It’s finally happened: Channel 4 has exhausted every possible angle for fly in the wall documentaries in the UK. Following the success of Big Brother with mounted cameras in night buses, fried chicken shops, pubs, hotels, family homes, schools, used car dealerships, maternity wards and nightclub toilets; the broadcaster has travelled abroad to film, in minute detail, the daily lives of a ‘tribe’ in Ethiopia.
According to Channel 4 ‘The Tribe’ follows the day-to-day life of the Ayke Muko family, part of the “20,000-strong Hamar tribe living in the Omo region of Southern Ethiopia”:
“Cameras placed in and around the family’s huts capture the intricacies of their relationships, their social bonds and attitudes towards parenting and the community. It also charts how they are embracing the encroachment of the modern world while holding onto their traditional way of life.
“Filmed for the most part with small unobtrusive cameras, the series presents an intimate and uniquely authentic portrayal of tribal family life. The series follows them as they fall in love, fall out and come together as a family and through it all we discover there may be more that unites than divides our two worlds.”
When I first saw the advertisement, my instant reaction was one of horror. The title in itself ‘The Tribe’ was enough to set alarm bells ringing, smacking of Bruce Parry’s trampling through groups of remote people for the BBC in the early 2000s. My concerns were many. I questioned the intention of the documentary – what did it hope to achieve? Who did it serve? What messages did it intend to convey?
Having experienced Channel Four ‘documentaries’ I knew how much they sensationalise and dramatise supposedly natural and realistic scenes for the viewing pleasure of the audience, frequently stripping subjects of dignity and authenticity. I felt concerned that selective editing would make a spectacle of Ethiopian family life, disrespecting and patronising cultures and traditions and reinforcing and perpetuating engrained stereotypes in the UK long attributed to African countries.
There were moments where my thoughts flitted towards hope. I read that Paddy Wivell, series producer and director for Renegade Pictures, said: “This is a new way of doing TV anthropology … What excited the consultant anthropologist we worked with was that we were using a different tool – you don’t have a camera operator or a presenter. You can film it in a purer way. I sometimes feel too much television is presented through western, celebrity eyes … Let people speak for themselves.”
Perhaps this documentary would be different, perhaps it would present an honest, respectful and empowering window into Ethiopian life. Maybe it would open up direct channels of communication and influence with UK viewers, challenging perceptions and amplifying the voices of Ethiopians who have long been associated by British media and dominant culture with being little more than victims of famine and poverty. Perhaps it might demonstrate the similarities we all share as humans, with similar hopes and dreams and feelings.
Finally, I came to rest on the wise words spoken by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie at the PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature and published on my blog just last month. She said:
“You know I’ve actually found that the older I get, the less interested I am in how the West sees Africa, and the more interested I am in how Africa sees itself. […] I do think that the West matters. I do think that engagement matters. But increasingly I’m not as interested as I used to be in this idea that somehow the western gaze should be that biding, interesting subject of the people on the continent of Africa. And also what it means then is we start to cut to those really ugly, dangerous colonial ties…”
I remembered that this is what matters. Yes, there is a role for us in the UK to amplify African voices and stories. Yes we should continue to challenge the stereotypes, narratives and representations of the African continent and people in Western culture that are patronising, racist and silencing. But this should not be about making Ethiopia, or Africa or Africans palatable to the West. It should not be about trying to prove Ethiopian ‘competence’, ‘development’ or ‘civilisation’ in the Western image. It should not even be about demonstrating that ‘we’re all the same.’ What matters is how Ethiopia, and Africa as a continent sees itself.
Africa and the ‘developing world’ doesn’t need Western approval or documentaries. And actually, it doesn’t need aid, or ‘saving’, or ‘civilising’, or ‘enabling’. What is needed is a speedy withdrawal of Western self-interested intervention in foreign affairs. What is needed is a level playing field. No looting of countries for billions of pounds of resources; no underrepresentation and marginalisation in international institutions; no unfair structural adjustment policies; no unequal trade agreements; no crippling debt repayments, and, eventually no aid and no Oxfams. The West needs to right the wrongs it has done to those it has built on the backs of, and then back the hell off, leaving countries to operate and grow and change in whatever way they see fit, existing in the world with mutual respect and asking for support and cooperation as and when they decide.
I’ll wait to see what ‘The Tribe’ brings. The best outcome for the programme is that develops empathy in viewers, bringing more Brits on board with the idea that all humans are of equal value and deserve equal opportunity and autonomy. The worst outcome is that it presents a disingenuous, disempowering, sensationalised portrayal of Ethiopian family life. Either way, how much does it matter?
You can watch the trailer for ‘The Tribe’ here.