries like the US and Israel can't rightfully claim the land they took from others.

7) I'm pretty sure that provisions in international law--not to mention the recent UN declaration of indigenous rights, which Brazil signed--do give Indians a legal right to their land. Nor is the concept of ownership a recent development. As we saw in Guarani Is Brazilian National Hero, Brazil's Indians have always fought to keep their land. So have thousands of tribes throughout the Americas.

Cox's stupidity continuesThere's an even more compelling reason to dispute the apparent message of Bechis's film. It's that many of the Guaraní don't actually want to be returned to the stone age. Birdwatchers opens with tribespersons putting on a fake show of war-painted spear-carrying for the benefit of birdwatching tourists. Once they've been paid, however, they quickly don the T-shirts which form their current habitual garb. Youngsters are shown sneaking off from a reclaim-our-land protest to prowl the shops of a nearby town.In other words, the evidence presented in the film contradicts Cox's made-up claims about the film's message. It's pretty clear that Cox doesn't have a clue about what Bechis or the Guarani are really saying.

Cox's conclusion:Encouraging indigenous peoples to cling to obsolete ways of life has proved counter-productive all over the world. Autochthons have usually forgotten how to hunt, and lost the will to do so. Reservations rarely play host to picturesque noble savagery. They're more likely to be dominated by alcoholism, domestic violence and child abuse.

Bechis implicitly condemns the birdwatchers he shows treating tribespeople as spectacle. Yet he himself regards his subjects in much the way that David Attenborough views chimps. His film treats their ancient habits as sacred, but not, apparently, their hopes of betterment. Cinemagoers who really want to help them and their kind might best do so by avoiding films like Birdwatchers.
It may not be clear to Cox what Bechis's message is, but it's clear to us what Cox's message is. Traditional, reservation-based life is bad. Therefore, Indians should give up their way of life and blend into the Brazilian mainstream. Once they abandon their land for the cities and suburbs, developers can carve it up like a turkey.

Seriouly, Cox can't imagine any middle ground between living like Stone-Age savages on reservations and living like Westerners in cities? How about living like Westerners on reservations, you silly twit? With their own natural resources to develop and technology to make their lives comfortable?

Readers agree

Some readers of this piece ripped Cox about as much as I did. Their comments include:Slobloch
21 Sep 09, 10:54am

Yeah, the sooner we burn down the Amazon and get these people working in MacDonald's, the better.

21 Sep 09, 11:02am

'Betterment'--what does that mean. Take these tribal boys and compare their lives with the poorest kids living on a council estate in Glasgow. Who has the better life? Whatever the modern world brings to the forest boys, it won't suddenly transform them into cappuccino-sipping MacBook users. They will likely become the poorly paid manual workers of environmentally damaging industry. They may not want to stay in the Stone Age, but that does not mean we should turn the forest into farmland to feed cows which will eventually end up in a burger carton.

21 Sep 09, 11:06am

"Twenty of Brazil's state and federal universities reserve places for indigenous students. Racism is officially opposed, and affirmative action programmes are in place."

...Oohh, that's alright then--as long as that's all sorted there shouldn't be any problems.

The safety net's in place, guys--hurl yourselves from your flimsy primitive plinths, we'll catch yer....

Now, what we gonna do with all these friggin trees....

21 Sep 09, 12:20pm

What a load of tripe.

Your argument is completely illogical: "the tribespeople want their children to obtain educations etc., therefore they don't want them to remain in the Amazonian forests." Perhaps, in reality, they are not so stupid as you assume, have realised their only means of livelihood is disappearing by the actions of greedy companies, and so to survive they must learn to live in the cities.

Your self-serving argument has been used many times by invaders and settlers.

I can't be bothered with the other stupidities in this article--there are too many. e.g.: "only" 10% of the Amazon has disappeared. So how much of the Amazon, think you in your infinite wisdom, should be "raped"? 50%? 90%?

What a newspaper the Guardian has become...where the trolls write the articles....

21 Sep 09, 12:38pm

The reservations for Native Americans were less about "encouraging indigenous peoples to cling to picturesque noble savagery" than herding a troublesome minority into rural mega ghettos where they could be contained and not impeded on those of the European farmers who were taking over the American plains.

The "alcoholism, domestic violence and child abuse" are perfect examples of the damage done when a indigenous population's way of life is transformed and amended at the hands of and for the benefit of a non-indigenous majority.

21 Sep 09, 12:42pm

'A normal way of life.' Seriously do you live on the same planet as the rest of us? Some 35 million Brazilians live below the poverty line and about 35% live on less then 2 dollars a day while less than 10% of the population controls more than 75% of the wealth. A normal way of life in Brazil is a life of misery.
For more on the film, see Making Birdwatchers and Native Documentaries and News. For more on the issues it raises, see Technology vs. Native Values and Globalization According to Gilligan.

P.S. As usual, I've made minor corrections to the comments to make them more readable.

Below:  "Tribes as spectacle ... the Guaraní-Kaiowá in Marcho Bechis's Birdwatchers." (I guess this is the part where Westernized Indians pretend to be their pre-Columbian ancestors for tourists.)

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