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‘How can you live without goats?’ Channel 4’s The Tribe flips TV cliches

The mythology of broadcasting includes several stories about the alleged effect of television exposure on pre-electronic cultures, with anecdotes of distant tribes being wiped out by flu or sexually transmitted diseases introduced by visiting TV crews. A Clive James joke in a TV column about an indigenous community delaying its annual migration north in order to see the final episode of that season’s Dallas has been picked up and repeated as fact.

The fears expressed by these legends – that television is a destructive force, but also irresistibly addictive – reflect the debates that have surrounded anthropological programming in the five decades that separate tonight’s The Tribe (Channel 4, 9pm) from Disappearing World, the most revered elder of British window-on-the-world television, which was made by Granada for ITV between 1970 and the early 90s.

When the first Disappearing World was screened – visiting the remote Penare tribe of Venezuela to ask, “How long can they survive the onslaught of the developed world?” – some anthropologists questioned the concept of the series. Such broadcasts were seen as a potential form of colonial arrogance – serving up communities as a geographical freak-show – that might have similar consequences to other foreign invasions. How could the remote and untouched remain so, if shown to the world?

Dami, Arrada, Zubo and Muko in The Tribe, Channel 4.

But, as with most genres of television, these 70s documentaries – respectfully observing professional anthropologists as they made respectful observations – now seem almost Edwardian in their austerity and solemnity: minimally animated versions of National Geographic magazine.

Since Disappearing World itself succumbed to the extinction it had predicted for so many others, anthropo-programming has suffered a hostile takeover by reality and structured reality TV. The Discovery network specialises in formats – such as the current Yukon Men and Alaskan Bush People – focusing on particular families as they live without American television.

In the UK, the favoured template for series about people time forgot has been contest telly. In Tribe (BBC2, 2005-7), ex-marine and explorer Bruce Parry explored distant civilisations by experiencing their lifestyle as a series of personal challenges.

The feeling of a solo edition of I’m a Celebrity, Get me Out of Here! was set by a much previewed and publicised scene in which Parry consumed an ancient hallucinogenic drug on camera. And the presentation of tribal ways of life as an exotic sort of gameshow was exacerbated by Last Man Standing (BBC3, 2007-8), a BBC-Discovery co-production, in which UK and US athletes competed in traditional sports against indigenous athletes.

A risk of such shows has always been the implicit suggestion that the culture of the broadcasting nation is superior to the one under examination. A trailer showing a grass-skirted or nose-boned local gazing in implicitly envious wonder at Sex and the City on a portable TV set rapidly became a cliche of the form.

So it’s rather ominous that tonight’s opening episode of The Tribe begins with an Ethiopan tribesman standing in front of his hut while speaking on a mobile phone. Although it’s a novelty to be told that a remote African community is dialling out rather than dying out, viewers might have feared that it would not be long before we saw a bartering scene in which three goats were swapped for a box set of House of Cards.

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In fact, Livia Simoka’s and Vicky Mitchell’s film recognises and largely avoids the risk of smug assumptions that the subjects are retrograde. It’s true that veteran producers and viewers of Disappearing World might choke on their merlot at the level of indebtedness to reality TV: the village and huts have been rigged up with a version of the discreet remote cameras that were used on Educating Yorkshire in an attempt to capture naturalistic behaviour.

“You foreigners - are you for real?” Kerri Bodo, Hacho, Ayke Muko and baby Hacho on The Tribe, Channel 4.

And the show also follows the Discovery method of imposing characters and narrative on the action. The stars are the elders, Ayke Muko and Kerri Bodo (the younger of his two wives), and three generations of their family, while the material is shaped into a “plot” involving negotiations over the number of goats that should be given as a dowry to secure a bride for a young tribesman.

What’s refreshing, though, is the underlying attitude, which reverses the generic conventions by inviting Ayke Muko to mock and patronise the cultural values of the western documentarians. When the director suggests it’s odd that Ayke’s older wife doesn’t seem to mind his having a younger one as well, he snaps back: “You funny foreigner!” Pressed on the dominance of animal barter in the economy, he ripostes: “How can you live without goats?” To suggestions that he should retire from elder responsibilities at his vast age, he laughs: “You foreigners – are you for real?”

Or at least the subtitles tell us that he does. It’s frustrating not to know – when the translations tell us that one of the tribe has just said “fuck” or “penis” – whether the producers are using words that have the same weight in both languages. But, however much poetic licence has been used, the line “You foreigners – are you for real?” seems permissible as a declaration of intent: that anthropological television’s tradition of inviting “us” to scrutinise “them” will at least sometimes be reversed.

The programme also has the unusual effect of making you want it to borrow a tired TV convention. The “Where are they now?” format has become a desperate refuge for TV commissioners. But, in the case of a series updating the status of the tribes who featured in the Disappearing World documentaries or The Tribe, such a project would be genuinely educational.



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