Bill Nichols proposes that the documentary was instrumental in the construction of the 20th-century form of national identity; from Americans capturing the Americana of a declining Appalachian coal industry to Soviet documentarians applying Karl Marx’s statement that the working class need to be represented because they cannot do so themselves, documentary shapes our concept of community and nationality. This can be useful; such films brought attention to issues that otherwise were invisible to the general public, or reinforced unity during wartime, or create a positive cultural experience like Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Mysterious Object at Noon, but nationalistic documentary has its downsides.
Dennis O’Rourke’s Cannibal Tours embodies the concept of negative nationalism and identity as wealthy Europeans and Americans visit underdeveloped formerly colonized countries to observe the culture of the people living there. The arrogance of the tourists illustrates the drawbacks of a strictly nationalist identity when used to elevate one’s own country/region/language/culture over another. From the Italians judging the natives as being “happy in their primitive ways,” to the German who interviewed a local man about German colonialism then recorded his own interpretation that the natives enjoyed the German presence despite that never being said, these tourists are interloping into a place they do not and will not understand assuming that in some way they are wiser, stronger, or more advanced than the native peoples.
It also illustrates the value, and pitfall, of “print capitalism” as defined by Benedict Anderson in Imagined Communities. The “sophisticated tourists” benefit from the printed word; in their conversations they say “I read this about the natives” or “I read that about their art,” while the native peoples suffer the loss of their own culture and identity in favor of a manufactured show to please the tourists. The native children go to school and are educated in the culture of the printed language, losing their own identity in the process. That the tourists have a written language and the natives they are touring do not is not explicitly said out loud, but can be seen through the conversations that O’Rourke recorded.
The importance of recognizing and analyzing nationalistic documentary is to recognize the problems that such styles create. Many documentaries are patronizing and manipulative when dealing with the “other,” the person or people outside of the filmmakers or audience’s own community. Early documentaries altered reality, like Nanook of the North, to fabricate an identity for the people being portrayed; others, with less intentional manipulation, simply portrayed their subjects as being helpless, romanticized, like children who need assistance from somebody else. However, the very definition of documentary requires us as filmmakers to break out of our own “imagined communities” and record other communities with the same care and fairness as we do our own.