A quarter-century after the release of Cannibal Tours, Dennis O’Rourke’s documentary about global tourism, Rolf Potts draws a few recent parallels:
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.
Potts describes the movie’s “most iconic moment” (seen above):
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.
Watch the full documentary here, if you must.