PEOPLE OF THE GREAT SANDFACE
Anglia Survival Series. 58 mins. Broadcast on Discovery 1992.
Director: Paul John Myburgh.
TOPICS: Anthropology, Kalahari
This is the shorter version of the 1985 two-hour Anglia TV movie. The introduction to the Discovery version differs markedly with the longer version. An American voice, not Myburgh, narratives the Discovery version. The `Bushmen' are imaged as "ancient people". A map of Botswana illustrates the supposed location of this `last' remaining clan in the wild. Time, history and drought have taken their toll on their numbers, says the narrator. Now most Bushmen we are told live in the remote areas of the Kalahari desert. "This film is the story of a year in the lives of the last band of the Gwi Bushmen still living the old way of life in the Central Kalahari ... they are perhaps the last substantial band of wild Bushmen left in the world today. It is the story of a vanishing phase of human culture" (Narrator).
Twenty-four people, men and women, ages one to ninety share everything. Personal obligation ensures survival, intones the narrator. They live only by hunting and gathering. They are shown dressed in traditional garb. Nothing is ever wasted. Drought has made life difficult for them. Thirst is a constant companion. Moisture comes from mellons and roots. People talk of the government settlement, water and free food. There is contact with people from the settlement, and they talk about an alternative way of life. This way of life may be coming to an end reveals the film.
Members of the band are introduced; we learn of drought and the sources of moisture; fire, the center of social life; making of arrows; hunting (no dogs, no donkeys, though spears are used). One retired hunter is described as the perfect example of the old ways, the ancestors of today's Bushmen (as he beats buck to death with a knobkerrie - fighting stick); gathering and foraging; plant fibers rolled and twisted into string; children playing, hunting - the young boy's only reality is to be a hunter, like his father. "The bushmen are at one with the basic natural elements fire, air and earth" (Narrator).
The problem of thirst is similar to the longer version and the attraction of the government settlement begins to look attractive. The people eat an eight month old Wildebeest skin so desperate are they. But the rains eventually come. First rains result in pans becoming filled with water. Water is put into ostrich shells with containers (tortoise shells?). Water is also put into containers made from an animal's stomach. The water evaporates fast. The question asked: Why must the Bushmen be hungry and thirsty when they know that the settlement provides food and water? They leave for the settlement, 5 days walk away.
The Discovery script - masquerading as `ethnography' - has been completely revised into didactic version of Myburgh's personal odyssey in the original. The narrator early on tells us of the government settlement, as opposed to the longer version where we learn of it only at the end of the film. Like the longer version, it is only "time and drought" which have affected the `Bushmen' - nothing is said of white and black extermination of the San, of the oppressions experienced by the Botswana Basarwa from the Botswana government; from intermarriage, migrant labor, alcohol abuse, illness or malnutrition.
The band depicted does not exist, but was constituted from some remnants, and then appropriately dressed by Myburgh to act in the film. Ed Wilmsen and John Marshall inVisual Anthropology provide the background to "People of the Great White Lie" as Robert Gordon snidely retitles the film.
While it is true that some San people still undertake the activities depicted, the notion that they are the last wild band known is nonsense. Even the most remote bands have historically been interconnected into broader trade and other relations; and only old people wear traditional garb. The cultural isolate is the dominant frame of reference, one that has been long discredited in anthropology itself.
Gordon, R. (1990). People of the Great Sandface: People of the great white lie, Commission on Visual Anthropology Review, Spring, 30-34.
Guenther, M. (1991). Myburgh-Gordon exchange, Commission on Visual Anthropology Review , (Spring).
Marshall, J. (1992). At the Other End of the Camera, Visual Anthropology, 5(2), 167-174.
Myburgh, P. (1989). Paul Myburgh talks on People of the Great Sandface. An interview with Keyan Tomaselli, Commission on Visual Anthropology Review, 26-31.
Tomaselli, K.G., Gabriel, T., Masilela, N. and Williams, A. (1992). People of the Great Sandface , Visual Anthropology, 5(2), 143-166.
Wilmsen, E.N. (1992). Comment on People of the Great Sandface, Visual Anthropology , 5(2), 175-80.
(Written by Keyan G Tomaselli, 1997)