Self and Other

film 3 of 5

N!Ai, The Story of a !Kung Woman

Film Review by Dean Duncan Jun 18, 2015

This film is basically an anthropologist’s confession. Marshall and his method and his discipline are not nearly as aggressively at fault as the colonists and capitalists and industrialists are. However, he admits, even testifies that in the end he and his contributed just as markedly to this disaster as did the usual suspects, or the seeming bad guys. Regardless of who’s responsible—and N!ai … is partly be saying that it doesn’t really matter—this is certainly a dispiriting prospect; in the course of 30 years’ worth of footage of this woman and her native community we move from sufficiency and even plenitude to utter disaster. That early material is really stirring, really stunning. This is what subsistence economies looked like, or this was primitive Africa. With the guidance of the native informant (the indigenous tell us what’s what, since it’s only the indigenous that actually know), what we had thought of as primitive is actually transformed into wise and artful and amazing.

Note that unlike, say, Neil Young’s “Cortez the Killer,” this affirmative pre-contact material is not idealized. Hunting and gathering, amazing. But with regard to human interaction, or social institutions, individuals and communities are always prone to difficulty and subject to their own failings. Our main character is articulate and attractive, but she’s also trouble, and in a way that has nothing to do with white people. In fact, this comes off as a kind of non-fiction Things Fall Apart, which is also quite frank about the many contradictions, even disasters of native life. So, instead of sentimentality, Achebe and Marshall both give us complexity, even impossibility. These are contradictions, mind, that have their own history and integrity. And then they got obliterated anyway.

It is also clear that, for all the white people’s misunderstandings and prejudices, they also have their reasons, and even a degree of rightness. You don’t always get that side, do you? It’s a puzzlement!