I wish I could say my colleagues Cresslyn Clay, Colin Pierce, and I had it all worked out from the beginning, and that we carefully crafted each nuance that prompted and supported our students in their thoughtful work. But as we discussed what to do with the three weeks between winter break and the end of the semester, we simply wanted to study a film. We felt our students deserved a break from the typical novel-poem-essay routine. Cresslyn happened to have a copy of The Gods Must Be Crazy, a 1980 film written and directed by South African Jamie Uys, and it seemed interesting in a vaguely multicultural kind of way.
On the surface, The Gods Must Be Crazy is a campy confluence of three independent plotlines involving Xi, a Kalahari tribesman, who journeys to the end of the earth to dispose of a Coke bottle that has begun to disrupt the harmony of his community; Mr. Steyn, a white scientist, and the beautiful blonde schoolteacher he escorts through the bush; and a group of fugitive black guerrillas on the run after a failed assassination attempt. To be sure, the film is charming and funny, and it’s no wonder it remains a popular international film. But as I watched, I became fascinated with its political nature and began to think of ways we could explore not only its overt message, but also its covert support of the same systems of inequity it claims to critique.
During our first planning session, Colin mentioned how the film uses the concept of “the Other” to make its point about the craziness of civilization, and Cresslyn noted that the documentary Journey to Nyae Nyae (included with the DVD) brilliantly illustrates the disconnect between the real lives of the San people in Namibia and the romanticized Kalahari “Bushmen” depicted in the film. By the end of the meeting, it was clear that this would be anything but a break; it would be an exploration of the ability of popular culture to subtly reinforce and justify a colonial worldview through the manipulation and distortion of the cultures it works to subjugate.
Movie with a Message
We began with a freewrite about movies with a message. Students made lists of movies they had seen that had some kind of point or something to say. The discussion that followed was lively as students shared their favorite films and offered interpretations of what these films were trying to communicate. Next we read “When Will White People Stop Making Films Like Avatar?” by Annalee Newitz, and the mood quickly sobered. In her article, Newitz, a U.S. journalist who writes about the effects of science and technology on culture, argues that films like Avatar are nothing more than rehashes of the same white-man-gone-native fantasy and seductive expressions of white guilt. In the end, Newitz calls on white people to change the way they think about race and stop turning every story about people of color into a story about being white.
We asked students to identify Newitz’ thesis and to write about whether or not they agreed. Some students supported the article’s premise, but others expressed resistance since Newitz calls into question some of their favorite films, including Dances with Wolves, Pocahontas, and District 9. The discussion was energetic and sometimes contentious, and we never came to a definitive consensus. Throughout the conversation, however, we encouraged students to resist the temptation to passively absorb films like Avatar, and to actively question the films’ intentions and underlying assumptions. This set the stage nicely for the critical questioning we would ask students to do as we began The Gods Must Be Crazy.
Before showing the film, we asked students to make a list of techniques that filmmakers use to communicate their message. Students generated a long list of tools—lighting, dialogue, music, costume, setting, character—and we recorded these on the board. Next, we asked students to draw a T-chart in their journals and label one side “The Bushmen” and the other “Civilization.” As we watched the first five minutes of the film, students recorded their observations of the “Bushmen.” Students identified the film’s portrayal of the “Bushmen” as happy, content, clever, innocent, and, ultimately, childlike. Then we viewed the section that introduces “Civilization” and asked students to complete the other portion of their chart. Here students characterized the film’s portrayal of “Civilization” as mechanical, bored, ridiculous, absurd, and slightly manic.