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DVD Review: Footsteps In Africa: A Nomadic Journey

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For some reason the more civilized we become the more we look to find what we've lost on the way amongst those who we at one time would have dismissed as primitive or savage. As early as the 19th century, when we were still forcing them on to reserves and destroying their means of livelihood, Native Americans were beginning to be seen as figures of romance.

Photographer Edward S Curtis took to stamping about the "wilds" taking photos of various nations in traditional costumes. That the costumes he photographed people in happened to come out of his luggage and were usually garb only worn by those who lived on the great plains, mattered little to the white audience, who to this day still lap up his photos of "authentic Indians caught in their natural habitat".

As the 20th century progressed and people began experiencing dissatisfaction with their own cultural identities and the social mores they saw around them, their eyes began turning to other cultures and belief systems. The problem was that most of them had no idea what it was they were actually looking for and answers are hard to find if you don't know what questions to ask. As a result there has developed a tendency to idealize various cultures and their lifestyles and decide that the secret to a better world lies in emulating something that never existed. Attempts to take bits and pieces of a culture and apply them out of context don't do anything but diminish those one is trying to imitate.

One of the most disturbing trends is how people then begin to market what they've "discovered" about this other culture. I'm sure most of you have seen some variation on books with titles like Find The Inner Shaman Within You or some such crap. They promise you a better life through a spiritual awakening achieved by practising the secrets of the Amazon that they preach in their book. Of course if you're having difficulty with the achieving success with the book, you can take their workshop to get the full experience.

Unfortunately these attitudes aren't limited to those trying to make a quick buck as I discovered watching the DVD of director Kathi Von Koerber's movie Footsteps In Africa: A Nomadic Journey from Kiahkeya Productions. Presented as a documentary about nomads, and the Tuareg of the North Sahara in particular, Footsteps comes across as being far more a mixture of "The Noble Savage" and "Discover Your Inner Nomad" rather than a true examination of what life among the Tuareg is like. The hour-long film splits its time between shots taken in and around a small camp, and those taken at a couple of major festivals held in the Malian part of the Sahara.

One only needs to read the notes on the back cover of the disc to be warned that this isn't really a documentary, but rather a film made by people setting out to prove their own agenda. For in them it states that the director believes "the wisdom that nomadic life entails, gives deep insight into human's relationship to the earth". So instead of merely observing life among these people of the Northern Sahara, she skewed the footage to show what she wanted to show. Interviews with what she called tribal "elders" and a "healer" produced homilies like "nature is life" and "the further we move towards science the more we move away from nature". While those sound like noble sentiments, what the film doesn't do is place them in their proper context.

The Tuareg people are nomads who live in one of the harshest environments in the world. Like the Inuit of the far north, their entire belief system is going to be based around what it takes to survive in their particular environment. Calling them keepers of an ancient wisdom is to willfully misrepresent what their knowledge represents. Take the Tuareg out of their habitat and they suffer horribly, because nothing of what they know has prepared them for life outside it. Sure they have a deep understanding of the natural forces that are prevalent in their world, but it was born out of an understanding of what it takes to survive there and its not wisdom that can be applied in other situations.

Nothing is mentioned in the film about the struggle the Tuareg have had to hold on to their habitat. Like how in Mali where this movie was filmed, there was recently an armed rebellion. Or how this has been the third major rebellion since the 1960s in an attempt to stop the steady encroachment of civilization into their traditional territory. While the Tuareg have roamed the Sahara for centuries, their primary territory now resides within the borders of Algeria, Mali, and Niger, with the latter two being the countries they have fought with the most.

It's incomprehensible to me, and also irresponsible as far as I'm concerned, that the film makers have completely ignored the reality of just how tenuous the Tuareg existence has become. By only focusing on one encampment and activities at festivals they have presented an extremely distorted view of life among the Tuareg. In fact the whole movie does them a great disservice by not telling the truth about their circumstances. Knowing this it's hard to take anything the moviemakers claim in this movie seriously, and I found the whole project distasteful and exploitive.

There have been a number of quite fascinating movies made about the Tuareg people of the Northern Sahara. Desert Rebel and Palace Of The Winds have done a good job of explaining their situation and depicting the environment they live in. Unfortunately Footsteps In Africa is not one of them. It presents a highly idealized and romanticized version of who and what these people are. I would look elsewhere for the truth.

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About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.