The 14th annual Vermont International Film Festival showcased a number of films ranging from several animated shorts to the gritty, tense documentaries that highlighted the festival. The festival centered around socially conscious cinema in several different forms, the main form being documentary films. Among the more notable documentaries screened for the festival was A Kalahari Family (Director John Marshall), a documentary that explored the myths, history, and, present situation of the indigenous “bushmen” that occupy the Kalahari grasslands of Namibia.
A Kalahari Story
A Kalahari Family tracked the interactions between the Namibian bushmen and the outside world. The documentary sought to expose the preconceptions and myths surrounding the bushmen. One of the most pervasive myths surrounding the Namibian bushmen hinged on the notion that they continue to live nomadic, isolated lives with little to no contact with the outside world. The film identified several organizations that promote and perpetuate the stereotypes of the bushmen through the medium of what has been deemed “drama documentary”. National Geographic was one such organization highlighted by the documentary as the leading factor in the perpetuation of the bushman stereotype. A Kalahari Family showed bushmen actively engaged in dialogue with the outside world on several issues, including the decision of the Namibian government, in conjunction with the World Wildlife Foundation, to turn the Kalahari grasslands into a nature preserve. The decision to turn the bushmen’s traditional hunting tracts into a nature preserve made the killing of wild elephants illegal, and therefore prosecutable. The documentary went on to track the conflict between the elephants and the bushmen, focusing largely on the impact and damage caused by the movement of the elephants. The elephants destroyed many of the wind powered water pumps the bushmen used to survive. With little help from the Namibian government, and what appeared to be more interference than help from the WWF, the bushmen were left with little options other than relying on private funding from the international community and the potentially lucrative venture presented by eco-tourism. Although the bushmen’s options seemed somewhat promising, the documentary followed the decline of influence and involvement by the bushmen in developing, maintaining, and controlling their traditional homeland. The bushmen slowly lost all control to international investors and seemingly benign organizations. Family, exposed the poverty, violence, and incredibly low living standard the bushmen are forced into as a result of their interaction with the outside world.
Deconstructing the “Bushman Myth”
The self described aim of A Kalahari Family was defining and deconstructing the stereotypes and myths of the bushmen; the documentary accomplished this goal in several ways, the least of which being the documentation of the interactions and speeches of the bushmen with the international community and international investors. The bushmen campaigned and lobbied for badly needed support from the Namibian government and European investors.
One of the largest myths surrounding the bushmen was the notion that they exist in a socially primitive world, as demonstrated by the footage from National Geographic specials, ruled by a gang mentality that left little room for social development beyond the constraints of traditional hunting/gathering roles. The bushmen demonstrated social sophistication that left room for a minority opinion that was incorporated into a majority vote, as was the case when the bushmen decided to ask the two overseers from the WWF to leave instead of abandoning their ties with the WWF altogether.
The bushmen’s awareness of economics and economic opportunity was explored by the film in great detail. They showed an acute awareness of the financial motives behind many outsiders involvement with the bushmen; the bushmen even accused the filmmakers of using their film to “make money”.
Modern Namibia: Reality and the Bushmen
The documentary also presented the harsh living conditions many bushmen are confronted with, devoting much film time to interviews with the bushmen/women regarding the erosion of their relationship with the WWF and the Namibian government, while interspersing clips of the poverty stricken villages in which the bushmen currently reside. The portrayal of the bushmen as poverty and famine stricken was a key feature of Family , and fit in with the socially conscious motif of the 14th Vermont International Film Festival.