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chapter 5 Indigenism, (In)Visibility notes on migratory film John Thornton Caldwell (UCLA) Indigenous identities can unsettle a host of unlikely bedfellows, from globalizing corporate forces and nationalistic agendas to oppositional political schemes. Since 1978, my independently produced films and videos have consistently focused on local crises in which indigenous cultures emerged as unwanted houseguests for some coexistent, dominant culture. Indigenism, that is, proved unruly for those on both the political right and the left. And this has probably been a good thing, or at least a useful lesson, for anyone who produces cross-cultural films or is interested in alternative media and political change. In this chapter , I discuss two pressure points that have recurred in five of the films I have produced: first, the ways that “indigenism” is repeatedly put up for grabs and hijacked as a free-floating signifier, and second, the ways in which this free-floating aura has come back to bite the hands of those who seek to appropriate or adopt indigenism as their own identity or brand.1 All of my creative works have centered on cultural investigations of one sort or another, and most have focused, at least in part, on either the systematic, strategic erasure of indigenous identity or the unruly tactical resuscitation of indigenous identity. Although initially focused on cross-cultural migration issues and migrancy themes, five of my films—Personas Desplazadas: The Miskito Indian Refugees (1983), Kuije Kanan: Managalase Tattooing (1985), Freak Street to Goa: Immigrants on the Rajpath (1989), Amor Vegetal: Our Harvest (1998), and Rancho California (por favor) (2002)—ended up engaging systemic interconnections between some form of indigenous visibility (deployment) and indigenous invisibility (erasure). Acknowledging that the documentary gaze traditionally renders others in an objectifying, colonizing fashion, my approach has always been to consider my own complicity and ideological baggage when moving into any local dialogue or conflict. Blanket critical or theoretical prohibitions against representing the other are typically offered from T4989.indb 95 T4989.indb 95 2/27/09 6:57:20 AM 2/27/09 6:57:20 AM 96 positions of academic privilege. Most of these intellectual taboos ignore the sad fact that othering habits frequently emerge as integral parts of local sociopolitical systems and conflicts. In most of these cross-cultural quagmires, indigenism is rarely evident in any pure, isolable form or accessible to the filmmaker in a stable or clean state. Filmmakers, academics, and activists owe it to themselves and their constituents to more carefully pick apart the layers of outside interests that commonly broach, exploit, and manage indigenous racial identities in public. Given the sometimes thick interconnections across cultures in which indigenism is an issue, my response is to try to unpack the local and regional systems of social logic (and illogic) that promote the idea of the indigenous “problem” as innate or ultimately unsolvable. Such regional systems regularly grant indigenous groups forms of insularity that fit easily within the dominant social order, even as they efface more unruly aspects of indigenism. Before closely considering this erasure/performance dynamic in more detail in two films, I would like to briefly describe the place of race and indigenous identity in two of my earlier documentaries, Kuije Kanan: Managalase Tattooing (25 min., filmed 1984, released 1985, 2005), and Freak Street to Goa: Immigrants on the Rajpath (60 min.; filmed 1980, 1986; released 1989–1994).2 Salvaging, Resuscitating, and Posturing Indigenism Kuije Kanan (literally “thorn-hit” in the Managalase language of northeastern Papua New Guinea) most closely engaged the traditional mode of “salvage anthropology.” As an ethnographic documentary on the traditional art of body tattooing among the Managalase people, the film documented the disappearing cultural practice of tattooing by having several surviving elders in the village of Kavan demonstrate and recreate the practice for the camera. Full-body tattooing was once Managalase village elder demonstrating how the tattoo process was traditionally accomplished, years after body tattooing was outlawed by the government in a shift to a cash economy. After this legalized cultural erasure occurred, this primary visual form of male and kinship identity was reenacted for the benefit of younger generations. Siribu village, Oro Province, Papua New Guinea, 1984. (Photograph © J. Caldwell.) T4989.indb 96 T4989.indb 96 2/27/09 6:57:20 AM 2/27/09 6:57:20 AM 97 Notes on Migratory Film a central part of adolescent male initiation in the villages. Thirteenyear -old boys would be housed in the darkness of womblike...


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