A forgotten pleasure – watching Stéphane Breton’s "Them and Me" March 21, 2012

by Daniel Allen
The first film on Tuesday, Them and Me, part of the Stéphane Breton retrospective, was the perfect reminder of what Worldfilm is all about, and also of what the best anthropological documentaries can teach us.

As a Wordfilm volunteer for the last 6 years I had been missing out on the pleasure of actually watching the films, and so this year I’ve taken a holiday to return to the basics of film watching.

Breton’s film was a deliberate, and for a professional ethnographer brave, first-person narrative charting the author’s increasingly intimate relationship with the village in West Papua that he has adopted. Breton wonders, in his voice-over, what his place in the village is, asking questions reminiscent of those a new pupil might ask at school. He feels out of place and a little lost. He worries about what his neighbours are doing and what they think of him.

Breton said in the discussion following the film that there is nothing more destructive than the interview, a disease contracted from television that has no place in an ethnographic film. Better to interact with the subjects within the film - where ‘interact’ is not limited to talking. Enduring the rain with a Nepalese shepherd, moving gently through the landscape, is also interaction, as we saw in Ascent to the Sky. And, returning the Papua, interaction is also negotiating with villagers for a little gardening around his house. I said this film was brave, but it becomes positively transgressive, like a kind of ethnographic horror film, when we see the filmmakers hand stretching into the shot to pay some of the villagers for this work. Surely, by giving the villagers money, the Western filmmaker is corrupting them, bringing capitalism to their untouched and otherwise perfect lives. Well, no, of course not. And to think so is not only wrong, but also damaging. It is to judge this society so completely by Western standards that we would be blind to what is there, to what, through Breton’s film, is obviously integral to this society. As the everyday story of the village develops, we see through Stephane’s eyes the many private conversations that make up life in this part of the world. Villagers trade and negotiate like the most skilful capitalists, trade and negotiate for almost everything they posses and in relation to almost everything that happens. Cash money is just one tiny part of this huge network of events and interpersonal relationships. These conversations are the glue that binds society, creating and reinforcing friendships, promoting trust among the villagers and in a way acting as a type of news service that keeps everyone informed. Breton’s camerawork, which concentrates on close shots and which always includes his half of the conversation from behind the camera, conveys the spirit of these interactions perfectly, while at the same time creating an atmosphere of equality between the filmmaker and his camera (and by extension us, the viewers) and the subjects.

Daniel Allen