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The feature documentary, ‘The Great Dance’, relates to the lifestyles and living of the! Xo San people who live in the central part of the Kalahari Desert. Before proceeding further, with a response to this film, the conditions under which it was screened and the reason for watching such a film should be mentioned. The audience for this feature documentary, comprised of second year English students, it was watched as a requisite for the course, dealing with the subject matter of the San in relation to environment, and perceptions of that environment as seen by us [people outside the San culture]. What is also significant about this type of film, is that this film is marketed for a particular kind of audience, and is not part of the popular genre of films, it being a nature/anthropological-type documentary, should be kept in mind. With this said, I shall now present my own response to this film, and hopefully justify my reasons for interpreting it the way I did.

There are plenty of adjectives that for me describe the way I perceived this film. Fascination being one of them, I was amazed, intrigued and captivated by these people. Their lifestyles being so different, almost contradictory to my own. Their way of living is extra ordinary [taking an outsiders perspective] especially the relationship the bushmen have with their environment, and that is not to mention their skills, in hunting and tracking, skills that take about 5 years to master. (http//www.senseafrica.com/greatdance/movie/being_san.html.). This film was a learning experience a journey into the lives of these marvellous peoples. It seems almost impossible for a person to walk out after seeing this film, and not feel a little enlightened. In watching a film of this nature, it would be best for one to try and set aside any ethnocentric beliefs and views, and to be unbiased, objective, and open-minded, granted it is impossible to abandon all our own perceptions of society and life. Definitely their lifestyles would seem unconventional, in comparison to what ‘we’ consider the norm [by our own societies standards], representations, symbols, and perceptions are quite contradictory to our own, but some sort of attempt should be made to understand better the lifestyle choices of the San people.

The main characters in this documentary are! Nqate, Karoha and Xlhoase, they are the hunters that are being followed by the camera, and are the ones who demonstrate the skills of the Bushmen. The predominant focus it would seem in this film is the ‘chasing hunt’. There is a very complex bond between the bushmen and animal, this type of relationship is expressed in the chase, which is a run to the death, it is rarely practiced and has never before this, been filmed (http//www.senseafrica.com/greatdance/movie/being_san.html.). This type of ‘hunt’ usually takes place when there is a shortage of poison, generally because of weather conditions being extreme; the chase hunt is the alternative. The runner hunter is the one who runs down the animal until it is exhausted. Karoha is the one who runs down the prey; he tracks at high speed going over rough terrain, in very hot weather [+/-46c]. Hunting is culturally very important to these people, it is not just about the meat either, it is a spiritual experience as well, where the hunter takes over the animals mind and becomes the animal. These issues, the mysticism [trance, dancing], spirituality, and the social importance of hunting to this community, are highlighted in the documentary.

When watching this film one eventually becomes cognisant of the modern world seeping in. The characters “Walk in two worlds”- their world [surroundings, environment, and experiences] but they are not ignorant of the world outside. They wear clothes of the modern world- [not traditional]. The technology of Filmmaking, which is also an element outside their environment, is accepted because it makes knowledge public, it shares the Bushmen life and culture and they are happy to have this process of technology for this reason.

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Filming this feature was not an easy task, and the crew did encounter some technical difficulties while filming. One of the problems with this type of situation was the waiting, the conditions had to be perfect- really hot, windless [in fact weeks can pass by before the hunters decide it’s the right time to hunt]. It was a tremendous effort, and on top of that, the vehicles couldn’t keep up, and would often frighten the animals. Another issue was in relation to other environmental conditions, there was just too much light, the brightness was sharp and harsh, which was not good for filming. But the film makers [Craig & Damon Foster] did come up with noteworthy solutions to these problems. An ex- Olympic runner was hired to film the runner [hunter]- with a hand held camera, what this did, was provide for the viewer, an elaborate perspective of the hunter, [cameras were also put onto the animals] (http//www.senseafrica.com/greatdance/movie/being_san.html.). The film needed someone on foot, to capture this sense of movement, the effective footfall and the shifting of the sands. This technique gave the impression of the viewer seeing through the hunter’s eyes, it was quite effectual. What the technology of filming allows is the ability of the technicians to film segments, and then to construct those segments to create a particular picture. This process of editing and cutting makes it easy to construct a film to say/convey what you want it to [Filmmaker chooses the process]. What we see is possibly not real but staged. Though it should be noted that there are no real actors, the characters are real people, and this is their actual life that is being filmed, [but the filmmaker still has the ability to re-film, to capture scenes from different angles].

An important issue though that must be mentioned in the filming of this documentary, is that it is in a sense idealised. Camera shots were used to do this [like the amber thrown into the sky- mythology]; this is a type of filming strategy. The documentary was filmed with a purpose, the scenes are staged to be better presented, and hence the director looks for the best possible angle to film. It is glossed over a bit, with the ‘pretty’ scenes of the landscape and so on, but is the story itself glossed over, and does it represent their culture? The film makes it point, with a number of combinations- it is real as well as glossed over- it is constructed in a way that people want to watch it- [binaries crossing]. But this construction does distract from truthfulness- for instance, the slow motion arrow shots, and the amber thrown up into the night sky.

