PARK CITY, Utah (Hollywood Reporter) - Anthropologists may travel to remote lands studying strange, complicated communities, but judging from “Secrets of the Tribe,” some of them could find just as much material by staying at school and investigating each other.
Fascinating and full of juicy ethical squabbles, the documentary may be too dense for casual viewers but will intrigue festival audiences on its way to a home-video life that could break even solely on sales to academics with a stake in its controversies.
Directed by Brazilian Jose Padilha (“Bus 174”), the documentary studies a couple of generations of Westerners who have lived with the Amazon’s Yanomami people, a tribe once valued for its pristine isolation from society. As the film’s first images suggest — a strangely adorned tribesman pointing angrily into the camera and saying “you’re all liars,” another in modern dress warning that “we no longer want anthropologists” — the Yamomami are anything but untouched today.
We meet a series of white men who have made their careers studying and arguing about these people, and quickly realize what a fractious world exists within university Anthropology departments. Some of their disputes have an inside-baseball aspect, as with arguments over the place of biology and hard data in this social science, but even those that sound dry initially sometimes prove shocking: Did leading Yanomami scholar Napoleon Chagnon (a controversial character whose ego matches his name, and who at one point compares himself to Galileo) really cause the deaths of hundreds of people while conducting research for the Atomic Energy Commission?
Perhaps even more scarring was the presence of French researcher Jacques Lizot, a linguist and protege of anthropology icon Claude Levi-Strauss who, we are told, made prostitution a way of life for the young boys whose services he bought. Years later, some of those men fight with embarrassment to tell Padilha how Lizot recruited them. Compared to Lizot, Kenneth Good looks like an angel — all he did, after all, was marry a Yanomami girl who was barely entering her teens.
Many of these salacious tales prompt moral debates of interest even to viewers unconcerned with the discipline’s ethical guidelines, but outsiders may wish for a little more guidance from Padilha, whose film sometimes seems to take both sides in a dispute. That may be appropriate, though, for a documentary that finds academic tribes to be as conflict-prone as the most warlike “primitive” peoples.