The title of the HBO Films documentary "Secrets of the Tribe" is a bit of a trick.

The feature, premiering as part of Sundance's World Cinema Documentary Competition, is set against the backdrop of the popular field of Yanomami Indian studies, but that isn't the tribe in question. No, Jose Padilha's doc is actually focused on the intellectual tribe of anthropologists and academics who have built their careers and expanded their livelihoods by studying, exploiting and possibly even harming the Yanomami.

Napoleon Chagnon, one of the doc's central figures, called his then-groundbreaking study "Yanomamo: The Fierce People," but as somebody who grew up in a family of academics, I can vouch for the fierceness of professors and researchers as well. Even those uninitiated in the publish-or-perish world or in the jungle of the tenure system won't have much doubt on its brutality after watching "Secrets of the Tribe."

But "Secrets of the Tribe" isn't just about a group of eggheads calling each other names (though there's a lot of that), it's an often provocative interrogation of how all ambitious people impact the world around them and how difficult (or impossible) it is to be a mere observer.

[More on "Secrets of the Tribe" after the break...]

The field of Yanomami studies broke out in the 1960s when anthropologists like Chagnon and Jacques Lizot headed to the Brazil-Venezuela to observe one of the world's few remaining "virgin" cultures.

Accepting that documentaries about the Yanomami themselves are legion, Padilha ("Bus 174") unfolds his damning case observing the observers, starting with what appear to just be petty intellectual squabbles between men who have been calling each other out in articles, books and journals for decades.

So we hear about Chagnon's research bringing evolutionary biology into anthropology and attempting to prove a connection between violence and virility among the Yanomami. This is a contentious debate that yokes in long-debated questions about the aggressive nature of the tribes, the reasons behind that aggression and data gathering disputes that have carried on well past the point at which that date was even vaguely statistically relevant anymore.

That feels like trivial stuff, but scholars like Chagnon and Kenneth Good take it seriously and Padilha is willing to let both men make their cases without taking a side. At times the editing feels sympathetic to both men, but there's ample directorial mocking, or at least raised eyebrows.

Then the charges get more serious. Good grew so close to the Yanomami that he married a girl who, by Western Standards, would have been wildly underage. This bringing up questions of academic ethnics, but also of ethnocentric morality, with Good fiercely defending his since-ended marriage (and ensuing book) and Chagnon going to far as to tersely call his rival a pedophile.

Then things get even worse, as we learn about the sexually predatory behavor of Lizot, a protegee of Claude Levi-Strauss, who traded guns and other goods for sexual favors with the young Yanomami boys. The Yanomami have no particular interest in fudged statistics appearing in articles in Science magazine, but as we see the more tangible ways the visiting anthropologists harmed their lives, actual Yanomami tribesmen get more and more camera time. Lizot, who opted not to appear on camera, is condemned by an international team of scholars and experts who fail to understand how his behavior was allowed to continue unabated for years. Chagnon is criticized for not stepping in, though Padilha isn't able to get him to indicate how much he knew and when he knew it.

Padilha's subjects have even grander charges to lay out against Chagnon, specifically participation in homicide and genocide. Some of those claims are easy enough to substantiate. Chagnon took a people he already though of as fierce and helped them upgrade their arsenals by giving them machetes, axes and other potentially violent implements.

The charges of genocide aren't nearly as well laid out and constitute the weakest part of the documentary. I get that on one expedition, Chagnon and geneticist James Neel arrived in the midst of measles outbreak and allegedly managed to make things worse for the natives, possibly intentionally in the name of research. I'd begin by getting offended at the anthropologists who drop words like "genocide" to categorize the loss of a couple hundred lives (many of which can't possibly be attributed to anything done by the academics), but what I don't get is the hows, the whys and what Padilha thinks really occurred.

Those charges seem to have less to do with anything verifiable and more to do with journalist Patrick Tierney's "Darkness in El Dorado," a book that tries to sculpt a "Heart of Darkness"-style journey for Chagnon's time with the Yanomami, even if no such nadir existed in real life.

It's an extra bit of hyperbole that the documentary doesn't need, because even without gilding that specific lilly Padilha has an easy time proving that the men who spent time among the Yanomami succumbed to all manner of destructive and self-destructive lunacy.

What we're left with is an array of academics, some of whom are trying to make their names on actual scholarship, while others are betting their credentials on starting feuds that sell books, but offer no enlightenment past that. And then there are the Yanomami themselves, so extensively studied, so irreparably changed and yet still guarding most of their most meaningful secrets.

 

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