"El Etnógrafo": A Film Review


by Agustin Diz

Source: IMDb

Source: IMDb

El Etnógrafo. 2012.  89 minutes. Ulises Rosell and Pablo Rey.  Fortunato Films.  Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Set in the Gran Chaco region, a vast semi-arid plain that occupies a large swath of territory at the heart of South America, El Etnógrafo (The Ethnographer) is a recent award-winning documentary that captures the harsh beauty of one of the continent’s least known regions.   The documentary – which takes its title from a short story by Jorge Luis Borges – provides an evocative portrait of the life of indigenous Wichí communities in the north west of Argentina and captures the pressure that encroaching extractive interests are increasingly placing upon Wichí settlements.

As its title suggests, however, the film is primarily a character study whose protagonist is a man by the name of John Palmer.  Palmer, now in his sixties, is an Oxford trained anthropologist who has worked with indigenous Wichí communities for decades.  Having conducted doctoral fieldwork in the 70s under the supervision of Peter Rivière, Palmer completed his dissertation in the 1990s and returned to the Chaco region of north-western Argentina where he married Tojweya, a Wichí woman.  Somewhat distanced from academic anthropology, Palmer, who received the Royal Anthropological Institute’s Lucy Mair medal in 2009, currently dedicates himself to activist work on the Wichí’s behalf.

In beautifully captured scenes of domesticity, the documentary captures the complex, multicultural lives of Palmer, Tojweya, and their five children.  Perhaps the most memorable of these is the family’s visit to Tojweya’s birthplace; here the unforgiving environment of the Chaco contrasts with the warmth of family life and is bound together by powerful images of the muddy Pilcomayo river.  The scenes of Palmer and Tojweya’s family lives are often touching and their rambunctious children provide an endearing source of comic relief throughout the film.  At various points in the film, Palmer and Tojweya reflect upon the cultural complexities of their lives together which include issues like family finance, distance from extended kin networks, and even infant naming practices.

The heart of El Etnógrafo, however, is made up of various scenes in which Palmer enacts the role of activist-anthropologist in a Sisyphean struggle for indigenous rights.  Several of these show Palmer confronting loggers and oil workers who are operating within Wichí territory and drafting police reports to denounce these encroachments.  In one fascinating scene, Palmer and a group of Wichí leaders meet with the representatives of a Chinese oil company that is operating on Wichí land.  Particularly interesting are the ways in which company representatives appeal to the ‘chain-of-command’ within the company and avoid taking responsibility for the company’s actions.  Far from the air-conditioned offices where big decisions are made, the film’s focus on the micro-tactics of both the Wichí and the company representatives illustrate the processes through which politics and extraction interact in the day-to-day of an extractive frontier.  However, as Palmer himself admits at one point, from the Wichí’s perspective the whole struggle is more of a ‘one step forward and five steps back’ kind of affair. 

The most poignant and controversial of Palmer’s activist involvements concerns the case of Qa’tu, a Wichí a man who has been accused of raping and impregnating an under-aged girl from his settlement.  To its credit, the documentary does not straightforwardly absolve Qa’tu.  Instead, it hints at the cultural nuances and misunderstandings at play.  Through Palmer and Qa’tu’s relatives, the film sheds light on Wichí marriage customs and also on the complexity of the Wichí’s engagements with bureaucracy, health services, and the justice system.  As a viewer, one feels that perhaps this case might have merited some deeper analysis.  In particular, questions of potential gender asymmetries among the Wichí are not explored even though these seem to be at play in the few scenes where we are able to see Wichí politics unfold at the local level. 

From an anthropological perspective, the emphasis on Palmer’s mediating role often seems overemphasised and uncritical.  Indeed, rarely do the documentary’s Wichí protagonists speak without Palmer being present and, in the confrontation scenes, the anthropologist does practically all of the talking.  This is not a critique of Palmer, but rather of the way in which his actions are represented in the film.  In some ways, the overemphasis on Palmer’s role is slightly ironic given the fact in the story that lends its name to the film, Borges writes that, although the story ‘has only one protagonist,’ ‘in all stories there are myriad protagonists, visible and invisible, alive and dead.’  Perhaps the filmmakers could have heeded this advice and crafted a more polyvocal portrait of life in the Chaco.

Indeed, the authorial presence of the filmmakers is pushed deep into the background.  The film is not guided by a narrative thread, but seems to flit from scene to scene, gracefully introducing new characters and situations without ever quite linking them up explicitly.  Coupled with the soft-spoken tone of most scenes, the documentary often becomes an almost dream-like, but not quite nightmarish, portrait of life in the Chaco.  In an aesthetic sense, this impressionistic kind of story telling is, I think, one of the film’s strengths.  However, for a more activist or even anthropological audience, it may seem slightly disengaged or insufficiently contextualised.  For instance, historical, political, and economic issues are hinted at throughout, but they are never presented in an explicit account that might help to situate the life of the people on the screen. 

Overall, however, El Etnógrafo provides an engrossing introduction to South America’s Gran Chaco.  Throughout, it captures the cultural and politico-economic complexities of Wichí lives in the region.  Although as anthropologists we might lament the lack of other, particularly Wichí, voices, the documentary is essentially meant as an exploration of John Palmer’s life.  As such, it raises interesting questions concerning the politics of representation as well as insights regarding the role of anthropology and anthropologists beyond the ivory tower.  Thought-provoking and beautifully filmed, El Etnógrafo is well worth a watch.