The film, which beat hundreds of competitors on its way to Sundance, investigates a controversial study of the Indians of the Yanomami tribes in the Amazon Basin conducted by French anthropologists in the 1960s and 1970s.
"It's the first movie I do outside Brazil, and it involves an issue that I had not treated yet and has always interested me: the philosophy of science," Padilha told Brazilian newspaper Gazeta do Povo in a recent interview.
According to him, the documentary discusses anthropology from a critic point of view, analyzing the research, debates and scandals that involved and keep on involving the ethnography of Yanomami Indians of Venezuela.
A review posted on the Sundance website said the director "brilliantly employs two provocative strategies to raise unsettling questions about the boundaries of cultural encounters."
By Daniel Fienberg
The feature, premiering as part of Sundance's World Cinema Documentary Competition, is set against the backdrop of the popular field of Yanomami Indian studies, but that isn't the tribe in question. No, Jose Padilha's doc is actually focused on the intellectual tribe of anthropologists and academics who have built their careers and expanded their livelihoods by studying, exploiting and possibly even harming the Yanomami.
Napoleon Chagnon, one of the doc's central figures, called his then-groundbreaking study "Yanomamo: The Fierce People," but as somebody who grew up in a family of academics, I can vouch for the fierceness of professors and researchers as well. Even those uninitiated in the publish-or-perish world or in the jungle of the tenure system won't have much doubt on its brutality after watching "Secrets of the Tribe."
But "Secrets of the Tribe" isn't just about a group of eggheads calling each other names (though there's a lot of that), it's an often provocative interrogation of how all ambitious people impact the world around them and how difficult (or impossible) it is to be a mere observer.