The film ‘From the Heart of the World - the Elder Brothers’ Warning’

(A DVD of the full 90 minute BBC documentary is provided asa gift to donors who contribute at least £25 (£28 from Eurozone, £30 from elsewhere) to the Trust


It is undoubtedly Ereira’s documentary which has enabled the Trust to engender the interest and support it has. Initially shown in 1990, it was subsequently presented at the Rio Summit in June 1992, has been given prime time in the USA on a number of occasions and been presented on other national TV networks in Europe and elsewhere. At 90 minutes long, an unusual length for any documentary, it was prepared with a lot of input and editorial control from the Mamas. There is a specially commissioned orchestral score on the soundtrack and it makes use of filmic techniques (elaborate fade-ins and superimpositions etc) that are not normally associated with such documentaries. Actors, including Donald Pleasance and Jack Shepperd, are used to give voice to Kogi speech and narration is by Alan Ereira. There are interviews with experts such as Martin von Hildebrand (then Director of Indian Affairs), Alvaro Soto (Director of Excavations for ‘The Lost City’), and Frankie Rey, the tomb-robber who first found the ‘Lost City’.

Scenes of Kogi life are entwined with scenes of contemporary Colombian life as a counterpoint. The film incorporates a history of the Spanish Conquest and footage of tomb-robbers at work is used as a metaphor for the continuing rapaciousness of western culture. The Kogi are allowed to portray themselves in interviews and set pieces. The hierarchical nature of their society is soon described, and much is made of the role of the Mamas and of their education. We are shown the Kogi at work - clearing paths, working an old Spanish sugar-press, working the loom, planting etc.. Other scenes inform us of the use and symbolism of the ‘poporo’ and a female Mama explains how this lime is prepared.

Popular appreciation for the film was immediate and reviews from television critics were favourable, but it has caused controversy and debate amongst anthropologists. Typical criticism comes from Alan Campbell who criticises the film as an example of a cultural commodity ‘where presentation comes before anything else.’ (Campbell, MacClancy and McDonagh 1996: 61-2). He contrasts it unfavourably with the ‘thoughtful, careful, clever’ work (ibid) of Brian Moser’s early Disappearing Worlds films and presents it as a product of ‘the present political and cultural climate [in which] (f)rivolity, shallowness and profit rule the airwaves.’ (ibid).

This sort of criticism stems, I suggest, from the use of the filmic techniques mentioned above. Film experts, when analysing their craft, draw a distinction between feature film, which tends to concentrate on an emotional and normally fictional message, and documentary, which aims at an objectively truthful account of a real situation. To achieve this objectivity, documentary filmmakers tend to avoid the techniques of feature film for those of ‘observational realism’ and minimalism. It is believed that if the director uses the techniques the audience associates with feature film, then the film is in danger of being associated with the emotional pull of such films, and consequently with fiction. By flouting this convention, Ereira tempts the objections of those committed to observational realism.

Ereira himself would defend the film on the grounds that ‘the necessity of selectivity and the demand for a dramatic narrative force the producer towards an artificially simple and inevitably slanted presentation. In Beauchamp and Klaidman’s judgment, “The search for ‘truth’ ... becomes a search for a preconceived ‘moment’... that captures the ‘essence of truth’ in the mind of the documentary maker.” ’ (Gross, Katz, & Ruby 1988: vii-viii).

Donald Taylor, of the Pitt-Rivers Museum Oxford, reviewed it at the request of Dr. Marcus Banks. He recognizes and accepts that ‘the methods used are not strictly in accord with what one would expect from a serious ethnographic film. Thus it is difficult for a reviewer to separate effect from content.’ (Tayler 1993: 219-220). However, he finds it ‘remarkable’ that the film contains so many scenes of intimate social events, admits its ‘seductive power’ (ibid:221) and praises ‘Ereira’s ability to synthesize the complex web of themes - archaeological, historical, mythological, ethnographic and ecological - in the brief space of ninety minutes’. (ibid: 220).

In a reply to Tayler, Graham Townsley describes it as a film which ‘dovetailed [the Mamas] desires to a remarkable degree’ (Townsley 1993: 225), and points to its polyvocality. ‘Once they had overcome their considerable misgivings about the making of the film they were very clear: they would control the whole process as carefully as possible… They would show us what they wanted to show us and, in a sense, stage their own representation of themselves.’ (ibid: 224). He has his criticisms of the film ‘On purely aesthetic grounds there are a few moments when I feel the film goes over the top. It is also, for instance, factually misleading if it suggests that the Kogi live in a sort of Lost World and that Alan and the film crew were the first ones to penetrate it. In fact, although by and large they keep themselves very much to themselves, the Kogi have had regular contact with Europeans and Colombians since the conquest, are now peripherally involved in local markets, herd cattle, grow coffee, etc.’, (ibid: 224) but the ‘style of the film is peculiarly appropriate to its content and intention.’ (ibid: 223). He concludes that Ereira was ‘by sensibility and training… much better qualified to make their film than the conventional ethnographic filmmaker.’ (ibid: 226).

So much for the serious criticism of the film. At the other end of the scale, Michael Hirsch reviewed the video for ‘Earth Matters’ (Issue 30) in 1996. He referred to the Kogi as ‘patronising’, Ereira as ‘gullible’ and the message of the film as ‘hokum’. Correspondence ensued!

In 1992, Tairona Heritage Trust representatives visited Santa Marta and shot a 10 minute update called ‘Return to the Kogi’. It features footage of a village, Bonga, being built on land recently purchased with Tairona Heritage Trust funds, interviews with Amparo Jiminez and Gonavindua Tairona officials, and an interview with Ramón Gil on the importance and method of correct reforestation.