THE MOST ICONIC MOMENT in Cannibal Tours, Dennis O'Rourke's 1988 documentary about the absurdities of global tourism, comes 40 minutes into the film, when European and American tourists visit a village along Papua New Guinea's once-isolated Sepik River. As the sweaty white folks wander around snapping photos and haggling for souvenirs, a handsome young Papuan tribesman speaks to an offscreen interviewer, earnestly explaining what he thinks of the outsiders.
"When the tourists come to our village, we are friendly towards them," he says, his words translated in the subtitles. "They like to see all the things in the village. We accept them here." While he's saying this, an elderly German woman wearing high-hitched khaki trousers and silver horn-rimmed spectacles creeps into the background, fumbles with the settings on her camera, and — oblivious to what the tribesman is saying — snaps a picture of him before scuttling back out of the frame. Upon initial viewing, this interaction seems to perfectly encapsulate the strained guest-host dynamic portrayed in Cannibal Tours: even as the Sepik native takes pains to affirm the humanity of tourists, the tourist's first instinct is to treat him like scenery.
Though Cannibal Tours was never meant to be taken as comedy, its more memorable scenes have a cringe-inducing quality that calls to mind the delicious discomfort of watching Curb Your Enthusiasm or The Office. In basic narrative terms, the documentary depicts a meandering series of interactions between luxury liner tourists and the Papuans who live in various Sepik River villages. What the film lacks in plot arc, however, it makes up for in awkward tension as it probes the mutual suspicion and misunderstanding that arises when wealthy outsiders visit once-primitive communities in a far-flung corner of the world.
In a typical scene, a tourist draped in expensive camera gear and boutique safari-wear might fawn over a woven-grass handicraft, ponder aloud what it's supposed to be ("Is that a dress, or is it a bag?"), inquire in half-shouted English about its price, express surprise at how cheap it is, then — often at the prodding of other tourists — ask for an even cheaper "second price." One American couple, theatrical in their condescension, offers cigarettes in exchange for a discounted souvenir; another American, a self-declared "exponent of primitive art," natters on about how tourists are ruining local craft traditions, seemingly unaware of the irony as she shops for crafts with her fellow tourists. Villagers, interviewed individually by the filmmaker, react to the presence of the tourists with a mix of befuddlement and frustration. "I want them to pay me without any fuss," one gray-bearded man says. "When I go to those big shops in the town, I can't buy things for 'second price.' [...] I must pay the first price for a shirt or trousers." In a later scene, the same elderly Papuan admits he can't understand why the tourists come there to begin with. "We sit here confused," he says, "while they take pictures of everything."
O'Rourke's documentary gaze frequently follows a potbellied, khaki-clad German who seems fixated on the region's cannibal past, posing for pictures in places where victims of tribal warfare were once killed and eaten. In addition to voluminous camera gear, the German carries a handheld tape player, often recording (and sometimes playing aloud) his own commentary. More than once he notes how happy the Papuan villagers were under German colonial rule. When prompted, he rattles off the best places in the world to see "native culture" (Burma, northern Thailand, Iran), adding somberly how the native way of life has been "disrupted by European influences, [so that] they lose their identity." Among the Sepik natives, O'Rourke's most colorful character is a glowering, betel-chewing vendor who rants at length about how she can't send her kids to school because the tourists are more interested in taking photos than buying her shell necklaces. "Tourists!" she snarls. "I'm tired of them!" One doesn't have to watch O'Rourke's documentary for long to realize that the "cannibal" of the film's title refers less to bygone Papuan cultural practices than to the dull compulsions of the European and American visitors, who remain cheerfully oblivious as they consume Sepik River culture from behind their telephoto Nikons and videocassette cameras.
