Disappearing World

A guide for anthropologists

Disappearing World is a series of anthropology inspired documentaries focusing on societies around the world, and more often than not, that of tribal people.

Filmed since 1970, the film makers recognise the series title can be misleading. They believe films more often reflect a changing world than a disappearing one.

The series has been in production since 1970. It is important to realise that each film is made for an interested documentary audience. The films are not made for an audience of anthropological students, and shouldn’t be intended to be the visual equivalent of an anthropology student thesis.

The film makers aim was to give their viewers an understanding of other ways of life from the viewpoint of the people who are living them.

The film makers did this with the aid of expert anthropologists and a skilled documentary production crew, building in particular on his or her human relationship with the people concerned.

As quoted by Leslie Woodhead, the maker of many Disappearing Worlds:

Inevitably, the curious alliance of anthropologist and film-maker has its continuing problems. Sometimes the pacing appropriate for peak time audiences is faster than a student of ritual might wish, sometimes the need to give space to an ethno-graphic insight risks making a non-specialist viewer restless … I’m aware of the investment of trust that the anthropologist has to risk in the film-maker. For the television professional, the film is another film, an incident in a career. For the anthropologist, the film may draw on a life’s work and it could prejudice relationships and understandings built up over years in the field.

Professor Andrew Strathern (the Disappearing World anthropologist on “Ongka’s Big Moka”), writing in the same journal, concludes:

Film projects are a kind of test of relationships and can cause them to break. In my case I have thought such risks are worth taking for the sake of the product and its potential impact, which is so much wider than any I can hope to have through books. In addition, it may lead people back to the available written materials about the cultures and thereby provide a further context for the images on film.

As any other disrupting force from the outside, the film makers were aware of the pitfalls. Supposedly, they didn’t rush in and set up cameras everywhere as a human zoo. They tread carefully, and did their best to get to know the people before filming.

Furthermore, the film makers went on to state:

Like anthropology itself, we have adapted and changed over the years. We do recognise the reflexive nature of our presence, and we don’t assume that reality is somehow objectively out there.

We value our relationship with the world of anthropology. We won’t step over the calf-rope if you tell us not to. We’ll stay away from the healing ritual if you tell us it is too private an affair. But that’s not to say that there won’t be times when we’ll talk into the night trying to reconcile our needs with your concerns.

Episode 1: The Meo

Episode 1: The Meo

Anthropologist Jacques Lemoine guides us through every day life in Meo (Hmong) societal life in this first episode.

The Meo were originally aborigines of northern central China but forced to migrate south to avoid oppression and to preserve their way of life. Today (1971) they live in villages scattered over China and Southeast Asia.

This documentary takes a specific look at the Meo in Laos where they suffered heavy losses in the civil war. It also shows the Meo in American backed refugee camps and includes their traditional lifestyle which they are trying to preserve.

Episode 2: The War of The Gods

Episode 2: The War of The Gods

This episode gives us a glimpse of Protestants and Catholics competing to enforce their religion on the traditional Maku and Barasana people of the forests of Colombia.

Episode 3: The Last of the Cuiva

Episode 3: The Last of the Cuiva

There are only 600 Cuiva, a group of nomadic hunters left in Columbia, with perhaps another 400 across the border in Venezuela. They once roamed the plains, but now are restricted to a small strip of land.

Let’s take a look who they are through this episode.

Episode 4: The Mehinacu

Episode 4: The Mehinacu

The Mehinaku (or Mehináko) are an indigenous people of Brazil. They live in the Indigenous Park of the Xingu, located around the headwaters of the Xingu River in Mato Grosso.

This episode of Dissapearing world focus on the opposition of the sexes expressed through the “Piqui” rituals.

Disappearing World
  • Info
  • Release date1970
  • Full runtime
  • Director(s)Brian Moser, Charlie Nairn
  • Production companyITV Granada