I wish I could say my colleagues Cresslyn Clay, Colin Pierce, and I had it all worked out from the beginning, and that we carefully crafted each nuance that prompted and supported our students in their thoughtful work. But as we discussed what to do with the three weeks between winter break and the end of the semester, we simply wanted to study a film. We felt our students deserved a break from the typical novel-poem-essay routine. Cresslyn happened to have a copy of The Gods Must Be Crazy , a 1980 film written and directed by South African Jamie Uys, and it seemed interesting in a vaguely multicultural kind of way.
On the surface, The Gods Must Be Crazy is a campy confluence of three independent plotlines involving Xi, a Kalahari tribesman, who journeys to the end of the earth to dispose of a Coke bottle that has begun to disrupt the harmony of his community; Mr. Steyn, a white scientist, and the beautiful blonde schoolteacher he escorts through the bush; and a group of fugitive black guerrillas on the run after a failed assassination attempt. To be sure, the film is charming and funny, and it’s no wonder it remains a popular international film. But as I watched, I became fascinated with its political nature and began to think of ways we could explore not only its overt message, but also its covert support of the same systems of inequity it claims to critique.
During our first planning session, Colin mentioned how the film uses the concept of “the Other” to make its point about the craziness of civilization, and Cresslyn noted that the documentary Journey to Nyae Nyae (included with the DVD) brilliantly illustrates the disconnect between the real lives of the San people in Namibia and the romanticized Kalahari “Bushmen” depicted in the film. By the end of the meeting, it was clear that this would be anything but a break; it would be an exploration of the ability of popular culture to subtly reinforce and justify a colonial worldview through the manipulation and distortion of the cultures it works to subjugate.
Movie with a Message
We began with a freewrite about movies with a message. Students made lists of movies they had seen that had some kind of point or something to say. The discussion that followed was lively as students shared their favorite films and offered interpretations of what these films were trying to communicate. Next we read “When Will White People Stop Making Films Like Avatar?” by Annalee Newitz, and the mood quickly sobered. In her article, Newitz, a U.S. journalist who writes about the effects of science and technology on culture, argues that films like Avatar are nothing more than rehashes of the same white-man-gone-native fantasy and seductive expressions of white guilt. In the end, Newitz calls on white people to change the way they think about race and stop turning every story about people of color into a story about being white.
We asked students to identify Newitz’ thesis and to write about whether or not they agreed. Some students supported the article’s premise, but others expressed resistance since Newitz calls into question some of their favorite films, including Dances with Wolves, Pocahontas,and District 9. The discussion was energetic and sometimes contentious, and we never came to a definitive consensus. Throughout the conversation, however, we encouraged students to resist the temptation to passively absorb films like Avatar, and to actively question the films’ intentions and underlying assumptions. This set the stage nicely for the critical questioning we would ask students to do as we began The Gods Must Be Crazy.
Before showing the film, we asked students to make a list of techniques that filmmakers use to communicate their message. Students generated a long list of tools—lighting, dialogue, music, costume, setting, character—and we recorded these on the board. Next, we asked students to draw a T-chart in their journals and label one side “The Bushmen” and the other “Civilization.” As we watched the first five minutes of the film, students recorded their observations of the “Bushmen.” Students identified the film’s portrayal of the “Bushmen” as happy, content, clever, innocent, and, ultimately, childlike. Then we viewed the section that introduces “Civilization” and asked students to complete the other portion of their chart. Here students characterized the film’s portrayal of “Civilization” as mechanical, bored, ridiculous, absurd, and slightly manic.
Then we introduced the term juxtaposition and asked students to do some reflective writing about how Uys uses this technique to develop his main theme. In the following discussion, students talked about the film’s use of lighthearted music and warmly bucolic imagery to characterize the peaceful innocence of the “Bushmen,” and the use of a rapid-fire montage effect in the film’s “Civilization” sequences to highlight the absurdity of city life. Most students seemed to understand Uys’ social commentary concerning the craziness of civilization, but not one mentioned the documentary style of the film until a student finally exclaimed, “Wait a minute, this isn’t real?” As the bell rang, we all had to laugh at the seductive nature of the film’s opening, and how Uys lures us into believing his vision of Africa by presenting images and information as if they were facts.
