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BERGEN SUMMER RESEARCH SCHOOL

Modern Life is Rubbish

One of the new features at this year’s Bergen Summer Research School was a micro film festival that became a huge success with the participants.

On the face of it, the two films – both documentaries of sorts – chosen for the micro film festival at the Bergen Summer Research School (BSRS) could not have been more different. “Shooting with Mursi” tells the tale of the Ethiopian Mursi tribe, a pastoral people whose natural habitat is being encroached by development, government intervention and neighbouring tribes. “Hitman Hart: Wrestling with Shadows” on the other hand tells the tale of former World Wrestling Federation (WWF) champion Bret Hart and his fall from grace.

The Unreliable Narrator

But scratch the surface, and the two films have quite a few features in common. Both of them start with the premise of the unreliable narrator. In Mursi, we are presented with Olisarali Olibui. He is presented as the tribe’s only English-speaker, a language he according to himself learned in Australia. Given a camera, he sets out to document the pressures from the outside world that endanger the Mursi’s way of life.

Hart is quite a different beast. But he is equally unreliable as a narrator. Whereas on the one hand he is part of the WWF machinery, he also claims to stand for family values and a more social conservatism than the rampant commercialism of the company he works for. As his career falls apart, the audience find itself wondering how much of what Hart is saying is genuine critique of the system that made him or whether it is just outright self-pity. The debate amongst the students after the film pointed towards a majority feeling it was the latter.

Supporting the Status Quo

Not that the students’ reaction to the Mursi spokesman Olibui was notably different. Many were questioning his motives. And in the film, there is a young tribesman who questions Olibui: Who are you? And why are you filming us? Indeed. The film gives a rather one-sided account of development and takes a rose-tinted view of the traditions of the Mursi. Although there are hints in the film that at least some of the young Mursi are quite keen to embrace a different lifestyle from their ancestors. Then again, there are touching scenes where members of the tribe wonder what will happen with the ideals of beauty that exist within the Mursi tribe if they conform to the outside world.

The similarities don’t end there. Olibui and Hart both come across as defenders of the old. In this way they both take a somewhat establishment view supporting the status quo, yet at the same time pitting themselves as underdogs against the forces of globalisation. Not that the critique in itself isn’t valid. Both films include strong arguments against commodification and concern about how big corporations and big government value people mainly in terms of money. The problem is rather that both films romanticise their protagonists to the point where they become cardboard characters rather than the multi-layered personalities we want them to be.

Reality Check

Watching these two films as part of one whole, one might conclude that modern life is rubbish, to borrow an album title from the British pop band Blur. A more critical reading of the films would however uncover that both narrators are a product of the modernity they set out to undermine. In this sense their criticism is undermined by their own position as spokesmen for a reality that may only exist in their own minds. For Hart this is his belief that the Hitman Hart character is real, for Olibui it is the belief that the old nomadic ways of the Mursi must be preserved at any cost. Things are never that simple, but as the discussion amongst the BSRS participants showed after the screenings, the subjects touched upon in both films clearly resonated with the discussions in the workshops at the summer school. In this respect the micro film festival clearly was a success and should be considered as a regular feature for future summer schools.