Colonialism, Cannibal Holocaust (1980), and Fitzcarraldo (1982)

Cannibal Holocaust (1980) is a legend in shocking schlock. When describing it on Red Letter Media, the summary was that no one should see it. So, naturally, when I got a subscription to Shudder… I had to see it.

The frame narrative is that an new expedition has been sent to rescue a failed expedition, recovering their film canisters. It’s kind of cool as uncut footage from the first expedition is watched by the second, as it is cut for a TV special. The effects for human corpses are not terribly convincing, with animal organs and meat draped on plastic skeletons. Then there is the ritual abuse of women, designed to titillate the audience with female nudity but only in the context of violence, which is uncomfortable to watch but not unexpected. The portrayal of indigenous tribes is about what you’d expect: tree people (Yanumamo) are painted white, the swamp people (Shamitari) black, both are cannibals and rapists. The other tribe we meet, the “Yacumo” are wordless and impressed by simple technology, like flick knives and lighters. But the film pretends to turn expectations on its head as the first expedition is shown abusing the seemingly simple Yacumo, justifying it by saying its the rule of the jungle, “the daily struggle of the strong overcoming the weak”, as the protagonist puts it.

I get it, the white people are monsters, but the portrayal replicates historic abuses with a new generation and the indigenous tribes are made to respond by inflicting the same violence received (sort of a revenge motif). Making indigenous people chow down on raw meat and simulate rape is degrading abuse by any measure. But what is, oddly, really shocking is the abuse of animals. Early on, there is a leering sequence where a small rodent is stabbed, screaming on knife for several minutes, another where they hack at a turtle for what feels like an eternity. It’s genuinely awful, as you know it’s not fake and their lives are taken slowly, and clumsily to maximise screen time. After watching such horrific animal abuse, I was already okay with the idea the expedition would all die before knowing how they treated humans. I guess the justification for seeing this is man’s inhumanity to man etc. but others have done it in a more clever, less exploitative way. It’s crazy to see how many other films this director made. So, why do people defend the right to see it? Because the revenge angle makes all the preceding violence okay? Because it’s an early example of found footage film? I honestly can’t agree.

Fitzcarraldo (1982), is at the other end of the spectrum, with lovely natives ready to work for white men. It is the story of a wild-eyed eccentric, Fitzcarraldo (real-life horror show Klaus Kinski), who is charmingly obsessed with opera and decides to drag a boat over a mountain to expand a rubber empire. To do so, he conscripts a tribe identified as the J√≠varo. In this story, the supposedly dangerous cannibalistic tribe is instead curious and childlike. They make a pact to help Fitzcarraldo for no apparent reason, even though they are consistently physically abused and some die. It is a hard watch because, in the end, the film just repeats the pattern of abuse that indigenous people suffered under in colonial times by forcing tribal members to repeat the same kind of hard labour in 1980. But at least there’s an opera-loving pig who sits on a red upholstered chair, I guess. It is interesting to consider the film in the larger context of Werner Herzog’s work, as he moved exclusively into documentaries after this earlier narrative work, filming indigenous groups more on their own terms and telling their stories with less interference.

At the end of the day, both films are about exploitation and replicate colonial structures of power over indigenous groups, and this can’t be ignored when talking about them.