Tuesday, November 6, 2012

On DVD: David Hilbert and Cevin D. Soling's IKLAND give the Ik their due -- at long last; plus a short Q&A with filmmaker Soling

A bit of personal history to start off: What got to me most strongly was not the book itself -- Colin Turnbull's (with the accent on the bull) The Mountain People, the supposed anthopological expose of the African tribe, the Ik, who were said to possess not a shred of human kindness -- but the theater piece adapted from the book by one of the past half-century's finest directors, Peter Brook, whose Marat/Sade took us into a new theatrical dimension, and whose US came out roundly against U.S. involvement in Vietnam and Britain's acquiescence in that (and so much else). Brook was a master at challenging his audience, forcing it to be a part of the world of his plays, even as he entertained it royally. The Ik (click and scroll to page 2) was no exception -- except it turns out that this world of Turnbull's, and then of Brook's, never actually existed.

If, that is, the just-out-on-DVD documentary IKLAND, from directors David Hilbert (at right) and Cevin D. Soling (below) can be believed. TrustMovies thinks it can. The film, which had its theatrical debut earlier this year to good press notices, begins by taking us back to the time of Turnbull's (in)famous book and what is had to say, and then offers an interesting history of Uganda, which like so many African countries -- only worse -- has had more than its fair share of colonialism and power-mad, murderous, genocidal dictators.

This history proves important because it shows how Uganda has been splintered for more than a half century by war, and so the Ik, to whom survival is all-important, have had to find their place in the mountain territory in the extreme north, living a life as sheltered and frugal as would seem possible. It takes the filmmakers half their movie to arrive in Ikland, but the wait proves worth it for what we learn -- about the filmmakers and crew, the various other tribes who border on the Ik, and the LRA (Lord's Resistance Army), whose child (and older) soldiers provide an almost constant threat to all those not part of this cult-like army.

We see how the Ik have done a terrific job of camouflage, hiding their village from any marauding passers-by (at right); we see the yearly harvesting of white ants, and we hear about wasps the size of birds that can bore a hole in a man's skull. Mr. Soling goes out of his way to find translators who actually speak the Ik language well enough (something that seems to have eluded Mr. Turnbull), so we see and hear these people (shown in the photos below) up close and personal and find them -- sure, somewhat reserved but also -- quite genuine, and in one section in which the filmmakers get them to tell us stories, they prove both funny and charming, with a sense of both humor and irony (note the story of Dad and the hyena).

Hilbert and Soling bring along a drama instructor, who in the movie's climactic scene has the tribe performing their version of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, the point of which the tribe clearly understands.

And when Soling questions one old woman about the Ik's religion and its special deity, Didigwari, he asks her if there are also other gods in addition to this one. She thinks a moment before answering, "You have to ask him."

Maybe the filmmakers' stab at anthropology is wanting (they make movies, after all), but they certainly convinced me that these Ik are a hell of a lot different from what Turnbull claims to have seen and lived with -- for three years?!

Rent or purchase the documentary, which has now made its way to DVD, and see for yourself.  I did, and like that late-comer apostle, Paul, I have felt the scales -- some 40 years of subscribing to Turnbull's wretched myth -- fall from my eyes. (I didn't realize this until checking him out on the IMDB, but Mr. Soling, a decade back, gave us the delightful pastiche/mockcumentary The War on the War on Drugs. If you haven't seen this one, too -- do.)


After view this most interesting documentary that shook up some my my notions of the Ik, I emailed a few questions to the director, and below is what I got back, with TrustMovies questions in boldface and Cevin Soling's answers in standard type. 

TrustMovies: Is it possible – anthropologically, sociologically, humanly -- that the Ik could have changed so drastically over a half century – from Turnbull’s version to yours? 

Cevin D. Soling (the director is shown below, while filming Ikland): American culture has certainly changed dramatically in 50 years, but such changes are due, in large part, to our cultural embrace of science and technology. We are changed by the changes we create in the world around us. In agrarian societies, change happens much more slowly, but there are also factors that create momentary shifts in behavioral patterns. Warfare and famine create stress, which alter routines and social interactions. One could argue that communal bonds in American society during WWII were stronger, so the outcomes are not necessarily adverse. 

What might account for his -- Turnbull’s -- seeming refusal to see things as they actually were: perhaps the British holier-than-thou attitude (particularly concerning people on continents which the Brits had formerly colonized)? I ask this because I have found that the colonization attitude sometimes dies hard. 

