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Mention the Bushmen of southern Africa and millions of people will think of the idyllic Kalahari Desert scenes portrayed in the immensely popular 1980 film “The Gods Must Be Crazy.” But how accurate, really, was the romantic portrayal of the peaceful Ju/’hoansi in that film and in its 1989 successor, “The Gods Must Be Crazy II” (hereafter Gods I and Gods II)?

A recent scholarly article by Keyan Tomaselli, a professor of Culture, Communication, and Media Studies at the University of Natal, reviews the literature and controversy surrounding those two films, and others, by the Afrikaner director Jamie Uys. Tomaselli does not deny that Gods I, particularly, is a very entertaining film. He highlights the director’s skill in mixing ethnographic footage with slapstick—scenic filming interrupted with a nonsensical story about a Ju/’hoansi group reacting to a Coke bottle that was tossed out of an airplane.

One of the most delightful aspects of the film is the way it interconnects goofy caricatures of people, such as the white biologist or the black terrorists, with the unspoiled desert and the supposedly primitive, superstitious San people. There is no denying that it provides warm, charming, ingenuous entertainment, even if the vision of the Ju/’hoansi is a lie.

Both films came out during the apartheid era and have been subject to a lot of criticism, particularly about the alleged racism of the films and the inaccurate publicity that promoted them. The recent article by Tomaselli quotes the thoughts of the lead actor in both films, a Ju/’hoansi man named Gao (also spelled N!Xau), and some other San people. Gao argued that the films were simply fiction, and he was only acting as he was directed. He said that, “the image of the Bushmen given by the Gods films is not really good because it does not show how people are really living. It only shows the past. People should not see this as what is happening now” (p.184). He added, however, that it was just acting.

Tomaselli asked Gao, before the actor died, about community responsibility and sharing, and how making the movies might have affected those traditions in the Ju/’hoansi community. Gao responded, “only those who worked [on the films] benefited and those who did not work did not benefit….It caused some tension because some of the people were having it good while the others had nothing and they were jealous” (p.189-90).

Tomaselli included in his analysis the thoughts of a number of Africans, particularly other San people. One man believes that the film was part of the propaganda of a racist regime, but another saw the film as simple fiction, without much further meaning. One man resented the portrayal of the hero of Gods I, Xi, as a simpleton; another disliked the fact that Xi, in his opinion, acted crazy in the film. These people could see no reason why Xi would want to throw the Coke bottle away at the end of the world, since he could never have gotten there. Still another expressed resentment that a romanticized vision of the hunter gatherer way of life, already lost in the 1980s, would be shown in the film.

Tomaselli focuses his criticism on the inaccurate and misleading publicity that surrounded the films. Uys made up wildly exaggerated statements about the ways he found Gao, the conditions under which the lead actor lived in real life, his relationships to the outside world, and the ways they communicated. For instance, in a 1985 comment quoted by the New York Times, Uys said about Gao that “the tiny Bushman had only seen one other white man, a missionary,” before they met. Tomaselli indicates that was not true. In the same vein, Gao supposedly had no idea of the value of money. When the director paid Gao for his work, the actor purportedly let the money blow away on the wind. Gao told Tomaselli that that story too was nonsense.

Despite the criticisms of Gods I and its publicity, Uys tried to maintain his romantic fiction about Gao in his 1989 press kit about Gods II. He evidently wanted to foster the vision of the Ju/’hoansi as people living in an unspoiled Eden, which of course would help sell the second movie. The director indicated that Gao, as of 1989, was still a contented forager who lived a simple, natural life, a man who “drinks the morning dew” (p.188).

Some critics argue that the idea of the Ju/’hoansi viewing a Coke bottle as an object from the gods is a fundamental part of the ethnocentrism and racisim. We, the educated viewers, know what the bottle really is, but the simple, ignorant people don’t. The piece of trash thrown from the airplane ironically symbolizes, to some, the nature of the “gifts” from colonial countries to the colonized societies. Other critics, predictably, argue that no harm was intended by the portrayals in the film, a position that Uys of course took. The question of when humorous fiction crosses the line into insensitivity, bigotry, or racism may be left up to individual perceptions.

Tomaselli’s conclusion about the films is that they portray a romantic idyll built upon the Afrikaner dream of a return to an innocent, rural existence that they lost in 1902 when the English defeated them in the Boer War. The author argues that Uys, an unreconstructed Afrikaner, projects an enduring Arcadian fantasy onto the Ju/’hoansi people. This myth of a return to a rural existence apparently permeates Afrikaner literature, television, cinema, and mythology. In the Gods films, the Bushmen are a reversed metaphor for the Afrikaners, he suggests.

Tomaselli is willing to cut some slack for the two Gods films themselves since they were clearly fiction, but he is harder on the press kits and the attempts by Uys to paint the Ju/’hoansi as still living in a romantic, Edenic fashion. By 1978, when Gods I was being produced, almost none of the thousand or so Ju/’hoansi living in the same town as Gao foraged or hunted in the bush any longer. They endured life in a slum. When popular fiction, such as the Gods films, cross into promoting lies, analyses such as this one by Tomaselli are worth careful study.

Tomaselli, Keyan G. 2006. “Rereading the Gods Must be Crazy Films.” Visual Anthropology 19: 171-200.