I have nothing against reality television. It’s a TV programming format that, according to Wikipedia, presents purportedly unscripted dramatic or humorous situations, documents actual events, and features ordinary people instead of professional actors.
In fact, I’ve been telling my friends who are factual film-makers that we can learn a thing or two from the recent successes of some reality TV shows.
But everything has its sane limits — and evidently these were exceeded in the recent controversy involving a British TV production company that stands accused of starting a ‘flu epidemic that left four people from a tribe of isolated Peruvian Indians dead and others seriously ill.
Matt Currington (in photo above, on the right), a London-based documentary maker, has been blamed for triggering a “mini-epidemic” in the village of 250 people which led to the deaths of three children and one adult of the Matsigenka people, who live in the isolated Amazonian Cumerjali area of south-eastern Peru.
The 38-year-old was employed by Cicada Films as researcher when he travelled to the area with a guide last year to scout for locations for the World’s Lost Tribes series, which airs on the Discovery Channel.
Here are some extracts from the story that appeared in The Guardian newspaper in the UK on 27 March 2008, written by its environment correspondent John Vidal:
The regional Indian rights organisation Fenama, government officials and a US anthropologist working in the region said in statements seen by the Guardian that a two-person crew working for London-based Cicada Films had visited groups of isolated Indian communities despite being warned not to. Fenama said the film team travelled far upriver and provoked an epidemic. It accused them of threatening the lives of Indians and called for Cicada Films to be barred from entering the area again.
It is understood the company was scouting for a location to set a TV show for Mark Anstice and Olly Steeds, in which the two British presenters would live with a remote tribe, in exchange for gifts. The company has already filmed episodes in New Guinea.
According to the Peruvian government’s protected areas department, Cicada was given a permit to visit only the community of Yomybato. It expressly prohibited visits to uncontacted or recently contacted Indians. “The Cicada team entered [remote headwaters] which are part of the strictly protected zone,” it said.
The American anthropologist, Glenn Shepard, who met the film team on location, said he had urged them not to make the trip to the Cumerjali settlements, “where people were vulnerable to western illnesses”. “Reality tv seeks ever more dangerous, remote and exotic locales and communities,” he said.
Stephen Corey of the international tribal rights organization, Survival International, agreed. “There has been a whole rash of bizarre and extreme programmes on tribal rights. The key issue here is sensitivity which is not often a priority for television companies,” he said.
Survival International news: British TV company accused of bringing ‘epidemic’ to isolated Indians
British TV company deny allegations about Peru visit
According to Survival International, Cicada Films previously caused controversy with a documentary about an expedition to visit Indians in Ecuador, which allegedly provoked an attack from uncontacted Waorani Indians.
But Cicada is certainly not alone when it comes to exploiting marginalised people in the global South in the course of film-making. And reality TV is not the only format of TV film making that often oversteps the ethical boundaries in search of a ‘good story’.
As I have been saying for sometime now, documentary film-makers and TV news gathering crews are equally guilty of many excesses, lapses and gross abuses all perpetrated in the name of media freedom.
Aug 2007 blog: Wanted – Ethical sourcing of international TV News
Nor is this sinister trend entirely new. I opened a September 2007 blog post with this bizarre request: “Can you help us to film a child’s leg being broken?” This was made by a visiting Canadian TV crew in the 1970s to my friend Darryl D’Monte, one of the most senior journalists in India and former editor of the Times of India.
This was in connection with a brutal practice that was believed to exist in India, so that forcefully maimed children could be employed as beggars. When Darryl was outraged, the film crew had shrugged off saying: “It’s going to happen anyway”.
Film-makers and TV journalists roam the planet exercising their license to protect and promote the people’s right to know, and in the public interest. But this privileged position is grossly abused when they allow the end to justify their highly questionable means.
Commenting on TV’s latest crime against voiceless people, India’s Down to Earth magazine (30 April 2008 issue) says:
“These forays of reality tv perpetuate an imagery conceived by a 19th century alliance of anthropologers and photographers, that of tribals in their “innocent” state. It’s another matter these images were taken after the tribal groups were ravaged by colonialism.
“Today in the era of digital images when computer games mimic real wars, it might be hard for even the most naive eye to believe what it sees. But tv casts an enormous sway over audience perception and digitization has, in fact, aided it. We know of the images, not the circumstances in which they were taken. We believe them though they might be contrived. That’s why reality tv is dangerous.”