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Secrets of the Tribe

Image credit: Secrets of the Tribe /

Hot Docs is in town, and last night, a girlfriend and I went to see Secrets of the Tribe by José Padilha. I didn’t know what to expect going in, although by the sounds of what the documentary was about, I was looking forward to it. I wasn’t disappointed.

Secrets of the Tribe talks about the anthropological study of the Yanomami tribe through the 1960s and 70s. The Yanomami were an ancient tribe that lived deep within the Amazon jungles of Brazil and Venezuela, and were particularly significant due to their absolute isolation from the outside world up to this time, as well as their way of living that reflected how humans likely lived for tens of thousands of years (as a sharp contrast to our current day cities and way of life).

The documentary starts off with a broad brush view of the anthropology field of study, the discovery of the Yanomami tribe, and some of the key players within the field. Immediately, you can sense the conflicts between the anthropology schools of thought – and Padilha uses some clever cutting to demonstrate the conflict visually, without a word needing to be said in parts.

As the film progresses, viewers are pulled deeper into the web of politics, reputation, egos, and ethics (or lack there of in some cases) surrounding the study of the Yanomami. From the 12-year plight of young boys bribed with guns and western goods in return for sexual favors by one anthropologist, to a secret for-profit medical research project that ended in a devastating epidemic that nearly wiped out several tribes – both the personal ethics and practices of certain individuals, as well as the general level of anthropological interference deemed appropriate come into question. Viewers are left to make up their minds themselves.

An insightful film that offers both members of the Yanomami tribe as well as the vast community of anthropological experts an opportunity to share their experiences and stories. I thoroughly enjoyed it and would highly recommend this film.

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