The Ax Fight

The Ax Fight is a thirty minute film produced in 1975 by Napoleon Chagnon and Tim Asch. Napoleon Chagnon, who is currently a professor at the University of Missouri, was a professor at Penn State at the time of the film. He has written five books and has been called the most controversial anthropologist of all time” by the NYT, due to his portrayal of some South American peoples and accusations of collaboration with corrupt politicians. Tim Asch, who was a professor at Harvard at the time of The Ax Fight, served as a TA under Margaret Mead at Columbia. He founded Documentary Educational Resources (DER), which supports the production and distribution of ethnographic and documentary films, and has more than 70 films to his credit.

The Ax Fight, which is about a Yanomami village, Mishimishimabowei-teri, in Southern Venezuela, is filmed in four parts. Initially, it shows the unedited film of a fight as observed and filmed by Tim Asch and Napoleon Chagnon. The film then replays the footage of the fight, slowed down to identify the participants in the fight and there relationships to one another. Here, Chagnon notes the differences between his original perception of the film and what he understands after interviewing members of the village. He takes care to note that information provided by his initial informant was incorrect, and includes stops in the footage to label participants and their relatives. The film then presents kinship charts which further illustrate the relationships between the participants, before concluding in an edited cut of the fight that the film focuses on. This final cut of the fight makes more narrative sense than the original, which despite lasting nearly six minutes in a single shot was difficult to follow. The juxtaposition of the edited and unedited fight makes obvious the challenges of an anthropologist of comprehending a given event without context.

The film was reexamined by Adam Curtis in 2007 documentary program The Trap, which discussed the assertion that violence in the Yanomamou culture was due to westerners providing goods to individuals, which were then fought over. Although these goods were often weapons such as machetes, Chagnon insisted that fights happened when he was not there, and that a film crew had no effect on the behavior of those filmed. It is difficult to say whether or not Chagnon is speaking honestly, but it is apparent that his statement at the beginning of the film, which reads: “large Yanomamö villages are volatile, and the slightest provocation can start a violent outburst”, is a gross simplification given that the film shows that this specific fight is the result of a building up of conflicts, not a slight provocation. It is unclear whether including this statement was meant to reiterate the fallacies that can be made by simple observation, or if Chagnon believes the statement to be true.

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