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Asmat, Time’s Forgotten People cover image

Asmat, Time’s Forgotten People Year n/a

Highly Recommended

Distributed by Filmakers Library, 124 East 40th St., New York, NY 10001,; 212) 808-4980
Produced by ZED (Zoo Ethnological Documentary)
Directed by Jean Michel Gorillion
VHS, 52 min., color

Jr. High - Adult

Date Entered: 11/09/2018

Reviewed by Gloria Maxwell, Reference Librarian, Penn Valley Community College,

On the southwestern coast of western Papua live a people whose culture and territory have long been protected from outsiders by high mountains to the north and the dangerous storms of the Arafora Sea to the south. The first white men to arrive in their territory were Dutch scientists. They had difficulty finding any local bearers willing to carry their equipment for fear of meeting the terrifying “men who eat men,” as the Asmat were known. More influential than the Dutch or Indonesian civil servants were Catholic missionaries who came to the Asmat in the 1930s. They learned all the Asmat languages, built dispensaries, and brought education to them, along with their religion. They were also horrified by their practices of headhunting, wearing nose rings, and promiscuity. All of these cultural manifestations they declared unacceptable and moved the Asmat away from continued practice of them. Most of the Asmat did not become Catholic, and those who did convert did not remain so.

This documentary artfully intersperses archival footage with contemporary scenes in order to contrast the ways of the past with those of the present. The older men feel that their ancestors are mad because they no longer head hunt their enemies, and they miss being able to enact their tribal traditions. Famed as exceptional wood sculptors, all Asmat men learn sculpting, but ritual artifacts require a specialist who is accorded high standing in their society. Rituals form a large part of Asmat culture and emphasize the importance of the group over the individual. This is a matriarchal society where the mother’s brother serves as the father to her children. They do not cultivate the land, but hunt, fish, and harvest the sago palm that provides them with a nourishing starch. Due to high humidity, no foodstuffs can be saved, so finding food is a daily activity. Women hold a very powerful position in the family. They are responsible for imposing proper behavior on their men, and make it known throughout the village when misbehavior occurs. The Asmat recognize that life comes from women and they consider children their primary source of wealth. The main focus of this film is following the efforts of a young man named Rufinus who must succeed at completing an ancient ritual before he is allowed to marry. Since headhunting is no longer an option, he must track and kill a cassowary (a large, dangerous land bird). His uncle Ambros shows him how to track the bird and lay traps. The other group elders also try to help Rufinus and provide the sense of community that is passed along to the younger generation. Once the cassowary is killed, Ambros shows Rufinus how to butcher it and use every part of the bird—nothing is wasted. From this trophy, knives will be made, feathers used for decoration, and the meat shared with everyone in the family and village.

The technical qualities in this documentary are excellent. Contemporary footage is in color, with the contrasting black and white archival footage serving as a dramatic counterpoint to the main story being told.

Highly recommended for anthropology and/or ethnology collections as well as social science video collections. Audience: Jr. Hi. – Adult.