Cannibal Tours debuted at the 1988 Margaret Mead Film Festival in New York City, and has since gone on to become a staple of unversity-level anthropology, recreation management, and postcolonialism courses around the world. Following news of O'Rourke's death from cancer at his home in Cairns, Australia, in June, the film has undergone a modest revival, including a tribute screening at the Mead Film Festival last month. A full-length version is available on YouTube, and, in the age of social media hyper-documentation, it feels just as relevant to how we live and travel now as it did when it debuted 25 years ago. In some ways it even feels prophetic. One meta-joke in the documentary plays out when O'Rourke films an Italian filming another Italian filming the Sepik River scenery. ("May I present to you one of the greatest spectacles in the world!" one of the Italians quips.) In the mid-1980s, when video cameras were the size of small suitcases, even the participants could grasp the absurdity of this camera-on-camera spectacle. In the era of smartphones and Instagram, however, this is a common practice, even at home.
O'Rourke was well aware that the tourist's role is in many ways a performative one, and the genius of his vision is that he leaves plenty of clues that his movie's world is more complex than the viewer at first assumes. Indeed, if we feel tempted to ridicule the Western tourists who dodder through the Sepik River Valley in their designer khakis, it's because the filmmaker invites us to judge them with the same snap assumptions that our colonial-era forebears once used in evaluating the indigenous Papuans. ("Such a bunch of arrogant, condescending, ignorant children, " one YouTube commenter opined. "It would suit me just fine if the locals had killed, and continued to kill, all the stupid Westerners.")
Should we find it easy to recognize how the tourists' camera lenses dehumanize the Papuans, however, it's just as easy to overlook how O'Rourke's lens has a way of dehumanizing the tourists. For example: in the iconic shot that seems to sum up the entire film — a horn-rimmed tourist barging in to snap a picture of a young Papuan, mid-interview — one might eventually come to wonder just what the elderly German lady was trying to document. Why would this woman want a picture of the tribeman's back? Upon reflection, one is liable to conclude that she wasn't merely out to get a picture of the Papuan from behind; she was photographing the photographer — O'Rourke — as he conducted the interiew.
O'Rourke often hints that his camera's seemingly objective and authoritative gaze is not what it seems. The first person we see in Cannibal Tours is a big-eyed Papuan boy staring at the camera from behind a wooden fence. This shot goes on for an uncomfortably long time, and the boy's eyes dart around in a mix of curiosity and self-consciousness. It's a lovely, poignant image (especially compared to the later scenes, when we see various fleshy Westerners shoving their cameras into the faces of other young villagers), but one comes to realize that O'Rourke's camera is performing the exact same task as any tourist's. To an audience, the filmmaker’s point of view feels correct and revelatory, but to the Papuan villagers he was just another white guy pointing a camera at them. When the betel-chewing necklace vendor is going off on her tirade about the tourists, she doesn’t make an exception of O’Rourke; she addresses him directly: "You white people!" she shouts. "You have all the money!"
Deliberate absence of context is another of the sly narrative tools O'Rourke employs in Cannibal Tours. Though the film's end credits suggest that the footage was shot in 18 different Sepik River villages, the viewer (like, perhaps, the tourist) has no sense of where, exactly, he is from moment to moment. We are allowed to witness a succession of tourist-Papuan contact zones, but we have almost no specific information about who these people might be beyond a few brief encounters. Unlike a more conventional documentary narrative, there is no voiceover to clarify what is happening, no character backstories, and little sense of who anyone is as an individual. In the film's occasional, Mozart-inflected montage sequences, all parties are objectified in equal measure: the documentary eye lingers on American tourist paunches, Italian tourist asses, Papuan boat-driver crotches. Crocodile dance masks obscure the faces of villagers at the same moment boxy camcorders obscure the faces of tourists; colonial-era photographs of naked Papuans are intercut with footage of near-naked Italian tourists sunbathing on the luxury boat. Unless the viewer has had firsthand exposure of Sepik River traditions and geography, he remains as ignorant to the culture's nuances as the tourists onscreen.
