Feb 082012

A mockumentary about an expedition into the Amazon to look for a missing naturist/TV show host, The River is what you get if you sticks The Blair Witch Project, Apocalypse Now/The Heart of Darkness and Lost in a blender and hit frappe, and what comes out is pretty tasty, harkening back to the the grandparent of the mockumentary/horror film subgenre, Cannibal Holocaust. (Classic horror writers like Bram Stoker and HP Lovecraft used lots of found documents and faux journalism in their stories too.) The show serves up some good visuals of the beauty of the Amazon and lots of thrills, chills and WTF moments.

There are some logic gaps (Would a person who’s leg has been slashed open and stitched up immediately stand in muddy river water? If you’ve successfully performed a blood sacrifice to contain a hostile spirit, are you really going to dismiss the idea of haunted trees?), but the premise mostly hangs together.

There’s also an interesting meta-fictional layer. One of the characters is the producer/director who is financing this expedition as a TV series. When he finds the explorer’s missing boat, he immediately settles into the onboard edit suite, clearly for him a seat of power. Not only does he control the surveillance cameras all over the boat, he has the power to reshape these events into a dramatic story as they happen, a “product” as he explicitly says.

So what story is he going to tell? The River combines two genres: “up the river into unfamiliar territory” and “contacting the unseen world”, the Safari and the Seance. The problem is, both genres operate on a very particular configuration of gender, class, family structure and especially race. The spirtualists of 19th century England were either women or men of other races, or at least presented themselves as such. For a white man to contact the spirit world, he needed a medium, an Other person by dint of race or gender and therefore closer to the unseen world. The medium did the work, while the white man reaped the benefits of knowledge.

The safari operates on a similar division of labour, with native porters carrying the heavy stuff and providing limited information, while the great white hunter, or TV show host in his modern version, stamps his mark on the unfamiliar wilderness, going beyond what his guides tell him.

In The River, the role of medium/guide is filled by Jahel, daughter of the expedition’s engineer. She’s an early adolescent and a POC (Latino/Indian) and female and may or may not speak English; she’s overqualified to contact the spirit world, compared to the white Anglos who lead this expedition. In the first episode, her warnings not to go into the unknown region are, of course, ignored, as are all warnings from indigenous people in this kind of narrative. (The African-British camera op actually points this out.)

In the second, a dragonfly, apparently containing Emmet’s soul, flies into her mouth and possesses her. In between comatose periods, she speaks in Emmet’s voice, giving cryptic messages to Emmet’s wife and touching her suggestively. (It’s straight out of that scene in Ghost between Demi Moore and Whoopi Goldberg.)

What’s discomfiting is that it falls into the old trope of brown people sacrificing themselves for the sake of white people; in this case, Jahel is making herself sick so that Emmet’s spirit can talk to his wife, so their marriage and family can be saved for a moment. You think her father, who speaks fondly of “Mr. Emmet”, would be a little upset about this.

As they go further up the river, it remains to be seen if the show will break out of the tropes of its genre ancestors. The first victim of the supernatural nastiness definitely wasn’t a WASP, however.

Lone Ranger: “We’re surrounded by hostile Indians, Tonto.”

Tonto: “Whaddaya mean ‘we’, kemosabe?”

The other problem with this kind of story is the equation of indigenous people = the past = spirit world. I’ve been researching the Sioux Sun Dance for my BDSM history project, and I had always assumed that the Sun Dance had been performed by First Nations for thousands of years, basically since primordial time. However, anthropologists date it back to anywhere from 1750 to 1800 AD. Even some of the Sioux date it to 1685 AD. (See Mails, Thomas E. Sundancing: The Great Sioux Piercing Ritual. Council Oak Books, 1998. Pg. 14) So, when Sioux perform it, they are not stepping out of time to a place beyond society; they are within their society. The division into present and past, spiritual and mundane, is artificial and lacking in nuance.

Even the title of Emmet’s show within a show, The Undiscovered Country, raises the uncomfortable colonial issue of “discovering” people, places and things, as if they were passively waiting for white, Western men to show up and bring them into the real world.

The show’s uncharted territory (is there such a thing in the age of Google Maps and satellite imagery?) may be unknown to the outside world, but there are probably people there, and they are probably not desperately waiting to be drawn into somebody’s family conflict that will be packaged into an entertainment product. Can we still have an adventure show set in “exotic” locales that doesn’t reproduce these colonialist social structures, that does not view the rest of the world as a gymnasium/obstacle course for white people to practice their self-actualization on the backs of non-white people? Maybe. Of course, the main character is a white guy searching for his missing father in the wilderness, so there’s reason to be pessimistic.

Lost-style shows, in which diverse characters explore mysteries, don’t have a good track record. Even if they don’t get cancelled after a few episodes, they tend to fizzle out, dragging out mysteries long after the audience stops caring or just abandoning them. (Battlestar Galactica was a particularly egregious example of this, just ignoring the exploration of science fiction mysteries in favour of the banal personal stories of the characters.)

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