- Savage Memory: How Do We Remember Our Dead? Directed by Zachary Stuart and Kelly Thomson
Of the personalities and times of Pacific anthropologists, we sometimes hear from more or less three kinds of voices: (1) letters and diaries, like Margaret Mead’s (Letters From the Field, 1977); (2) memoirs, like Michael French Smith’s (A Faraway, Familiar Place, 2013); and (3) biographies, like my own (Gregory Bateson: Legacy of a Scientist, 1980). Rarely, however, have we heard from descendants. Yet, the bittersweet, beautifully made Savage Memory provides us with not only a portrait of Bronislaw Malinowski’s kin, debating the moral status of the great man’s life and work, but simultaneously one of Trobriand Islanders, doing the same.
Savage Memory is not exactly a labor of love. It is more like a labor of ambivalence. With the help of the documentary filmmaker, Kelly Thompson, Zachary Stuart, one of [End Page 583] Malinowski’s great-grandsons, tried to come to terms in some way with what his family calls the “Malinowski curse” by making this movie. The curse is never exactly defined by the various kin interviewed during the course of the film, but it seems to refer to being supercilious, if not downright arrogant, and perhaps to the perceived inheritance of a loss of agency. No resolution to this contradictory set of feelings, of course, is depicted here. Documentary filmmaking, it seems, is not a magical counter spell. Rather, the flagrancy of the great man’s singleminded vanity is put on display for all to see, and in this sense, Savage Memory provides a useful companion piece to the brilliant first volume of Michael Young’s 2004 biography of Malinowski.
Psychological motives and mystical forces aside, Stuart, who is clearly a bright, “sensitive,” upper-middle class, young American but also merely a filmmaker with no particular scholastic training of any kind, cuts an audacious and resolute figure. He goes off to the Trobriand Islands, the sacred site of the birth of modern anthropology, to explore the memory of his celebrated ancestor, and he there encounters a complicated setting about which he doesn’t really begin to have the first clue. Was Malinowski racist? Was he a colonialist? Was his research there unethical? Shouldn’t one expect that the Trobriand Islanders feel offended by his research? All of these are questions a nice young man might very well ask, particularly in light of Malinowski’s field diary (A Diary in the Strict Sense of the Term, 1967). But, basically, the Trobrianders have nothing but favorable things to say about what Stuart’s forebear accomplished while he was there in 1914–1916 or about the shelf of books he left behind for the world to read. Even The Sexual Life of Savages (1929), whose topic and title Stuart finds distasteful and possibly salacious, is not really subjected to a uniform local point of view, critical or otherwise. Of the Trobriand approval and endorsement of Malinowski, Stuart makes no judgment.
There is another striking sort of subplot in this video, which juxtaposes divergent views of the dead in Trobriand culture and among Malinowski’s kin. The film’s narrative has occasion to depict a series of quotations from Malinowski about, as well as images relating to, Trobriand concepts of the afterlife, such as the women’s distribution of banana leaves during mortuary rites, the baloma (spirits of the dead), parthenogenesis, and the island of Tuma, where ghosts go to live. In turn, these are interpolated with at times impassioned conversation among the filmmaker’s family and other Malinowski kin, like his well-known daughter, Helena Wayne, to make up a kind of dialogue with Trobriand cosmology, which of course turns out to express a classic binary between traditional collectivism and modern individualism, so scorned by the theoretically hip, but still so affecting.
For the Stuart family, Malinowski is alternatively seen...