Norwegian Broadcasting Association sent three Norwegian families to live with indigenous peoples for three weeks and ended up offering a reality show suspiciously similar to the human zoos of old colonial exhibitions.
Popularised TV anthropology is a risky sport, especially when 19th century ideas of human beings in their “natural” state reach primetime TV.
Every Saturday for the last 12 weeks NRK has offered their average 800.000 weekly viewership ”insights” into indigenous tribes in Namibia, Indonesia and Ecuador.
NRK’s Den store reisen (The great journey) is the Norwegian version of New Zealand’s Ticket to the tribes, Belgium’s Toast Kannibaal (Cheers, cannibal) and UK’s Tribal Wife.
All of these TV channels filmed the same indigenous groups and presented variations on the same theme: Find the last people in the wild and live with them.
Den store reisen invited us to follow the Prøis family and their neon- coloured suitcases when they moved in with the Waoranies in Banemo, Ecuador.
NRK’s online program description informs us on the “warlike Waorani tribe deep down in the Amazon”, while a fact box further down states that Waoranies “go around naked; men’s penises are tied up by a chord around their waists”.
What NRK never informed their viewers of, but what Ny Tid (New Times) revealed shortly after the broadcast of the first episode, was that the production team had asked the Waoranies not to wear “western clothes” during filming.
Laura Rival from the Centre for International Development at Oxford University has studied the Waoranies since 1989.
She explained in Ny Tid how the Waoranies take their clothes off for tourists and reality shows but live under much more complex and modern conditions than what is presented in the series.
According to Rival, Waorani houses have TV sets and laptops and the palm tree hut shown in the series is normally only used for parties or cooking.
“This type of staged documentary is supposed to display differences and to make it more thought-provoking”, was Nark’s production manager Per Edstrom’s defence to the claim that NRK makes Waorani more different to Norwegians than they really are.
“It is after all a collision between two very different ways of life”, he told Ny Tid.
Waorani life might have changed but NRK makes sure our perception of the wild and untouched tribal life remains.
The great “savage”
On the Siberut island of Indonesia we get to know of the Alsos family and their adventures with the Mentawais.
Miners, loggers, and petroleum companies might be fighting for their land, but we would never know from watching Den store reisen.
“See how happy they seem, they have no worries”, said the Alsos family during the first episode.
When the last episode had been broadcast the Norwegian family published some of their thoughts on the experience: “We never understood why we could not follow the Mentawai children when they went to school or why they never filmed them putting on clothes to go to the nearest village”, they told Aftenposten.
NRK was more interested in showing the Mentawai’s hunting and gathering techniques and “fascinating spiritual rituals”.
What all the respective versions of Den store reisen have in common is the idea that we have lost something that only the “savage” can teach us.
If this is NRK’s method of portraying different perspectives on what it is to be human, they failed tremendously.
What they have managed exceptionally well is instead to offer a one-dimensional presentation of how conceited Westerners deal with “primitive tribal circuses”, with further encouragement of regressive and culturally ignorant entertainment as a result.