As we watched the rest of the film, we asked students to record questions in their journals. We used the example of Star Wars to illustrate how to move from simple questions like “Where are Luke’s parents?” and “What’s with all this black-and-white imagery?” on to more complex questions like “How does George Lucas use color imagery to comment on issues of parenting?” We periodically paused the film to clarify basic questions and asked students to use evidence from the film to support their answers. We wrote the denser, more complex questions on the board for future discussion. From the start, most students seemed to have little trouble seeing below the surface of the film. By the end, many were asking questions that critically addressed Uys’ larger intentions:
How does the Coke bottle corrupt the San community?
Why is Xi always shown with animals?
Why is the rebel leader white?
Why are Xi’s thoughts always narrated, while the “civilized” characters speak for themselves?
Why does Mr. Steyn rescue the white schoolteacher before the black schoolchildren?
Who is the true hero of the film?
Toward the end of the film, we asked students to choose one of their questions and attempt to answer it using textual evidence. Students shared these in small groups in preparation for our final writing.
Once the film’s final comic scenes had resolved and social order was again restored, we went back to the idea of movies with a message and asked students to spend 15 minutes writing about what they thought The Gods Must Be Crazy was trying to say. I wondered if this approach was too simple and if students would need more support in coming to any kind of deep understanding of the film, but for the most part they demonstrated a remarkable grasp of the film’s intended message. Some examples:
The filmmaker wants to show us how crazy we make our lives. He did this by portraying civilization as fast-paced, chaotic, and violent. Then he juxtaposed this with the Bushmen’s world, where people live simply, without crime or punishment. —Shannon
The film is trying to convey a message about diversity and about how our civilization is nowhere near ideal. It shows that there are extremes in the ways different cultures act and interpret the world. The film also has a strong message about the dangers of materialism. —Sam
I think the purpose of the movie is to show that sometimes what we label as civilization may actually be the opposite. Also, I feel there are several racist undertones being portrayed. Not only was Xi able to speak to the monkey, when the monkey saw the bottle, he acted the same way as the Bushmen. Does this mean that black people are the same as the monkeys? —Tyler
Indeed, these students proved themselves to be sharp readers of visual texts and ready to take on a more critical analysis.
The Other Message
To begin turning The Gods Must Be Crazy on its ear and to explore some of its covert messages, we asked each student to make a list of social/cultural groups they identified with. We modeled this first, trying to include as broad a spectrum as possible—college graduate, foodie, daughter, Oregonian, surfer, husband—and then asked students to develop their own lists. The student lists ranged from the broad (human, teenager, female), to the social (girl scout, soccer player, hipster), to the cultural (Iranian, immigrant, atheist).
Next, we asked students to move beyond who they are and think about who they are not. Again, we modeled this process with our own lists, which proved to be wise since this concept was definitely more challenging. At first, a number of students stared quietly at their journals, and we had to work with each of them individually, referencing their initial lists and helping them identify possible contrasts or opposites. In Cresslyn’s class, however, one particularly verbal learner awkwardly exemplified the point when he raised both his hands and blurted out, “Well, I’m definitely not gay!” and then spent the rest of the period attempting to gracefully qualify his outburst. Despite the unintentional insensitivity, this proved to be a teachable moment and dramatically illustrated how we often base our understanding of who we are by explicitly and stereotypically targeting who we believe we are not. So, despite some initial struggle, most of our students eventually managed to generate lists with a broad range of thoughtful examples—wealthy, liberal, white, drug user, adult—and were ready to move beyond the personal and take a quick look at one of the Western world’s traditional geographic Others—Africa.
Before reading Binyavanga Wainaina’s satirical essay “How to Write About Africa,” we thought it would be interesting to find out what our suburban American students knew, or thought they knew, about the continent. Predictably, student understanding about Africa was rudimentary at best—lions, giraffes, rebellions, corrupt governments, poachers, ivory, malaria, jungle, slave trade, hunger, poor.
