March 09, 2007

Spear gives viewers the shaft

I finally saw End of the Spear, the Native-themed movie from early 2006. If you don't know the story, it's pretty simple. Amazon Indians kill each other. Indians kill missionaries who try to contact them. Then Indians must go to missionaries for help. Missionaries teach Indians about God. Son of missionary forgives now-repentant Indian for killing his father. Everyone lives happily ever after.

Some of the critics' comments were right on. The Latino actors, including Louie Leonardo, who plays Mincayani, didn't look much like Indians. The score was occasionally over the top. The movie didn't provide any context for the Waodani Indians' warfare.

The Christian theme was central to the story, so I don't blame End of the Spear for that. It generally unfolded with a light touch, with almost no mentions of Jesus Christ or Christian dogma. It became heavy-handed only a couple of times:

  • When missionary Nate Saint said of the Indians he was seeking to save, "We can't shoot the Waodani. They aren't ready for heaven." So if the Waodani were Christians, he could shoot them?

  • This is one of the most self-serving statements by a Christian ever. Throughout history, Christians have rarely hesitated to eliminate their enemies. This must be the first case of someone's saying, "I can't kill a non-Christian because I'm worried about his immortal soul."

  • When Mincayani reveals that he killed Nate, he says he and Nate saw the souls of the dead missionaries rise. This takes an article of faith and shifts it into the realm of physics. Presumably a camera could've recorded the scene the movie invented, and we'd finally have proof of God's existence.

  • Other than these few problems, End of the Spear was pretty good. The story, acting, and cinematography were all decent. You'd hardly know this was a low-budget independent film.

    The Waodani were portrayed as reasonably complex human beings, not all-out savages. When they first see a plane, they call it a "giant wooden bee," but they're quick to accept a ride in it. They're focused on finding a missing girl, not trembling in terror. They attack the missionaries because one Indian falsely accuses the white men of murder, not because they're inherently violent.

    One big flaw

    Although I enjoyed the movie itself, it has a huge flaw that renders it unpersuasive as a piece of Native history. Namely, what was the nature of the Waodani? Were they really as warlike, as needful of salvation, as End of the Spear portrayed them?

    Clearly, the filmmakers would like us to think so. Since I don't know the historical record, they may even be right. But the evidence in the movie is all over the map. It's so contradictory and unreliable that you don't know whether it's true or not.

    Consider this litany of events:

  • End of the Spear opens with an enemy tribe attacking the Waodani and killing them in their sleep. Later the Waodani retaliate against this enemy by attacking and killing a few of them. That's it for the tribal warfare in the movie.

  • Although we may not like it, one and perhaps both attacks are motivated by the universal desire for revenge. This falls well short of proof that the Waodani are inherently and unnaturally violent. We Americans have done the same thing before (e.g., Pearl Harbor, 9/11), so the Waodani are evidently no more violent than we are.

  • The enemy tribesmen are carrying steel machetes when they attack. They must've gotten them from the Spanish, which means they've had contact and possibly trade with the white man. Without the machetes, the attackers would've had to rely on spears, which aren't as effective in night raids. So the Waodani and their enemy may be warlike only because white men have armed and encouraged them.

  • A missionary claims that half the Waodani are killed in warfare. This may or may not be true, but End of the Spear provides no further evidence of it.

  • Early on, the Waodani reflect that the Spanish "eat people." Later one says, "Don't the foreigners always kills us?" These clues imply the Waodani have met Ecuadoreans before and the meetings have been terrible. I believe Anthropology 101 teaches that if one culture attacks another, the other tends to respond in kind. So the Waodani may be warlike because the Ecuadoreans have forced them to be.

  • At one point, the missionaries claim they're totally ignorant of the Waodani. One says, "No one who has met them has come back alive." Shocking if true, but its veracity remains to be seen.

  • Nate's sister Rachel lives in a Quechua village bordering Waodani territory. Presumably that's enough to give her some insight into Waodani culture. So how can the missionaries be totally ignorant about them?

  • As we soon learn, Rachel has learned the Waodani language. In fact, she's learned it from Dayumae, a Waodani girl who fled her tribe to join the missionaries. Again, how can the missionaries claim total ignorance? How can they claim no one has met a Waodani and come back alive?

  • When Nate and the other missionaries approach the Waodani, the foreigners speak several Waodani phrases they've learned from Rachel. So they know she's in contact with the Waodani. They've presumably learned what she's learned. So again, how can they claim ignorance?

  • To justify their mission, Nate says the Waodani "were killing the oil company people and the oil company people were killing them." Hello? When you invade a tribe's territory, you can reasonably expect them to defend it. This doesn't prove the Waodani were violent, it proves they were human.

  • This final comment hints at the complexities End of the Spear ignores. The Waodani knew the Ecuadoreans from earlier contacts, despite the movie's half-hearted pretense of ignorance. Like many tribes before them, the Waodani were under intense pressure from outside forces. Like many tribes, it's not surprising that they resorted to violence to defend their way of life.

