Photo: Amy Nichole Harris/Shutterstock

PNG Tribe Meets White Man Video a Fake. Or Is It?

Papua New Guinea Travel
by Carlo Alcos Jul 6, 2011
Is the viral video authentic or a hoax? I’m not convinced we’ll ever really know.

A COUPLE OF weeks ago I posted this video, which supposedly showed an indigenous tribe — the Toulambi — in Papua New Guinea encountering a white man for the very first time. Sources showed the 15-minute video was shot in 1976.

The video went viral, some commenting how amazing it is, and how they were touched and moved by it. There were also the skeptics who, in this case, appear to be right. A link in the comments on my original post led me to a blog called Antipodes. It shed some light on this “hoax.” The video was written, produced, and directed by Belgian filmmaker, Jean-Pierre Dutilleux in 1993, not 1976 as was claimed.

Some claims — like the tribe members were acting and that they were given pharmaceuticals in exchange — are made on this post that I haven’t tried to confirm (I would think this is hearsay). The falseness of the video seems to be backed up by some French-language articles, one of which refers to “critical text, concerning the video, signed conjointly by ten anthropologists attached to prestigious French organizations such as the CNRS [National Center for Scientific Research].”

Pierre Lemonnier, an expert in the PNG region and one of the above-mentioned critics, said he was “outraged” and that the video was “untruthful, racist, revolting.” Lemonnier actually recognized the area where the filming took place, commenting:

At that spot, they were about a four-day walk from an administrative center with a school teacher, an airstrip, radio, nurse and Seventh-Day Adventist preachers. Nearby, the navigable river Vailala enables the Papuans to reach the coast, where they exchange bark capes for tools.

But in an interesting twist, the author of the Antipodes blog posted an update concerning Lemonnier’s 17-page PDF. After reading the entire document, he came across some notes at the bottom which stated that Lemonnier was “condemned for slander” and brought to court. While the charges weren’t explicitly stated, the timing and circumstances of the event led him to believe that it is related to the PNG story, and he withdrew his previous statements questioning the authenticity of the video.

Scouring for information on this has taken me in circles. There seem to be varying degrees of falseness. Were they really just acting? Or was it authentic reaction at that moment but predicated on earlier contact to set it up? What would the earlier contact have entailed? It has been suggested that they were told to hide their modern tools. Was that the extent of the inauthenticity? Maybe the most important question, if this is indeed “fake”, is what was the point?

SkepticNorth has an interesting and compelling post about the whole debacle. After being duped, the author Erik Davis looks back at the pitfalls he managed to miss while watching it for the first time (hindsight is always 20/20, right?). Aside from what’s glaringly obvious when looking back after knowing more, he does hint at a good suggestion.

Besides being a filmmaker, Dutilleux is a political activist. The video is edited to evoke strong emotion (starting with the music). From the original footage, from which this edited version is sourced, Dutilleux says at one point, “This feels like a meeting in a time warp. Perhaps these Toulambis, with their wooden spears and stone axes, are the living ancestors of we, who have learned to fly without wings, talk with the stars, and destroy our own planet.” [italics added]

Is the video merely a political statement? How much of it is real and how much fabricated? I’m not sure we can know for certain, but if anyone has any good leads, please do tell.

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