As we read Wainaina’s essay, students began to recognize their own misconceptions and construct a more realistic vision of the continent. He offers prospective writers pointed advice: “Broad brushstrokes throughout are good. Avoid having the African characters laugh, or struggle to educate their kids, or just make do in mundane circumstances. Have them illuminate something about Europe or America in Africa. African characters should be colourful, exotic, larger than life—but empty inside, with no dialogue, no conflicts or resolutions in their stories, no depth or quirks to confuse the cause.”
We used Wainaina’s satire to talk about why Africa is so consistently misrepresented in popular media. And we introduced students to Rudyard Kipling’s “White Man’s Burden” to illustrate how some white writers subjugate people of color in order to affirm their own cultural superiority and justify a colonial vision of the world. Finally, we were ready to apply these ideas to The Gods Must Be Crazy.
‘Journey to Nyae Nyae’
In his 2006 documentary Journey to Nyae Nyae, Daniel Riesenfeld catches up with N!Xau, a member of the San people living in Namibia, who was the captivating star of the film. The film depicts the reality of N!Xau’s existence in his final years before succumbing to tuberculosis. As we watched the documentary, students were visibly shaken by the sharp contrast between the innocently happy Bushmen of The Gods Must Be Crazy and the daily existence of the San people as they struggle against the realities of poverty, disease, and environmental degradation brought on by more than 100 years of colonial rule.
The questions that followed were thoughtful and sincere. Students wanted to know why N!Xau didn’t get paid more, why Uys didn’t help the people he used to make his extremely profitable film, and what was currently being done to aid the San. Unfortunately, I had no answers for any of these questions. On the other hand, students did use their understanding of the function of the Other in our previous texts to make some astute observations about how Uys artfully utilizes a romanticized version of the Bushmen to argue for the superiority of the white scientist, Andrew Steyn, who despite his comic bumbling manages to orchestrate the rescue of a group of black schoolchildren (and, perhaps more importantly, their white schoolteacher) from the grips of a band of inept black guerrillas led by Fidel Castro look-alike Sam Boga.
Interestingly, the issue of Sam Boga came up a number of times during our study of the film. Students wanted to know why this non-African was cast as the rebel leader, and a few students attempted to answer this question in their journals. During our discussion of Boga, we referenced the Newitz articleand her assertion about the white need to co-opt every story about people of color and make it their own. This naturally led to further conversation about Mr. Steyn and his role as the film’s white “savior.” Many students had not really considered Steyn’s (or Boga’s) central position in the film since the overt attention is directed toward the more charismatic Xi. However, Tyler, one of our school’s few African American students, recognized this archetype immediately, and spoke eloquently about its persistence in popular culture.
Finally, we discussed how, despite Xi’s charm, he was only a pawn in Uys’ vision of a chaotic and dangerous world—rightfully and paternalistically under the protection of good-hearted white colonials like Mr. Steyn. This was the white man’s burden come to life. Suddenly the ridiculously charming The Gods Must Be Crazy wasn’t quite so charming anymore.
For the most part, this all went well. I was often impressed by my students’ sincerity and thoughtfulness, and how they genuinely wrestled with these difficult and sometimes uncomfortable concepts. But as I look back, I realize I missed several opportunities to deepen student understanding and connect the content of the unit more relevantly to their lives. For example, I wish we’d explored groups in our own community (immigrants, gays, Muslims, etc.) that are subordinated and vilified to maintain the superiority of the dominant culture. Furthermore, I wish I’d been more knowledgeable of South African apartheid and the sociocultural environment that produced Uys’ film. As a class, we talked about The Gods Must Be Crazy as a product of the imperialist system that created it, but my limited understanding only allowed this conversation to go so far. Finally, I wish we’d spent some time exploring forms of inequity in my students’ lives, such as our school’s tracking system and the inequities of standardized testing. I look forward to the challenge of exploring these difficult issues again and finding new ways to think about how popular culture manipulates reality to serve larger political purposes.