Visual anthropology review

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Films Cited

Connolly, Bob, and Robin Anderson

1983 First Contact. New York: Filmmakers Library.

Flaherty, Robert

1922 Nanook of the North. Paris: Révillon Frères.

Kolker, Andrew, and Louis Alvarez

1986 American Tongues. New York: Center for New American Media.

Marshall, John

1956 The Hunters. Watertown: Documentary Educational Resources.

Uys, Jamie

1980 The Gods Must be Crazy. Botswana: Mimosa Films.



This promotional still photo of the headdress scene, and none other from “FC,” can be viewed on the film distributor’s web site:

Peter Wogan is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at Willamette University, in Salem, Oregon. His interest in the film “First Contact”—particularly PNG reactions to Australian technology—primarily stems from his research on indigenous perceptions of literacy in Ecuador and an ethnohistorical study of Native American responses to French literacy in the 17th century.


For their helpful comments on earlier versions of this article, I would like to thank Sammy Basu, Sam Pack, Jay Ruby, David Sutton, Tad Tuleja, and Michael Wogan. I would also like to thank the VAR reviewers, as well as audience members who commented on a version of this paper presented at the 2004 AAA meetings.

This paper examines student perceptions of humor in the film “First Contact.” Based on previous critiques of cultural representations—namely, charges that some ethnographic films replicate stereotypes and that images of deified European explorers instantiate a “myth model”—the paper considers the possibility that laughter evoked by “First Contact” derives from the viewers’ sense of cultural superiority. For the most part, this interpretation is not confirmed. Instead, audience laughter is found to be based on incongruities in the interactions captured in the film. Using notions of incongruity, connections are drawn between humor, wonder, intellectual discovery, and cultural contact.

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