Top 5 Films Featuring Anthropologists

Dr Gavin Weston is an anthropologists at Goldsmiths University. He wrote an article in 2015, alongside Jamie F. Lawson, Mwenza Blell and John Hayton, in which they analysed the reputation of anthropologists in film. Gavin watched many films to featuring anthropology for this research and concluded that typically anthropologists act as an intermediary between two worlds.

Out of all the films he watched for this research, these are his top 5.

Evie: So if you had to choose top 5 films that feature anthropologists and rank them, what would they be?

  1. Altered States
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Gavin: Okay.. the best film, as a film in itself, by some distance would probably be Altered States.

It’s a fantastic film, it’s a science fiction horror, directed by Ken Russell. It’s an arthouse director, directing a film looking at different states of consciousness and human evolution, in a way that’s quite anthropologically engaged; it even has elements of proper anthropological theory, it also has someone turning into a big…weird…pink blob thing.. and evolving into an ape-y creature [laughter].

So, its simultaneously a horror, arthouse, and anthropologically interesting at the same time, directed by Ken Russel who did The Devils, it’s a really, really good film.

That’s the standout amongst all of them.

Altered States is a 1980s film, where a main character is a physical anthropologist named Dr Emily Jessup, played by Blair Brown, who is married to a psychologist Dr Edward Jessup, played by William Hurt. ‘Using sensory deprivation, then adding powerful, hallucinogenic drugs, he explores altered states…and endures experiences that make madness seem a blessing’ according to the blurb; Dr Emily Jessup serves the dramatic role in the film by playing a love interest and sceptics of her husband, helping the film to tick along.

Evie: If you were to categorise this film into whether it’s more merited on entertainment, quality or anthropology?

Gavin: Anthropological content, and it being a really good film, so quality. Both. But then it becomes entertaining, because it’s also weird and its dealing with ideas of human evolution and hallucinogens in a single film, that entertaining.

2. Boggy Creek 2 and the Legend Continues

Gavin: Then it would be Boggy Creek 2 and the legend continues, just because it’s so bad it is amazing.

Ummm… so its a Yeti film, so that in itself is quite entertaining but also its the worst yeti monster costume ever…it’s a man in a really unconvincing ape costume..you need to see it to understand it. Lots of rednecks throughout…this here is the anthropologists and he wears some very short shorts, there’s so many things wrong about it [laughter, as an imagine of the anthropologist in his ‘short’ short come to the screen]

One of the dramatic tension senses is achieved through a device that is essentially a monster finding device where they can analyse the monsters that are in the forest- a monster-o-meter- it’s just so many levels of ridiculousness and it’s just really funny.

There is nothing good about this film, but it has an anthropologist in it and that’s why I love it.

It’s really low budget, it’s got an anthropologist who goes off into the forest looking for sasquatch. It’s just really funny, really slow and badly made and yeah…so it’s got little anthropological merit to it, but I’ll still stick it second on my list just because it’s interesting

An anthropology professor from the University of Arkansas, Dr. Brant Lockhart, played by Charles B. Pierce, takes himself and two of his students and a friend to Boggy Creek after the sheriff calls him about a sasquatch sighting. Here Dr Lockhart is on the look out to find the sasquatch, his character playing the intermediate role between reality and a more fictional world.

Evie: If you were to categorise this film into whether it’s more merited on entertainment, quality or anthropology?

Gavin: There’s no value to it at all, it’s just entertainment.

3. Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death

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Gavin: Umm…what would I go for number three…probably a stupid film; Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death, [laughter].

Because it’s a pastiche of B movies; so a bunch of the films up there are called things like Zombie Holocaust, cannibal holocaust, like any combination of zombie, cannibal apocalypse- all those types films that were banned in the 1980s as video nasties and lots of them have anthropologists in them.

Cannibal women in the Avocado Jungle of Death is actually better if you have watched all the films its patching, so that might just be one for me.

But it also might be because I’m obsessed with Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and it’s a re-telling of the story; Ad Astra, Apocalypse Now and Cannibal Women and the Avocado Jungle of Death are all re-telling’s of the same story it’s just Cannibal Women and the Avocado Jungle of Death is the silly version.

The 1989 film stars a feminist female professor of anthropology called Dr. Margo Hunt played by Shannon Tweed. Gone to the jungle in hope of locating a missing Dr. Kurtz, played by Adrienne Barbeau, herself and her team stumble upon a tribe of Piranha women.

Evie: If you were to categorise this film into whether it’s more merited on entertainment, quality or anthropology?

Gavin: It’s quite funny, so it’s a good film in that sense, so yeah… entertainment. The anthropological information is slightly lacking, and the film craft is a bit rough and ready, but it is B movie intently trying to pastiche a B movie, so, again, entertainment.

4. The Plumber

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Gavin: So I’ve got one serious film and two silly films, what would I go for… The Plumber.

