Sunday, February 14, 2010

"Them and Me," Stéphane Breton, 2001

Anthropologists are observers:  we stand apart from our subjects as we take copious notes that are subsequently used to help us create a scientific body of work (put that on Wikipedia!).  We look to others as sources for our theories and published works.  But what happens when we consider the fact that our presence can impact our study?  French filmmaker and anthropologist Stéphane Breton tackles this exact predicament in his 2001 film “Eux Et Moi” (“Them and Me”): exploring the lives of Papua New Guinea natives through the eyes of an anthropologist.  

I recommend this film highly to anyone considering an entry into the social sciences.  Breton’s film acts as a how-to-guide for students and novices unsure of how they will be accepted in the field.  While still offering insight into the daily exchanges of the villagers, he spends the majority of the film in reflection, inviting the viewer along for the ride as he tries to figure out how to most effectively play the role of an ethnographer.  

Breton’s highly personalized approach, albeit unconventional, still effectively manages to share the ethnographers journey while providing commentary on cultural topics such as spirituality, age relations, work ethic, diet, gender roles, money systems and westernization. In fact, in his portrayal, the highlands of Irian Jaya (nestled in the lush outback of Papua New Guinea), seem almost impervious to social change.   Breton at first appears to be just another white man in a string of foreign visitors that have been trying to influence islanders for centuries.  Soon we see that Breton, having learned the local language by trial and error during previous visits, has successfully managed to break down the wall between subject and scientist, his efforts of integration exemplified by the fact that the villagers have allowed him to build a home of his own on the outskirts of town. 

We join Breton on this occasion as he returns with the objective of acquiring enough funds for his adopted son’s bride price.  His “son” (whose name I do not remember) was one of the first visitors to accept Breton, helping him learn the language though he does not speak French, and is one of his closest confidants in the village.  We see them engaging throughout the film in a playful manner, mocking each other’s looks and customs and freely using coarse language.  Though they have an understanding of Western money and accept Indonesian paper bills from Breton, the natives still employ ornately decorated shells as currency.   In fact, we see on several occasions that despite understanding the numeral worth of each bill, the natives prefer to have a larger quantity of bills, just as they would of shells. 

Breton’s memoir-esque approach managed to engage me emotionally and intellectually by showcasing his encounters with natives  in a manner that I as a student could easily understand.  I spent my time watching the film enthralled with a culture that has been able to remain pure and “primitive” (by Western standards) and at the same time eager to discover how Breton conducted his fieldwork.  While my teachers have always taught us to follow the “fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants” method, the film offers something that I’ve never before been able to comprehend – the fact that even successful filmmakers have to take this approach. 

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