Review: the documentary ‘Ghostland: The View of the Ju/’Hoansi’

Not too long ago, the first time one of the bushpeople of the Ju/’Hoansi – a nomadic and once flourishing tribe of transient subsistence hunters who call the Africa’s Kalahari Desert their home – saw a white person it was like seeing a ghost. To these largely Namibian indigenous peoples, such visitors were a rarity. Then in 1989, following a ruling by the Namibian government that effectively curtailed centuries of hunting practices, the Ju/’Hoansi had to become dependent on largely white bands of tourists bearing gifts for their survival.

There’s something interesting to be said about the specifics of what amounts to a form of cultural genocide giving way to dependency based on cultural appropriations, but that’s not what interests anthropologist and filmmaker Simon Stadler in his wonky, but okay documentary Ghostland: The View of the Ju/’Hoansi. Instead of taking a look at hardship, setback, and deeper themes, Stadler uses his time spent among the Ju/’Hoansi to mount a cutesy documentary equivalent of a fish out of water tale. It’s not bad for what it is, but it’s frustrating when one pauses to think about what the film could have been and what it could have meant to the people being depicted.

After briefly outlining the history of Stadler’s subjects at the outset, Ghostland: The View of the Ju/’Hoansi abruptly shifts focus to asking tribal members about their curiosity towards the visitors they have come to depend on over the past several decades. Not much is made about the overarching history of the Ju/’Hoansi, which is distressing since Stadler comes from an anthropological background and should know better than to give things such short shrift. Stadler seems completely disinterested in means of cultural survival and adaptation because what he really wants to get to is several road trips and journeys where tribal members will learn about the cultures of the people who come to visit them.

These people, most of whom have no use or desire for clothing outside of loin cloths, are amazed on a bus tour of some of Namibia’s larger cultural centres by what they see even in the large scale department stores that most town and city people take for granted. Several months after this trip, a handful of tribal members are invited to Germany and Italy to take part in cultural educational exchanges, where the fast pace and workaholic nature of European living takes them aback.

To Stadler’s credit, he isn’t bending over backwards to make Ghostland: The View of the Ju/’Hoansi into a deliberately amusing film in the vein of the fictional yarn The Gods Must be Crazy, but he certainly never shies away from making those comparisons implicitly. The cultural differences between European and bush cultures aren’t elevated to a point of outright comedy or even delivered with any sort of skewed intent, and they’re talked about among tribal members with a great degree of intelligence. The smarts might be the saving grace of the film, but tonally all that’s left here by such a threadbare and simplistic approach to complex differences and issues is a film about tourists (in this case, the audience) watching other tourists (the Ju/’Hoansi) observing the habits of more tourists (Europeans and other Africans). It’s never insensitive or racist in any way, but it’s never as informative or insightful as Stadler probably intended it to be.

There are some poignant moments – particularly the first moment that the travellers first encounter impoverished Europeans or when tribal members express the fear of leaving loved ones behind – but they’re all fleeting, and increasingly these moments feel like glorified photo ops. I couldn’t tell exactly what Stadler wanted to say about these people and their position in African society throughout Ghostland: The View of the Ju/’Hoansi. By solely focusing on the viewpoint of these people via stilted, seemingly sanitized sit down interviews to the camera, Stadler only scratches the surface of something that could have brought a potentially fascinating and politically important subject to a larger audience. Instead, Stadler has created a decent, admittedly layered travel brochure for the locations he’s depicting. The wide eyed curiosity and well earned skepticism of the Ju/’Hoansi give the film a lot of natural charm, but that good natured vibe comes at the expense of narrative and documentary truth. It’s fine for what it is, but don’t try to unpack anything going on around the margins here.

Ghostland: The View of the Ju/’Hoansi opens at The Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema in Toronto on Sunday, December 25, 2016.

Check out the trailer for Ghostland: The View of the Ju/’Hoansi:

Andrew Parker
Andrew Parker fell in love with film growing up across the street from a movie theatre. He began writing professionally about film at the age of fourteen, and has been following his passions ever since. His writing has been showcased at various online outlets, as well as in The Globe and Mail, BeatRoute, and NOW Magazine. If he's not watching something or reading something, he's probably sleeping.