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John F. Kennedy,
In September, 1959, six Europeans leave Cook's Bay on the southern coast of Dutch New Guinea, now West Papua or Irian Jaya, to trek north to the far side of the island. The journey (450 miles, as a crow flies) across unmapped territory took seven months; three Muyu porters died. Near both coasts, the expedition met villagers who invited them to observe rituals and live with them. In the interior, all villagers kept them at bay, and they depended on air lifts from Hollandia for food and supplies. They climbed above 10,000 feet, built 14 bridges, and fought leeches and malaria. The narrator focuses on describing Stone Age savages, headhunters, and cannibals. Written by
The Sky Above The Mud Below is an absolutely stunning film. This was made about 1960. It is basically one of the last journeys of its kind: A trek into unexplored territory meeting uncontacted tribes in New Guinea. Where can you go today this remote? As our world grows closer and closer in its current media saturated configuration the possibility of real geographic and ethnographic discovery by anyone is becoming more and more remote. The tribes are all accounted for. This film is the only real glimpse we can get of what it was like for explorers of the past to encounter the UNKNOWN. Yes as it is modern times they do have a radio. But no plane can land anywhere to find them. As their rickety little boat motors up river suddenly the voyagers come up a huge band of cannibal headhunters chanting intensely in canoes downstream straight towards them, hundreds and hundreds. It is compelling and eerie, Truly Other. One of the blessings of this film is that it is NOT made by anthropologists or any of the politically correct interpreters of the present, the kind of people who say "Well everyone has their own culture you know." Thus the tribal natives appear truly other in a way that preserves their mystery and uniqueness. The explorers may not understand what they are seeing but then again neither do we. The rites are truly hard to enter from the outside. Men sleep on skulls. Human skin is cut to seal a lizard skin drum. Young boys are readied to spend a night alone with a freshly cut head. Tribal warfare lurks everywhere. Malarial jungles invade the explorers' minds with frightening efficiency. Ghosts and spirits haunt everything. This film captures the dream of the exotic, the fear of the jungle as a central archetype better than any film I can think of. This is a glimpse of the true heart of darkness. This is a chance to look into a cannibal's face and to see both the humanity and that which lurks within us all. As we move towards our own neo-pagan dreams of burning men in the Nevada desert and frat house orgies captured for the Internet. New Guinea whispers to us. Paganism isn't just a few incantations of cosmic energy. There is always the blood. It must return if we move that way. Our postmodern cargo cults need to look to this part of the world to understand many things. Otherwise our rituals will bring fear lest we perform them the wrong way. I am so glad this film exists to leave a cracked door open on a world that has nearly completely vanished. They do listen to rap music now in New Guinea. You can take a tour. But New Guinea requires deep thought.
(By the way it is available on DVD now. It was made to be watched in French with English subtitles. It is on the same DVD as Black and White in Color. I wish it had a DVD of its own. A triple bill of The Sky Above The Mud Below with Dead Birds and Cannibal Tours would be outstanding.)
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