Visual anthropology review

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The other implication of previous critiques—Obeyesekere’s in general and MacBean’s and Rony’s in particular—is that “FC” viewers are laughing at native fear of Western technology, which makes such laughter complicit with colonial dominance. I did not find that this was the case, however.

If the students were only or primarily laughing at native fear, they would have laughed at the scene where one of the New Guinean interviewees recalls that “we wet and shitted ourselves with fear and confusion” upon seeing an airplane for the first time. In fact, in light of the overwhelming response to the “their shit smells like ours” scene, we might have expected the incongruity of this situation (“over-reaction” to a plane, an adult defecating in his or her pants), together with the simple mention of the word “shit,” to elicit gales of laughter. Yet only one student in the two classes marked the “we shitted ourselves” scene as funny; 97% (36/37) of the students did not see it as funny.16 The students have no trouble laughing at incongruity and even native awe, but when the native reaction crosses over into outright fear, the humor is lost. As one student said, “There were some parts in the film where I thought something could be funny if one was insensitive. But I think it’s sad instead. For example, when they said they shitted themselves at the sight of the airplane landing. It could be seen as funny just because it’s so outrageous to us to be afraid of something like an airplane”—Jessica Berger.

It is also remarkable that students don’t laugh more at the gramophone scene. Only three out of 18 students in the 100-level class classified it as a funny scene, and in the 300-level class only 6 out of 19 did the same. By comparison, 17/18 in the 100-level class and 16/19 students in the 300-level class thought the headdress scene was funny. And even those who marked the gramophone scene as funny did not find it as funny as other scenes; in the 300-level class, for example, the “two funniest scenes” in the movie were the headdress scene and the “shit smells like ours” scene.17

This is remarkable because the first half of the film primarily deals with disturbing violence (MacBean 1995:115), so the switch to the incongruous gramophone scene should be quite surprising and, thus, potentially funny. In fact, the gramophone scene is a turning point in the film, in terms of the directors’ construction of it. The manipulations that Ruby (1995) refers to, in editing of footage and artificial creation of soundtrack, are germane here because they show how the directors want us to view PNG reactions to Australian technology. Starting with the gramophone scene, we see the Papua New Guineans laughing more and more onscreen—and the student audience, in turn, starts to find more and more humor in the film after this point. The gramophone scene itself ends with an old man laughing and making quick, jerky shoulder motions reminiscent of Charlie Chaplain or Woody Allen. The soundtrack also signals this shift to a comedic frame. For the first part of the film, we often hear spooky music—what Ruby (1995:143) calls an “overwrought electronic score” and MacBean (1994, 1995) calls “ominous electronic music.”18 But suddenly, in the gramophone scene, we hear an up-beat song, “Looking on the Bright Side of Life,” which is radically incongruous with the images on the screen of startled, fearful New Guineans who view the gramophone as a box full of ghosts. This combination has all the ingredients for comedy noted earlier—incongruity, surprise, a single powerful visual image—as well as an aural cue, to boot. If anything, by the time the headdress scene appears a few minutes later, after we hear a long New Guinean recollection of the stealing of the tin lid, the viewer should experience less surprise and comic effect. So why did most viewers find the headdress scene so much funnier than the gramophone scene?

I think there are two interrelated reasons. First, by the time the headdress appears, viewers have seen the Papua New Guineans laughing at themselves (i.e., the children laughing as the man recalls stealing the tin lid), which gives them the message that they, too, are now permitted to laugh.19 Second, the natives are clearly not afraid of the headdress, whereas they were visibly shaken by the gramophone. Once again, then, student viewers did not laugh as much when extreme fear was visibly present among the Papua New Guineans in the gramophone scene, which is all the more striking in light of the film’s editing strategies.

There is an underlying reason for such perceptions of humor in this film: these students are generally sympathetic with the Papua New Guineans, and not with the Australians, who they view as rapacious colonialists. Nobody in either class found it funny, for example, when James Leahy frankly admitted he was there for his own profit, and then laughingly said (echoing the purported reply of a white businessman accused of being a robber), “Well, he said I didn’t come up here to get a suntan.” In fact, no student shared the Leahys’ sense of humor in any way: none marked as funny any scene where the Leahys smiled or laughed. To the contrary, the students were more likely to laugh at the expense of the whites, such as when they are seen being carried across the river by native porters. More than half the 300-level class (10/19) found that river-crossing scene funny because it was so ironic: here were these self-identified rugged explorers afraid to get their clothes wet. The students found the scene “outrageous” (Tyson Bernhardt) and “ridiculous” (Kyle)—a symbol of colonial arrogance and “ignorance” (Jane). As one student (Chas Beshears) summed it up, “The Australians were treated like kings. They in no way deserved this treatment, and the viewer knows it.” I would add that the reversal here has a gendered dimension: when films depict someone being carried across water, usually it is a man carrying a woman, from Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepurn in the “African Queen” to the white male scientist carrying the female teacher in “GMBC.”

A skeptic might wonder whether the students were just strategically putting on a “cultural sensitivity” front so as not to be negatively judged by their teacher; at least such dissimulation strategies are found among other American college students (Martínez 1996; Moffat 1989). But I don’t think dissimulation accounts for my students’ answers, or if it does, then all the students in all my anthropology classes have been doing a remarkable job of dissimulation for years. My anthropology students are decidedly liberal, and consistently on the side of oppressed peoples. This is particularly true for the majors and upper-level students, who have chosen a course of study that tends to be sympathetic to the plight of oppressed peoples, given anthropology’s commitment to participant-observation in Third World cultures. In my 300-level class, many students were active in peace, social justice, and minority organizations on campus; and in class even when I tried to encourage debate by soliciting defense of media stories on the Iraq war, almost none of the students would bite. The students in the 100-level course, by contrast, were less openly active in political organizations and less inclined to voice strong political opinions in class, though they, too, tended to be sympathetic with indigenous peoples in class discussions.

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