One of the key themes of the film, in fact, is the difficulty Westerners have in making sense of once-primitive societies that now exist in flux. While the Sepik River villagers depicted onscreen speak of both past and present in pragmatic terms, the tourists are the ones who cling to sentimental stereotypes. Clearly unsettled by the apparent poverty and presumed cultural degradation of the modern Papuans, the well-heeled visitors fumble to explain what they're seeing. Some of the most awkward commentary in Cannibal Tours comes from an Italian man and his two grown children, whose meandering speculations about Papuan life appear at several points in the film. The more the Italians talk, the more they contradict themselves; the more they presume to champion the best interests of the natives, the more patronizing they sound. "Their way of life is [only] primitive from our point of view," the Italian father notes at one point. "They are more than satisfied; they are delighted. Nature provides them with the necessities of life, and they don't have to worry about thinking of tomorrow."
Such conclusions are based less on empirical interaction with Sepik cultures, of course, than in four centuries of fanciful Western speculation about how distant cultures live. Rhetorically trumpeting the presumed virtuousness of less developed peoples goes back at least to Montaigne, whose 1580 essay "On Cannibals" favorably contrasted the Tupinambá tribesmen of Brazil with his own French countrymen. "We may then call these people barbarous, in respect to the rules of reason," he wrote, "but not in respect to ourselves, who in all sorts of barbarity exceed them." In the centuries that have followed Montaigne's assertion, celebrating the purity of faraway cultures has rarely been an earnest evaluation of those cultures so much as a roundabout method of critiquing contemporary civilization.
Assigning untainted virtues to supposedly primitive peoples took on an energy of its own in the mass media–saturated years that led up to the filming of Cannibal Tours. In the early 1970s, an American public weary of the Vietnam War became enamored of the Tasaday, a newly discovered Stone Age tribe in the Philippines that supposedly had no word for "enemy." When the Filipino government tried to cut the Tasaday off from outside contact in the hope of preserving their cultural intergrity, French theorist Jean Baudrillard scoffed at the naïveté of the gesture. "The Indian driven back into the glass coffin of virgin forest becomes the simulation model for all conceivable Indians before ethnology," he asserted, adding that the Tasaday had been turned into "simulacra Indians who proclaim at last the universal truth of ethnology." In a further twist (that no doubt delighted Baudrillard), anthropologists who revisited the Tasaday in 1986 determined that the "stone-age purity" of the tribe had been a hoax from the beginning. The notion of an unadulterated, peace-loving jungle culture, they concluded, had always been rooted more in outsider fantasy than in the on-the-ground reality of the Tasaday people.
This type of outsider fantasy has become virtually indistinguishable from what we seek as tourists to places like Papua New Guinea. Rarely, as travelers, do we leave home hoping to see a difficult and complicated vision of native societies in transition; rather, we seek something with smooth edges and simple colors, something we feel we can no longer find in our own culture. One of the reasons why compulsive photo-taking has become a tourist cliché is that framing the world with a viewfinder — that is, reducing its complexity to a few visual cues — is a ritual of comfort in places that feel threateningly unfamiliar. In seeking an "authentic" vision of a once-isolated culture, we don't want to deal with the ragged edges of actual authenticity; instead, we seek vestiges of a romanticized authenticity that exists primarily in our own imagination. When the Papuans of Cannibal Tours perform crocodile dances and answer questions about their premodern past, they aren't really telling their own story; they are filling in the blanks of a narrative that, essentially, belongs to the tourists.
To see how people truly live in places like Papua New Guinea's Sepik River, then, the tourist (and, by proxy, the documentary audience) has to slow down, look beyond the obvious, and listen to those people in real time. Amid the more flamboyant interactions that O'Rourke depicts in Cannibal Tours, the most telling dynamic isn't revealed by what the tourists and Sepik villagers say about each other, but in how the villagers speak about themselves. Intergenerational gaps can be as confounding to the Papuans as cross-cultural ones. When the gray-bearded villager says he can't understand why tourists are obsessed with taking photos, for example, his bewilderment extends to the actions of his own kids, who are off attending school in another town. "Our children buy postcards of their own village!" he exclaims. "They buy them to send home. My own child sent me one!" Elsewhere, when the betel-chewing necklace vendor rants bitterly about how cheap the tourists are, her younger colleagues, perhaps savvier in the ways of salesmanship, urge her to tone it down a little: "Be polite," one warns. "Think before speaking.”