Visual anthropology is given priority in this film, hunting, tracking, the physical aspects of survival, as well as the great dance of the hunt, ritual [cutting and incisions], the mystical, spiritual and family interaction [roles of women and children who gather roots, but they also play an important and integral part in tracking and observing the signs]. There are other aspects that are touched on in the film, but do not take precedent over the main focus of the hunt. We can pick up on this from the episode when the prey escapes, but not for natural reasons, it is because of the fence, the boundary, that construct the bushmen can’t get past, this hints at the restrictions that the bushmen have been put under in relation to land and to hunting. In another scene around the fire, the three hunters mention the restrictions on their hunting permits. This of course isn’t a dominant feature in this film. The angle or stance of film focuses on the positive, the bushmen are proud of their abilities, they are doing what they have done for ages- they provide for their family- they aren’t portrayed as dejected, depressed, and defeated people. Granted the film does make mention of their hunting licenses being revoked, and of the fences, and the boundaries that have been placed on them- but at the same time, there is vibrancy, dancing, humour, life- one doesn’t get an helpless impression. The film is done in a subverted manner- it’s not ‘in your face’ and it doesn’t dwell on the poverty issues, it doesn’t make much of it- it also doesn’t invite you to take a standpoint, and it definitely doesn’t invite sympathy.

The narrative that we follow [in accordance to what the camera angles permit us to see], shows us the hunters that are pursued by the camera, by the viewer, it also has the viewer following the prey, along with the hunter, [see the same perspective of the hunter]. As if you too are tracking, this draws the viewer into the culture, and the mysticism of the San- we become absorbed in all the aspects of their lives, almost like the hunters absorbing the animals’ spirit. The film let’s you into the world of the bushmen, you see their value and you can identify with them-make some kind of bond- this is where appeal lies, it is what the filmmakers aimed for- [so the viewers can identify more strongly.]

More specifically, this film is a Feature document; it is informative, non-fiction, real life, factual. The Bushmen lifestyle, hunting skills, family life, culture, the physical factors- [weather, climate], are central elements, but there is also a sense of the other world intruding as well. Their mystic heritage is equally significant - ‘I became the animal’- hunting the kudu the hunter takes on the characteristics of the animal, the hunter feels respect and empathy for animal, evident in the earth ritual- sand rubbed into the animal- [both run on the earth- both are creatures of the earth]. The dead animal is treated with respect, it was needed and therefore it was killed, it was not hunted for personal gain or for sport, [we see the mystic contrasting with the physical side]. This relationship is multi-faceted; there appears to be a religious connection and respect and but they view animals as being on the same level as them, and thus have no moral dilemma about seeing them as food. (http//www.senseafrica.com/greatdance/movie/being_san.html.)

The Great Dance won three Pandas, at Wild screen 000 [very prestigious awards in the natural history world], this world festival resulted in exposure for the film. (http//www.senseafrica.com/greatdance/movie/being_san.html.). There are a few reasons this film was praised at the awards, for one the technology used was not intrusive, secondly the way the aspect of the land and environment was dealt with, and the elements of the unusual and rare that were present in the film, also a hunt of this nature is difficult to capture on film and it hasn’t been done or seen before- this piece of work is a forerunner in that category. In South Africa it was screened at the Cinema Noveau theatres [not screened with the popular mainstream type of films], resulting in it being fitted into a category/slot and because it is not accepted as popular it doesn’t make a lot of money. Another implication is that there isn’t extremely a lot of exposure [even with the world festival recognition]. Not a lot of people go to watch it, it has a particular audience, and therefore it is confined in that sense.

Looking at audience response in Europe, it can be noted that it was well received, the appeal most probably lying in the environment, the land. There are no great, vast empty spaces in Europe, the large open veld is a different concept for them, and it is outside their own world so to speak. The size and scope of the land is amazing, we [being people who live in Africa], have a different perspective, and whereas we would see the effect of the fence on the bushmen people more clearly, European people won’t see the fence as being detrimental to the bushmen, because their concept of space and land is different to that of people in Africa who understand the value of land and the environment.

The role of nature is a vital aspect in this piece. Conventionally, nature takes on a different meaning for us than it does for the Bushmen. For them nature, the land, is equivalent to life, [a domain, a home, and sustenance]. For us it is outside the familiar world, most people would see this kind of environment as an escape, we have a different concept of the land [not land and nature in the same sense as the bushmen- land and nature are separate elements], it is a retreat, a change from one environment to another, it is land that can be divided, it has different connotations for people from industrialised societies.

The interaction of hunting, tracking and dance is of paramount importance in this feature. Giving the viewer unique vantage point of both the hunter and the hunted so as to better understand the relationship. This is a film about the unique relationship between the San and their environment seen through the experience of hunting and tracking, [which are an important cultural and social fact of life for them]. This is a profound film about their own experiences as expressed by them - in their words and through their eyes; what hunting and tracking mean to them [from an experiential, physical and a historical perspective]. Hunting is fundamental to these people, and it seems it will always be so, even if there are no animals left to hunt, this has a lot to do with the land, living on it, feeling it, divining the weather and so on, it is an integral part of their lives. Hence we find this spectacular hunting practise centralised in this piece, it incorporates much of what the Bushmen` people are about, their beliefs, [spiritual, mystic], their social life, and most especially their interaction with the land and their environment.


1. http//www.senseafrica.com/greatdance/movie/being_san.html. Extracted 5/0/0

. Documentary feature film The Great Dance. By Craig and Damon Foster. 18

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