I do not believe Turnbull was predisposed to disregard colonized societies. He was a respected anthropologist and he certainly heaped praise on the BaMbuti Pygmies in his book, The Forest People. My personal opinion is that there was a confluence of personal unpleasantries and a political agenda. While there was still an infrastructure in Northern Uganda at that time that made travel much easier than today, the terrain and locale was still challenging. He complained about the hikes on the steep and treacherous mountainside and the environment in general. With the extremes in temperature each day, the swarms of insects, the prickly flora and aggressive fauna -- it is a very challenging place to live. In addition, while one can find many variations among African tribes with regards to gender issues, the Ik have clear divisions in gender roles and notions of sexuality which were at odds with Turnbull's public lifestyle. I think he may have held that against them. Finally, the timing of the book is essential to understanding motives too. The counter-culture philosophy at that time argued that competition borne of capitalism was responsible for social breakdown. By depicted the Ik as depraved, Turnbull could undermine this argument and be a champion for the establishment. 

Interesting take!  In my observation Capitalism, Colonization (of one sort or another) and the Establishment can often be seen skipping, hand-in-hand. In your documentary, there appears to have been real connection -- emotional, intellectual -- between you and the Ik. While this might go against some views of what “good” anthropological studies consist, it does make one question how Turnbull could have spent, what – three years? – amongst them without anything approaching this closeness. How long were you and your crew there, over all, and during what time frame? 

I am not an anthropologist, but rather a documentary filmmaker. One of my missions was to go beyond the enthnographic films I watched in High School where the objective camera POV infantilized cultures that were less technologically developed. Their humanity was lost. I wanted to show events honestly, which included mine and the crew's interactions with the people. I think this provides an additional insight that compliments the work of anthropologists. At some point in anthropology, there is a fundamental issue of personality that must be acknowledged. As much as Turnbull did not like the Ik, it can be surmised that the Ik did not like him either. We are looking at the account of one individual who did not enjoy being somewhere and he was probably not fun to be around. One sense he was an object of ridicule for that reason. As such, we should expect a very distorted account. It is also possible that Turnbull was not given accurate information from the locals he trusted because either they did not want to share things with him or they had biases that Turnbull did not take into account.  I was in Uganda from July to August of 2006. 

Did you ever see the Peter Brook theater piece adapted from Turnbull’s book? I did, and it, together with the book, had taken a permanent place in my mind/memory. I am happy to have that memory jolted and re-jiggered into something more humane. 

I have a copy of the screenplay, but never saw a performance. Does one exist on film? I would love to see that. 

Since I received your email, I have surfed the web looking but have not found anything suggesting The Ik exists on film.  But I have the sneaky suspicion that it may have been filmed, if only for Brook's private use. You would think that anything from a director this special did would be given a filming. But perhaps not. 

Readers: If any of my readers knows anything about a filmed version of Peter Brook's theater piece The Ik, please let us know at the email address at the top of this blog. And Cevin -- thanks very much for both your film and your valiant efforts to get it made.


David Finkelstein said...

I find filmmaker Soling's speculations about Turnbull to be naive in several respects. Soling thinks it is unlikely that Ik culture could have changed radically in 40 years, but why is this unlikely? When Turnbull wrote his book, the Ik had been recently displaced and were facing starvation. When Soling visited them, they had had 4 decades to adjust to their situation, which was still difficult but much better. It seems natural to me that their culture would be completely different today from what it had been.

The idea that Turnbull disliked the Ik because he was gay is extremely silly. To name just one reason, the Mbuti that Turnbull idolized also had rigid gender roles and a taboo against homosexuality, yet Turnbull viewed them as the ideal society. Turnbull lived in an anti-gay world, and if he hated all homophobes, he would have lived his life hating everyone all of the time, which he did not.

The idea that Turnbull was trying to be a "champion for the establishment" is also hard to understand, since he spent his entire life, which was very long, in a nonstop fight against the establishment and against Western, capitalist culture. His reason for championing Mbuti society is that they are radically egalitarian and the opposite of capitalism.

It is obvious that the culture Soling visited is nothing at all like what is depicted in Turnbull's book, but this does not mean that his book is completely invalid (although it is obviously flawed.) His book contains many specific descriptions of specific, depraved and inhuman acts he witnessed while living with the Ik. All available evidence shows that Turnbull was a keen and accurate observer, despite his tendency to project his emotions onto his subjects, and he did not generally invent the details in his films, recordings, and books. Turnbull may well have had a personal agenda in writing his book, but Soling also clearly made his film to fulfill his own agenda: discrediting Turnbull and his book, which depicted a reality Soling was uncomfortable with.

TrustMovies said...

Thank you, Mr Finkelstein, for this very cogent and difficult-to-refute (at least with my own sparse knowledge) correction. What you say sounds likely. We all do indeed have our agendae, and it is certainly possible that Hilbert's & Soling's conclusions are, in their way, as flawed as were Turnbull's.

If the Ik (along with the rest of us) survive 40 more years, perhaps another intrepid explorer can visit them and bring us back an updated report....

Meanwhile, thanks so much for taking the time to post.