Tuesday, 16 October 2007

"Going Native" Reality Shmeality

Reality TV made an irrevocable impact on the British public with the advent of Channel 4' s social experiment, Big Brother. Years on, it appears that reality TV has "gone native", with programming such as BBC2's Tribe, Channel 4's Meet The Natives, amongst others jumping onto the bandwagon. It readily begs the question- is this the noble use of TV programming to offer a platform for profound and meaningful debate on the human condition or purely a desperate attempt to capture audiences in a society that is desensitised from an overwhelming abundance of information? Despite the positively well-intentioned testimony by Tribe's presenter, Bruce Parry, I fear the answer lies in the latter. It is curious that the undoubtedly marketable, carefully selected names of the afore-mentioned TV series depict the reality TV "stars" with terms that come with baggage and are not used descriptively in the so-called civilised global North. They leave a bad taste in my mouth; reminiscent of the tone in Conrad's infamous Heart of Darkness, which unapologetically portrays the "dark continent" of savages. And so I am left wondering if this play with words conceals a sinister message to the audience. With names like that, who was their target audience anyway? I daresay it seems to be marketed as an exclusive chance for the modernised of the 21st century with a possible entrenched nostalgia for the long-gone days of the Empire to "go native", much like a khaki-clad colonial explorer, and to observe the far-removed realities of the dark-skinned natives from the safety and comfort of your cosy living room.

Both TV series vaguely depict a resemblance to anthropological enquiry (a social science which has redeemed itself from its colonial and ethnocentric past), where an outsider joins and fully participates in all aspects of the day-to-day lives of a community. Suffice to say, anthropology sets out to connect the significantly long (at least a number of years) subjective experience of the observer to the bigger picture, in order to answer the overarching question of what it means to be a human being. In both these series, they portray the experiences without contextualising them, or indeed asking meaningful questions derived from the observations and their relation to the UK, for instance and the larger scheme of things. With respect to Meet the Natives, this is eloquently elaborated on by Dr Luke Freeman on the Channel 4 forum, Origination.

Channel 4 claims to have turned the tables round by giving the Pacific islanders cameras to record their experiences of life in the UK. How Channel 4 can make this claim begs belief when they then turn their cameras on them. Although no one has announced it, it is glaringly obvious that someone in Channel 4 thought it would be bemusing entertainment to bring over the people of Tanna (an island of Vanuatu) who revere the Queen's husband as a god. The core objective of these men's visit was to seek an audience with Prince Phillip and report back to their Chief. Suffice to say, no one's faith should be questioned and their belief system should be regarded with respect. Of note, Channel 4 does not at any point relate this to Tanna's history and the adaptation of the local culture to colonial subjectification, a response that transpired elsewhere in the world. That aside, I was horrified when these men from Tanna were subject to the tucking into a well known fast food brand's fried chicken bucket, purpotedly as an experience of British life - was this really necessary? One word comes to mind: trans-fats.

In Tribe, the presenter Bruce, has been warmly welcomed into a number of societies in Africa, South America, and elsewhere, with open arms. In one episode where he was in a village of the Dassanech people in the Omo Valley, in the environs of Lake Turkana in Southern Ethiopia, Bruce was initiated with the other young men of the village. Any African will tell you that this is indeed a great honour that was bestowed upon him and I wondered how seriously the BBC (and Bruce) take the irreversible impact they have on the lives of the people that they fleetingly visit, camera in hand. For after Bruce leaves with his entourage, life there will never be the same. It is not to suggest that these people do not have any exposure to people from the West. What I am alluding to is the genuine generosity and open-heartedness that these people undoubtedly have. I was saddened to see Bruce's adoptive mother in the village talk about her son (Bruce) with such genuine affection, more so when the time came for him to depart. It is my hope that Bruce et al hold these interactions and relationships that they form with utmost respect, that goes beyond what makes good viewing.

Why is it then that this type of programming appeals to the masses? Is there a perceived sense of oh-my-god-would-I-do-that?, when Bruce sheds off his jeans, t-shirt and hiking boots to parade bare-foot, semi-naked and adorned with body paint before he ventures off with his fellow men to hunt for their dinner? Or is it that globalisation is turning us all into boringly predictable hybrids and that this programming provides us with a unique chance to curiously peek with an unattached demeanour, into the "unspoilt" and rapidly fading cultures of the world? Whatever the case, clearly, this advent of reality TV into the fashionable quickie exploration of non-Western cultures draws a fine line between education and exploitation. The immediate ethical issues that need addressing are where the profits from filming tribal holidays go and before they are replaced by the next fad, how can these TV programmes / cultural voyeurism be used a worthy conduit that highlights the regretable plight of historical and present-day exploitation, and in many cases extinction, of indigenous people across the globe. The charity Survival International is an advocate for sustaining the endangered indigenous ways of life in the face of so-called development.

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