I first heard of the Ik in seventh grade when my social studies teacher handed out photo copies of an essay written by Lewis Thomas. The paper fretted over the implications of this isolated tribe who live on a remote mountain in Uganda, and were described in a book as being malicious to absurd proportions. The Ik were depicted as wretched, loveless creatures who only feel joy when observing the sufferings of others. The horror completely escaped the class, and despite the teacher’s rebukes, most of us found the article hysterical.
Looking back, I realize the reason for this was because schools had transformed us into Iks. Education was fraught with brutal hypocrisy. We were advised to focus on learning rather than grades, although grades were heralded as the ultimate commodity. We were told to respect aboriginal races, and not be ethnocentric, despite dated educational texts and film reels that depicted tribal behavior as savage. We were expected to feel empathy for the oppressed and downtrodden, all while we were forced to abdicate our will and subjugate ourselves to the whims of our teachers and school administrators. It is no wonder we found the misery of the Ik comical. Not only did they openly insult one another, but they even hurled their feces at their neighbors.
The fact was, though, that the Ik really didn’t come across all that differently from other tribes we had seen in ethnographies who sacrificed animals, had gruesome initiation rituals, or smeared cow dung on the walls of their huts. What set the Ik apart from other tribes; however, was that this was the first situation we had been exposed to where the anthropologist expressed his feelings honestly. Rather than justify their behavior behind the guise of universal relativism, Colin Turnbull insisted that these people were horrid barbarians. Amazingly enough, hosts of other respected individuals who read his work eagerly affirmed his sentiments.
What made the Ik compelling to me, was that they were singled out as being offensive. Their capacity to generate outrage among teachers, whom I believe hold unwarranted power over students, made them heroic in my eyes. Whatever their true identity was, they were clearly subversive.
Considering the notoriety they received when they were first introduced to the world, and the attention they continue to garner in academia, it is remarkable that no film crew had ever documented a return. Naturally, the countless dangers in attempting to get to that region played a large role in their isolation.
The mindset I had in seventh grade which opposed the hierarchy of the status quo persisted, and was in large part the source of my curiosity. I wanted to know what made the Ik appear to be such a threat that an anthropologist even advocated annihilating their culture by dispersing the people throughout the region. My vision in how to approach filming the Ik also had to diverge from films which infantilized less technologically advanced cultures. Pacing was deliberately unhurried, with an emphasis placed on daily life rather than rare moments of drama. In addition, I insisted that the crew be included as participants in the interactions because we were there, and to hide that would be hiding what they were reacting to and their behavior would be out of context. In addition, I wanted to show them in relation to us, as opposed to in contrast with us, in order allow their identities to unfold.
I also had guiding principles of what not to do. I did not want to take an objective detached approach of treating people as experimental subjects, where comparisons to the viewer become implicit. At the same time, I did not want to take the other extreme of idealizing their society. When people were interviewed, I designed a conversational tone to overcome inherent distance, which focused on their daily concerns and enabled their dignity to emerge.
The most controversial plan was the introduction of dramatic performance. Many of the Ik proved to be natural actors who loved to perform, and understood how to adopt a new persona. The use of theatrics presented a deeper connection with the Ik by way of paradox: their identities came through as they pretended to be characters they were not. By discovering their moral core, the converse of that paradox was equally illuminating: our culture’s identity was revealed when the Ik were presented as something they are not.
I first met the Ik in Brooklyn during the spring of 2009. They arrived at my door, packaged neatly into a box just big enough to hold a pair of shoes.
Inside was a media drive with about 70 hours of footage shot by Cevin Soling in northeastern Uganda, one of the wildest and most ungoverned regions of the world. My instructions were to examine this footage and determine whether I could imagine a film.
The images were striking. Photographer David Pluth captured amazingly beautiful scenes, depicting a life so different from my own that it felt like science fiction. During subsequent weeks, I was overcome with the experience of a foreign planet, or a distant time, or perhaps both. It was in this way that I came to know Ikland.
Colin Turnbull was the only other visitor to film the Ik. It was he who introduced them to the world with his famously disparaging book, The Mountain People. His hours of 16mm footage provided content for the opening minutes of our film. While reading Turnbull, I noticed his characterization of Ik men and women as a collective scientific topic. Personalities were always described as aspects of Ik culture, which I thought was a mistake. He defined his characters within a hypothesis, but I wanted to do things differently. I decided to introduce the Ik as individuals, assuming nothing about their associations, with the expectation that any cultural conclusions would either reveal themselves, or not.
The film itself features a distinct visual and narrative style. The dimensions of movie screens have varied over the years. Originally, they were rectangles whose height was 75% of their length. They later became wider, but retained their basic, elongated rectangular shapes. As a filmmaker, I’ve always been jealous of the freedom that painters, sculptors, and other visual artists enjoy in determining the scale and dimensions of their work. I am particularly impressed with the geometric choices of the Suprematists during the early 20th century. They identified a previously unfulfilled visual language in the meaning of the shapes they used. I felt this could be exploited cinematically, so I arranged our images in specific spatial orientations to offer an extra narrative dimension. Aesthetic motives were also in play, but they were secondary.
This technique introduced the concept of vacant space to a canvas ordinarily filled from edge to edge. Spaces between the images describe proximity, just as the spaces between scenes distinguish chapters on a larger scale. This required an especially immersive and directional sound design to provide the proper context.
The importance of audio is usually overlooked in film, since the best designs are often the most transparent. However it was once pointed out to me that in movies, apart from what you see, sound is all there is. Insects have 12 eyes popping out of their skulls in all directions. Tragically, we do not. Hence, we must hear the things we can not see. With this in mind, I made room for non-native audio effects, ambience, and music, to explain Ikland’s fragmented and surreal topography. We were blessed by the contributions of both Sacha Lucashenko and Martin Trum, who invented many ways to make this happen.
The process of making Ikland was uniquely open. No rules or expectations were provided. Our goal was to make the most aesthetic, pertinent, and experiential film possible. We tried to create an immersive environment to show what previously had only been reported. To understand our world, we all need to see it, and speak with others from far away places. We need to travel – metaphorically, if not physically. So if, in the end, Ikland provides the impression of experience, it will have been a success.