The case against Leni Riefenstahl
In 1972, meanwhile, an American anthropologist, James Faris, published Nuba Personal Art, a dense structural analysis of the body painting of the south-eastern Nuba around the three villages of Kao (or Kau), Nyaro and Fungor, based on fieldwork he had done between 1966 and 1969 while a lecturer at the University of Khartoum. In 1976, a few years after Faris published his monograph, Riefenstahl returned with a second and still more ravishing collection of photographs. This was called The People of Kau. It was the fruit of a four-month return field trip she had undertaken in 1975 to the same area that Faris had worked in.
As the rival visions of the two authors converged, the American edition of The Last of the Nuba came under critical attack by Susan Sontag in the New York Review of Books. In Sontag’s essay Riefenstahl’s book was paired, somewhat tendentiously, with a book by another author called Nazi Regalia. Sontag described Riefenstahl’s vision of the Nuba as the extension of a “fascist aesthetic” of physical perfection, of cultural purity and the triumph of the strong over the weak. Riefenstahl was also criticised in similar terms by Faris in an article published by the Sudanese government sponsored magazine, Sudanow, entitled “Polluted Vision.” That was in May 1980.
The latest incursion by curious westerners into the life and art of the Nuba is a television film, The Nuba–the first in the current BBC “Worlds Apart” ethnographic series—where James Faris has the role of anthropological consultant. It is couched, like Susan Sontag’s review and Faris’ earlier article, as an attack on Riefenstahl. The commentary proclaims that her pictures of the Nuba presented a caricature of their lives:
In her work for Hitler she extolled the triumph of the strong over the weak and the physical perfection thought by the Nazis to belong to a master race. Much later in life she imposed a similar vision on the south-eastern Nuba… She emphasised the blood, the savagery and the triumph of the strong over the weak… the emphasis on physical perfection was part of her romantic distortion of what the Nuba really are.
The commentary raises a number of important questions. First, are these issues of representation the true ground of conflict between Faris and Riefenstahl? Is there, as the commentary suggests, a life-or-death difference between totalitarian appropriation of the primitive—ie Riefenstahl’s work—and pure anthropological knowledge of “what the Nuba really are”? Or might the dispute involve other, familiar elements: an argument between a learned but possessive ethnographer, on the one hand, and, on the other, a vulgar romantic primitivist who has appropriated his subject?
In which case, can the new film itself be exempted from charges of moral inconsistency, attacking, as it does, Riefenstahl’s presentation of body-painting and wrestling, while itself dwelling at length on these selfsame practices? And finally, might it be thought that these questions of interpretation become irrelevant when set beside the radical and irreversible transformations in Nuba society that are also documented in this film, absorbing and beautifully shot as it is?
In the film Riefenstahl is accused of accelerating the destruction of the old Nuba way of life by attracting European tourists to their villages in search of the thrill of the primitive. The tourists, we are told, have distorted the economy by paying youths and girls in pose for their cameras, thereby drawing the situation to the attention of the Sudanese government. The government has responded by closing the area to foreigners and stepping up its programme of Islamisation.
What particularly upsets the Sudanese government authorities, it seems, as it formerly upset Christian missionaries, is that some Nuba still sometimes go naked. (For tourists who get this far, we can assume, this is part of the attraction.) The Nuba documents the difficulties the filmmakers had negotiating with the government—and with the Nuba themselves—for permission to film. After some negotiation, they report that they
…managed to convince the authorities that our wish was to counter the stereotype, to show that Nuba body art and dancing are not relics of some state of nature lost to the rest of the world, but part of a complex tradition in which Nuba ideas about themselves are expressed.
But the Nuba wrestlers, it turns out, insist on payment for the privilege of revealing their complex tradition. And the filmmakers discover that they have a highly organised procedure for extracting the maximum amount. Responsibility for this monetization of indigenous cultural practices, the film-makers argue, is also Riefenstahl’s. Before her visit, it is claimed, “when the anthropologist whose work forms the basis of this film carried out his research, the Nuba had been extremely helpful even when he was taking pictures”.
In the film, a Nuba elder says of Riefenstahl, “she only wanted naked people…she wanted blood from the fight…she had no understanding…she just brought lots of beads and money.”
Riefenstahl, for her part, has written of the difficulty she had persuading Nuba to be photographed, compared to the subjects of her previous books: “I had never met such camera-shy people.” She says she gave the Nuba beads, mirrors and polaroids, but does not mention money.
Are beads a bad thing? Is money a bad thing? One has to wonder, at this point, if the filmmakers gave the elder they spoke with anything in return for the interview in which he relays the low- down on Riefenstahl, and whether it should be considered good or bad if they did. (Presumably the filmmakers themselves don’t work for nothing.)
There are further charges against Riefenstahl made in the film. The catalogue of crimes ranges from promotion of the “fascist aesthetic” to charges, in effect, of corrupting minors. She is described repeatedly as having perpetrated what the film-makers term a “caricature” of Nuba society. Categorised initially in the early stages of the commentary as a “one-time Nazi propagandist,” she is subsequently referred to as “Nazi propagandist”, tout court.