Ghostland

Ghostland: The View of the Ju’/Hoansi Review

Simon Stadler’s documentary Ghostland: The View of the Ju’Hoansi depicts the experiences of a few members of the Namibian Ju/’Hoansi tribe as they venture out, for the first time, to the rest of Namibia, then later, to Europe. While an interesting study in cultures clashing, I find this film problematic for its simplistic handling of the Ju/’Hoansi culture and for a general lack of context.

The Ju/’Hoansi are able to recall the first time they met a white man. They were (probably, rightfully) scared that they were seeing a ghost. Due to changes in Namibian law and society, this remarkable group is struggling to deal with a long-standing moratorium on hunting (since 1988) and other encroachments on their way of life. Nothing is more telling of an intrusion than having a camera pointed in your face, and while Stadler films tourists ambling about a colonial village, I wonder if he isn’t one of those tourists himself.

It’s a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” proposition. Obviously, we wouldn’t have this film if it wasn’t for the director, and we wouldn’t necessarily know that the Ju/’Hoansi people exist. Yet, the film thrusts them into the spotlight, under the gaze of ghosts. I wonder if the cultural exchange the film shows is an equal and fair exchange that benefits both the Ju/’Hoansi and the viewers. I have a sinking feeling that, by watching, we are further marginalizing the individuals that are the main attraction.

The film is only an introduction to the Ju’/Hoansi tribe and culture. We are not given much of a context – only that they are in Namibia, and that they have been mostly untouched since the beginning of humanity. It bears repeating: why, then, are we touching them now? Is it to say, “Oh, look at those people with their ancient garb and their outdated customs! Let’s teach them how to use a plate and a fork!” It’s interesting to me, as a film-viewer, to note that they are adapting quite well to conventional societal customs. They wear clothes (the question is, where and how did they find them?), and humour the ambling tourists by letting them play with bows and arrows. They get on the bus, put sugar in their coffee, dance while the Namibian restaurant workers watch on, agape, and struggle with the concept of liquid in a can as well as the concept of an underground train. Several charities have raised funds for the Ju/’Hoansi to travel in Namibia and in Europe, but I would have liked more information on how the itinerary was planned and what was done to prepare the Ju/’Hoansi for the inevitable culture shock. I fear people getting the idea that they can swoop in and take whoever they want to the Hudson’s Bay for a Colonial Barbie complete with an assumedly plague-free blanket.

Like a documentary version of The Gods Must Be Crazy I and II (which also had its fair share of cultural appropriation issues), this film gets its mileage out of making us question our everyday routines and values. Why do we sleep in houses? Why can’t we hunt for sustenance?

“My wife, take care of the children.”

“Yes I will… Take care in overseas!”

Referring back to the set of quotations above, I am curious about where wife, children, and overseas concepts come from. These are English words in the subtitle track, and I don’t know where they came from – do the Ju/’Hoansi have such equivalent words in their vocabulary, or did Stadler use German translated concepts? And, if we are translating, then why the grammatical error in the second line?  I fear something is lost in translation in an attempt to make the Ju/’Hoansi more palatable to the audience of ghosts. 

At the risk of asking too much from the documentarian, I believe more context and tighter framing of the travels, complete with the itinerary and how various logistical challenges were overcome, would have come a long way. I fear not enough attention is given to issues concerning the exploitation of a marginalized culture, especially when the film itself may be perpetuating a simplistic view of how the Ju/’Hoansi really live and see the world. Is it our view of them or their view of us? And why should we know the difference? What can they offer us in a Colonial Barbie world?


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