Cannibal Tours and Paris is Burning: How We Reconcile Difference Through Imagined Communities

Benedict Anderson, author of Imagined Communities, defines a nation as “an imagined political community” (6). Why imagined? “[B]ecause the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion” (6).

In the 1988 documentary Cannibal Tours, in which Papua New Guinea is explored by a few tourists, a native man discusses the history of his island and how life has changed since the arrival of white people. He refers to the white tourists as ghosts due to their pale skin, explaining that the European visitors look like the spirits of their deceased ancestors (and noting that New Guineans don’t actually believe that the tourists are ghosts). In so doing, the man groups himself with all of the other villages, acknowledging that referring to tourists as ghosts is a nation-wide practice: We think this way; we refer to you in this way. While the interviewee could not actually know if every single person native to Papua New Guinea speaks of tourists in the manner described, he recognizes this tendency as a cultural practice, one tiny, detailed element of what it means to be a native member of the nation of Papua New Guinea.

Conversely, the interviewee conveys a hazy notion of the differences between the nations of Europe when he compares them to different villages, given that Europeans from different countries see themselves as quite separate from one another with disparate bloodlines and heritages. This interview in Cannibal Tours illustrates that even as we create for ourselves an imagined community united by similarity, we naturally see our own communities in a more complex light. We indirectly realize their imagined nature by breaking the largest community that we identify with into smaller sub-components, often governed by geographical boundaries to give these otherwise arbitrary lines tangibility. For example, members of the European Union break their community down into separate countries: Germany, Spain, France, Sweden, etc., but to the interviewee from Papua New Guinea, they’re all just white people. On the other hand, an average white European might look at someone from Rwanda, for example, and only find themselves capable of noting that the person is black, or perhaps African based on accent or style of dress. Even if they could correctly guess the person’s country, Rwandans further distinguish themselves by three separate races, including the Hutus and Tutsis, distinctions that led to genocide in 1994. When each imagined community creates a detailed-but-still-unified “us” vs. a less-detailed but still unified “them”, it forms the basis of stereotyping – the oversimplification and dehumanization of the other, a somewhat ironic practice considering that in order to see our own communities as unified, we must still oversimplify our own differences to a certain extent.

Furthermore, imagined communities extend beyond literal nation-states. Bill Nichols notes in the eighth chapter of Introduction to Documentary that “all identities are provisional in their construction and political in their implications” (182). By Anderson’s definition, then, all women, for example, are a type of imagined ‘nation.’ In creating such a broad categorization, we witness the sheer impossibility of pinning down, speaking for, or representing such a massive group of people, and yet, as Anderson’s definition suggests, this is what we do when we create the idea of a ‘nation’ in our minds – we affirm to ourselves that there is a large majority of people who are like us – who look, think, act, and believe as we do – and because so many people think as we do, we must be right. Breaking down the psychological process of imagining ourselves part of a community explains why the concept of gender fluidity, for example, is unnerving to many people, even if those accused of androgynous behavior are simply stretching arbitrary norms constructed in order to form a unified societal identity – norms such as ‘women wear dresses and men do not.’ Paris is Burning (1990) illustrates the negative consequences that those who perform in drag may experience for breaking the popular societal belief that women and men should be easily distinguishable from one another – if this belief forms a part of our nation’s overall identity and defines the sub-identities of individuals in that nation, then when such a belief is challenged, it may appear to some that the nation’s identity and thus the nation itself is threatened. A member of that nation may feel that because most women and men in their society are distinguishable from each other, an androgynous person is “wrong.”

One could argue that the primary representative of most Western nations is a white, straight, male property owner. Any other identity, in the words of Nichols, “has a contingent, political dimension to it” and “runs counter to any notion of a fixed or essentialized group identity” (182). Thus in Cannibal Tours, a likely unintentional but reflexive tendency of the filmmaker might be explained as the ‘other-ing’ of a group of people he sees as separate from his own political community of white men: white women. Throughout the film, the camera regularly focuses on the midsections of the female tourists, sometimes panning slowly, other times zooming in. While it could be argued that the cinematographer was simply mocking the tourists’ obsession with their own body images, there is no male equivalent in the syntax of camera-movement – such panning and zooming on a male body would seem both novel and bizarre. Thus even the German community of tourists is (perhaps accidentally) fractured into political sub-components – male and female: The former receives the chance to represent themselves and their communities in full detail – both through thoughts and full physical presence – where as the latter community is often reduced to an objectified (oversimplified) image of body parts.

Thus one’s own communities versus another’s are imagined in differing amounts of depth; Paris Is Burning and Cannibal Tours respectively illustrate that people are often repulsed and confused by differences within one’s own community and unaware of the complexities of another’s.

Works Cited

Anderson, Benedict. “Imagined Communities.”, rebels-

Nichols, Bill. Introduction to Documentary, 3rd ed., Indiana University Press,      2017.

2 Replies to “Cannibal Tours and Paris is Burning: How We Reconcile Difference Through Imagined Communities”

  1. You started off your response super strong! I loved how you defined the imagined community first. It gave me a great pretense for what was to come. Following that, I like how you remembered specifics from Cannibal Tours. I didn’t even remember some of the points the New Guineans made, but they really do aid your argument. I like how in your conversation on nationalism you included actual geographical boundaries. It really brings into question what an actual community is! Is it defined by geographical boundaries? Or is it defined by characteristics like the interviewee said- all white people are the same.
    I thought your transition from nationalism to identity and their connection was pretty seamless. I thought about Paris is Burning as well when I was writing my own paper. The concluding of the essay did a great job of wrapping things up and bringing it all together. I like the idea that these communities are imagined at “differing amounts of depth.” We can be confused by our own community in addition the other foreign communities. Great work, Brittany! A very thoughtful paper.

  2. The division and subdivision of community was not something that I originally noticed in the readings and viewings; to me, the focus was more on the elements that form an imagined community rather than the divisions that an imagined community creates. Your approach to this in pointing out the human tendency to compartmentalize based on knowledge provides a better understanding of the idea of imagined community and nationalistic ideals, and especially points out the nuances in community and nationalism when even within a single community the sub-communities do not see themselves as a unified whole but as separate and independent groups (as the example of Rwandan’ ethnic divisions illustrates). I visualize this concept as a massive Venn Diagram of overlapping boundaries blurring into each other, but to some, those overlaps are clearly defined and strictly enforced borders.
    It is interesting to listen to the conversations in class about this subject and to see a lot of the online responses. The common denominator is that imagined communities are seen as negative, and it is clear that they have negative side effects when applied incorrectly. Nationalism is great when it uplifts one’s community, but when it uplifts one community at the expense (or destruction) of another community is when it is harmful. Your response to Cannibal Tours definitely explains this well, as the tourists each expressed their own national and community identities but at the expense of the nationality and community of the Papua New Guinea peoples. Becoming aware of this phenomenon helps us as filmmakers, creators and humans in general to be more thoughtful and considerate of those outside of our imagined community as much as those within.

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