Another Horror, but this one is by Peter Weir, whom directed the Truman show, so it’s a good director.

it’s a film all about an anthropologist who’s having their house renovated by someone who’s coming round to do the plumbing, and it’s a home invasion story of someone coming round to do the plumbing, as the plumber becomes more invasive in terms of their life and starts to take their house to pieces and crawls around in the walls and stuff.

I’ve included this one because it one that helps you think about the invasiveness of anthropology a little bit more, because it’s a film that points out that what anthropologists do is that we turn up in someone else’s village, someone else’s community, in someone else’s life and we expect to be given access to their daily going on, and for them not to moan and for them to just let us go about invading their life in a way that just don’t really make sense.

It’s about a power essentially, it’s a horror film all about that. But it’s a weird horror film.

Evie: So there a lot of metaphoric kind of ideas embedded in the root of the film and it’s just made to be watched? And commercial?

Gavin: Its more arthouse again, he’s an Australian director- his first film was ‘the Cars that ate Paris’ I think- one of those weird films about cars trying to eat people films [laughter].So, it did start out in weird arthouse and this is a continuation of this of that more than the later Truman show polished genre. It’s taking the idea and turning it more into a commercial thriller territory.

The 1979 film, features an anthropologist named Jill Cowper, played by Judy Morris whom home and life is invaded by a Plumber called Max- played by Ivar Kants. Here Jill assumes both role as victim to invasion but villainised due to the underlying comparatives to anthropological fieldwork and their ethics.

Evie: If you were to categorise this film into whether it’s more merited on entertainment, quality or anthropology?

Gavin: The Plumber; anthropology content and a good film. Entertaining? A bit yeah, but mostly the other two categories.

5. Candyman

Gavin: Ummm…what would I go for, for number 5?…so many choices… so theres a weird kind of cluster of sasquatch films..urrr… there’s a few adult films..there’s a musical…

…ermmm…The Haunting…the haunting is the better of the films… umm…oh Avatar, do I go Avatar? …The Adventures of Young Indiana Jones Treasure of the Peacock’s Eye …American Geisha…ohhh…Candy Man…Gorillas In The Mist …Mogambo…hmmm…. Avatar, Candyman or Cannibal holocaust- another horror in the list or another science fiction…Candyman!

Evie: Candyman?

Gavin: So Candyman would be my final film for the top 5.

Its set in Detroit, set in the poor area of Detroit kind of like the council estate areas, it has an edge on the urban fairy-tale feel to it, it’s about a ghost with someone by saying Candyman in the mirror three times.

It’s about the folk law of it, with a PhD anthropologist student doing research on that folk tale but then he summons him, and thing ensue.

The way in which its dealing with African American marginalisation and anthropology it’s a good film on any level, like it works,  and then on top of that it has an anthropologists doing believable research, not that you would believe saying Candyman in the a mirror three times is believable but it is a horror film. It’s a believable anthropologist in a good film so I would go with that.

Candyman is a 1992 film starring Virginia Madsen as Helen Lyle, a PhD anthropology student researching folk tales of the Candyman. At first sceptical about the truth of the myth, she then becomes haunted by the very creature. Directed by Bernard Rose, this film has become well-known and well respected.

Evie: If you were to categorise this film into whether it’s more merited on entertainment, quality or anthropology?

Gavin: Candyman an is a really well-made film with good anthropology content, and it’s scary.

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Evie: If you had to choose some honourable mentions, what would be your honourable mentions?

Gavin: So Jungle Jim (1949) is a film starring Johnny Wiessmuller, who went on to be Tarzan in Tarzan and the Ape Man, and it’s got my favourite scene featuring an anthropologists, which is a moment where Johnny Weissmuller punches a fake hippo and it’s just really, really funny [laughter], that gets a honourable mention.

Avatar (2009), that gets an honourable mention, because it deals with big issues about first contact and also capitalist and military complicity- which is interesting to think about, and again, a really good film.

Cannibal Holocaust (1979) is… disgusting and still banned in some countries and rightly so [laughter]. But it’s got an interesting anthropological sub plot about people faking material and the role of anthropologists in debunking that fake material, so its got an interesting anthropological story in there.

The Haunting (1999)is a really good classic 1963 horror film which is just really atmospheric and the way in which the film is shot, and the atmosphere is developed has been copied so many times in so many other films, it’s got an interesting ghost-busting anthropologist in there.

The Nanny Diaries (2007), it features an anthropology undergraduate student, but also touches on Margot Mead because she a big fan of Margot Mead, so she’s trying to copy her by studying the people she works with. I would say for an introduction to anthropology, for people thinking about doing anthropology it’s about good of film as any of the others.

Midsummer (2019), is a film where a college student, Dani Ardor, is left horrified after her sister kills her parents and herself, this put strain on her relationship with anthropology graduate boyfriend, Christian. Dani and Christian travel to Sweden, where the locals reveal a frightening agenda.

Interviewed by Evie Holt

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