    Similarly, the missionaries knew the Waodani--again despite the movie's pretense of ignorance. They knew or should've known the external pressures the Waodani faced. Rather than "helping" them by converting them to Christianity and thus eliminating their violent impulses, they could've helped them by opposing the oil companies' depredations and thus eliminating their need for violence.

    Faux happy ending

    So End of the Spear doesn't give an accurate picture of what happened before the events of the movie. It also doesn't give an accurate picture of what happened afterward. According to the movie, the Saints and their Waodani charges became one big happy family. The movie implies all the Waodani fared equally well.

    Not quite. Here's one summary of the Saints' efforts to "missionize" the Huaorani (Waodani):Around that time one of the murdered missionary's sister, Rachel Saint, achieved what would become for the most part a peaceful contact with them for the rest of her life.

    A lot of her life was spent learning, and contributing to our linguistic understanding of, the Huaorani language. Her informant in learning the language was a young Huaorani woman named Dayuma. Between them they began missionary work, reaching many of the Huaorani around Dayuma's home. They are still today more responsible than any other two people for missionizing the Huaorani.

    In the late 1960s the oil company, Texaco, approached the Ecuadorian government hoping for permission to drill for oil on Huaorani land. Saint and Dayuma became a key part of the following massive displacement of hundreds of Huaorani. Before then most had remained on their ancestral lands, uncontacted, and living the same hunting/gathering lifestyle that hadn't changed in millennia. What is known about this lifestyle is that the Huaorani cultivated almost no crops or plants and relied on hunting for their meat and fish. They were experts in, and had a symbiotic relationship with, the rainforest. That relationship transcended into the spiritual. Shamanism was practiced, which included the use of naturally occurring hallucinogens. Animistic ritual and polygamy also characterized traditional Huaorani beliefs. They believed in a symbolic relationship between their environment and themselves. The forest would always provide enough that they didn't have to grow food or keep animals.

    The missionaries and the Ecuadorian government agreed to relocate as many Huaorani as possible away from the drilling areas to the missions that had been established in the previous ten years. Hundreds were relocated, while others fled to even more remote parts of the jungle. Accounts of the relocated Huaoranis' experiences differ. At one extreme, some have written of this event as "ethnocide." Others have claimed that it saved the Huaorani from genocide at the hands of the oil companies. An unquestionable outcome is that many had their life and culture changed forever, while others chose (and in some cases were never presented a choice) to stay deep in the forest and live the way they'd only ever known.

    The visitor can see this polarization today in Ecuador. Eventually, many missionized Huaorani moved to so-called oil frontier towns, particularly Coca. Spanish is now their first language; drug abuse is high.

    (Waddington, R. The Huaorani. The Peoples of The World Foundation. Retrieved March 7, 2007, from The Peoples of The World Foundation.)
    So the missionaries committed ethnocide to prevent genocide. Great. And they couldn't think of any other alternative? No, they didn't even try. They were so sure their way was the right one that they proceeded heedlessly. They didn't care about the results as long as they bagged their quota of converts.

    Now the Waodani are living lives of substance abuse, squalor, and despair. But at least they're God-fearing Christians. Their physical lives are ruined but their spiritual lives are saved. Say hallelujah!

    For what End of the Spear presents, which is the only fair way to rate it, I give it a 7.5 of 10. For what it doesn't present, I give it a zero. Whether intentionally or not, this well-made movie is a paean to Euro-American colonization. It ignores and excuses the destruction of indigenous peoples and cultures.


    Rob said...

    Too much original and independent thinking for you, Russ? I'm shocked. ;-)

    writerfella said...

    Writerfella here --
    WHERE in writerfella's post did that phrase "original and independent thinking" occur? Find it and writerfella will give you a cookie, Rob. NOTHING about EuroMan's Christianity ever is original or independent, period. And 'thinking' never belongs in the same sentence, ever...
    All Best
    Russ Bates

    Rob said...

    You didn't use that exact phrase, which is why I didn't put it in quotes. But you've accused me of not thinking originally or independently several times, especially in regard to Apocalypto.

    This posting proves just how capable I am of original and independent thinking. If you can find another review of End of the Spear like it, I'll give you a cookie.

    So when I quote other reviews rather than see a movie myself, you complain. And when I see and review a movie myself, you complain. Is there any common denominator here other than your complaining?

    Anonymous said...

    They are called Waorani not Wuaodani. And for their violence:

    "The Waorani may have the highest rate of homicide of any society known to anthropology"
    Bekerman et al. 2009. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 106(20):8134-8139.

    Today, most of them make their lives as the worst predators of the forest, impinging more damage over the forest than oil companies and illegal loggers.


    Tessi said...

    I would feel more comfortable with your assessment of the film if you had done historical research on the nature of the Waodani tribe, the documented violence of the peoples, and the reasons behind it, rather than saying "the film never proved it", and "it may or may not be true". If you don't know whether or not the historical facts of the story are true, research them before you make a list of critical comments. At least that's my opinion.

    Stephen said...

    What you said is so true, there is more things to explore about dreams but I'm not sure what are dreams that comes in the minds of people while living in this world.