Ultimately, rigid cultural ideals are of less immediate importance to the Papuans of Cannibal Tours than making a living from the situation at hand. When the Sepik villagers express their concerns about money, they aren't theorizing on the virtues of the pre-cash economy; they are trying to make sense of (and better profit from) fickle tourist demands within the cash economy itself. What to the Western eye might look like the debasement of local culture in the face of global market forces can in practice be part of a sophisticated tactical decision on the part of local people, a way of synthesizing old ways with new opportunities. A few years after the debut of Cannibal Tours, cultural anthropologist Eric Silverman conducted research in the villages of the Sepik River, and concluded that the Papuans were for the most part responding to tourism on their own cultural terms — creating individualistic new art that blurred the local with the global, and modifying their traditional masculinity rites to include competence with cash and an ability to interact effectively with outsiders. "Many people in the middle Sepik remain in villages rather than migrating to urban centers precisely because tourism ensures a steady source of cash," Silverman reported, noting that villages frequented by tourists had come to be considered wealthy, and attracted all manner of new trade with more isolated Papuan communities.
The penultimate scene of Cannibal Tours portrays a small group of Westerners from the luxury boat getting their faces painted in Sepik tribal designs. This footage plays in slow motion, and we hear the strains of a Mozart string quartet as the tourists mug for each others' cameras, improvising clumsy dance steps and striking mock-fierce warrior poses. Here, the director tempts the audience to conclude (as many early reviewers did) that the tourists represent the true "savages" in this cross-cultural encounter. To assume this, however, is to fall prey to the same category of lazy stereotyping that O'Rourke has been trying to debunk since the opening scenes of the film. Indeed, as much as we'd like to think otherwise, our disdain for the tourists of Cannibal Tours doesn't come from earned ethnographic sophistication, but from instinctive adolescent scorn. The face-painted Westerners we see dancing onscreen aren't being evil or exploitative; they're just being dorks. When we judge them we do so not as their betters, but as their peers. We know they're acting like knuckleheads according to our own social standards, but we're at a loss to articulate what, if anything, this signifies in relation to Sepik culture.
The lack of voiceover narration in Cannibal Tours thus achieves its most important task in the way that it underscores the ignorance rather than the presumed omniscience of the Western interlopers, audience and director included. Without an authoritative-sounding voice to explain what we've been seeing, we're left to deal with — and become exasperated by — the uninformed ramblings and uncouth actions of the onscreen tourists. What we tend to forget is that these people aren't in a position to understand what they're seeing. Travel writers, documentarians, and ethnologists all have certain reportorial obligations in travel situations, but the tourist is by definition a consumer and a dilettante, a recreational outsider who collects photos and souvenirs not to document the world so much as narrate the self. Sometimes he travels slowly and mindfully enough to enhance this narrative with hard-won insights about other cultures; usually, he does not.
Twenty-five years after its debut, Cannibal Tours still has a way of making the viewer cringe, though this is increasingly likely to be a cringe of recognition. Had O'Rourke's tourists used their clunky, Reagan-era cameras to, say, snap pictures of their own faces at arm's length, or photo-document the symmetry of their breakfast foods, 1980s film audiences would have written them off as idiotic narcissists — yet those very acts of self-documentation have become reflexive rituals in the era of iPhones and Facebook. The ubiquity of social media might make us more sensitive to how we perform ourselves for our home audiences, but — like the tourists of a previous generation — our outward gaze is rarely an inquiry into what we're seeing so much as a ritual of self-declaration.
Rolf Potts is the author of two books, Vagabonding and Marco Polo Didn't Go There.