Every time I see an advertisement on television for The Tribe, a 'reality' show tipped by Channel 4 as "ground-breaking", I can't help but find myself asking: are we breaking down barriers and educating the world about these secluded, diminishing communities to help save them? Or are we thrusting Western culture, media, technology and ideals upon them, tainting their traditions and destroying all that is pure and "unique" for them, perhaps causing irreparable damage for their future?
They may not be the first film crew to ever gain access to tribes, but as the TV broadcaster says of The Tribe in a news release: "In a television first, Channel 4 has been granted access by a rural African tribe [in Ethiopia] to capture their life as never seen before by using the 'fixed rig' camera technology behind the critically-acclaimed series Educating and 24 Hours in A&E."
Due to grace our screens next Thursday, the series aims to "explore their day-to-day family life: the intricacies of their relationships, their social bonds and attitudes towards parenting and the community and the modernisation that is slowly being introduced into daily life with the arrival of new technologies and first-world consumer products."
For Head of Documentaries, Nick Mirsky, it is about showing that - underneath it all - we aren't all that different, despite the hugely different contexts. As he says in the news release, the series aims to tell "the universal stories of weddings and marriages, friendships and love and the highs and lows of bringing up children in a raw and authentic way."
In finding points of commonality, the hope is that the Western audience will find themselves connecting with the tribe, bringing the world together in a completely new way. There are benefits to this. When we feel empathy and we bond, we care more about protecting that which our emotion is predicated upon. There are approximately 150 million tribal people living around the globe in indigenous groups and a few more than 100 uncontacted tribes known to exist worldwide.
Yet for so many of these, extinction is imminent. These people's rights and beliefs are ignored with impunity while their land is invaded and destroyed. A 2009 report from the British-based indigenous-rights group, Survival International, titled 'Uncontacted Tribes Face Extinction', noted that these tribes "face two principal threats to their survival… By far the greatest is their lack of immunity to common Western diseases such as influenza, chicken pox, measles, and a host of respiratory diseases."
The report continues, "Even when 'first contact' between an isolated tribe and outsiders is carefully managed, it is common for significant numbers of tribespeople to die in the months following contact… when such encounters are not managed, with medical plans in place, the entire tribe, or a large proportion of it, can be wiped out." This was seen in 1996 when at least half the Murunahua Indians living in the Amazon died following contact with illegal mahogany loggers. I am sure, although cannot say for definite, that Channel 4 has no doubt put measures in place to ensure this does not happen as a consequence of filming The Tribe, but that's not to say that those who follow the path they have trodden do so as well.
Survival International goes on to explain the second key threat, which is "violence." The report notes several cases in which gangs of heavily-armed loggers have gone on to shoot the tribespeople upon first sightings without ever attempting to make an introduction. In some cases, attempts are made from the tribes to reciprocate and defend themselves, but in many cases it is like an Amazonian Battle of the Somme. A 2008 photograph (see below) shows an uncontacted tribe taking aim with bows and arrows at a government aircraft that had been circling overhead in the Brazilian Amazon. The contrast of traditional fighting methods versus modern technology just can't compare in strength.
In many respects, it could be argued that in producing a candid reality television programme such as The Tribe, it allows us to get to know these people and communities on every emotional level. It allows us to identify and connect with them: to see them as our equals, rather than sub-human. It starts to break down that colonial instinct, which is, by definition from the Oxford English Dictionary, "The policy or practice of acquiring full or partial political control over another country, occupying it with settlers, and exploiting it economically."
To some extent, history has shown that such exposure can help the tribes. When photographs taken by FUNAI - Brazil's Indian Department - were shown in 2010 in the 'Jungles' episode of the BBC television series Human Planet, over 4.4 million people viewed them. Toby Nicholas from Survival International told the National Geographic in 2011 that: "The pictures spread across the world within minutes, and produced a wave of support for uncontacted tribal peoples, greater than anything we've ever seen before. Huge numbers of people were able to take small steps like signing a petition - and they did."
Rather than seeing these tribes on par with cattle that need herding on to pastures new, so we can drain their land of its cash-rich resources, in producing films and photographs documenting their lives and presenting them to the world, we begin to recognise these tribespeople as human beings, just like us, with their own lives and own families - as a result we start doing more to protect them, and grant them the right to live in peace with their own traditions too.
However, as much as there are tribes that are becoming increasingly endangered, largely due to logging, for many of the others living in relative peace, I have to ask: to what degree do they actually need our intervention? Who is benefitting by us broadcasting their lives? Who is actually gaining from the introduction of new technologies and first world consumer products to their daily existence? For thousands of years, they have survived - and in some places, continue to survive - entirely uninterrupted. Their lives are no better or worse off than our own. They just have different ways of living and dressing; like every other culture and religion on planet Earth. They don't need us, as hard as that might be for the 'modern world' to come to terms with.
If they want access to these new 'first world' technologies, then who are we to argue? They have just as much right to access as anyone else. Yet I can't help but feel there is some colonial thrusting going on, as though we cannot fathom why on earth they wouldn't want to know about all our advances.
It is as though we are supposing the 'first world' is the pinnacle of human aspiration that they are striving to reach and somehow we are helping them get closer and more familiar to it. Surely that is a very narrow-minded and self-indulgent view on our part? Technology has gone a long way to turning us off from real-life authentic human interaction in replacement of the faceless world of digital communication; do these tribes really need these 'civilised' developments?
In 2011, figures showed that there were over 200 million single-person households worldwide. Loneliness, depression and isolation are prevalent issues. Yet in these tribes, they are more often than not a watertight and inclusive community. As director of Survival International, Stephen Corry, said to the National Geographic, "In our relentless search for 'development' and material progress, it is possible we have alienated ourselves from our deepest human needs, which surely lie in our connections to each other and the Earth… Tribal peoples still perhaps understand those connections better than most."
While The Tribe could certainly go some way to helping us look at our own lives and relationships, presenting back to us the possibility that we are lacking in the richness that these tribal groups have to their existence, I still feel as though they are having to sacrifice some of this humanity in order to show it to us in the first place. Yet again we are taking something from them for our own benefit. We are desperately trying to get a slice of this human community just as explorer and navigator Christopher Columbus discovered the 'New World' in 1492, opened up the Americas to European colonisation, and sought to find gold to take home.
The saddest part of all of this is that I'm not even sure the tribes realise it is once again happening. I can't help but find it bitterly ironic when I see the television advertisement for The Tribe and two young children are moving back and forth a large cardboard sign with the title of the programme and the Channel 4 logo on it. In many ways it is very clever; it shows that The Tribe is about physically interacting with them rather than just documenting their lives with a title cast over the visual imagery like many other programmes.
But it also feels really uncomfortable. Like a part of our modern world is invading their lives and the two young children, entirely innocent, have no idea that subliminally we're doing it. It's like we've planted our British flag on their turf, claimed it as our land, and the youngsters are, entirely unaware of all its symbolism, waving it around for fun. These are, as many have called them, the last free people on earth. Not tainted by the influence of governments or subliminal advertising, capitalism or the media, the banks or the Internet, they lead a life much richer than ours, and perhaps we would do better to learn from this and be inspired at a distance, allowing them to live in peace.
As tribesman Piraí of the endangered Awá tribe in Brazil told Alex Shoumatoff for a Vanity Fair article, "We don't want to live in cities. We want to live here. We have much courage… We don't want their [white people] money and their motorcycles. We don't want anything from the whites but to live as we live and be who we are. We just want to be Awá."
Words: Grace Carter
Image Sources: Sebastia Salgado for Vanity Fair and Fiona Watson for Survival International