Directed by Raphael Biss Starring James Beaumont Documentary Film Review by Phil Slatter
Raphael Biss’s Savages in Foreign Lands is not the sort of documentary that would initially appear to an outsider. It examines the mythical tribe of the Guanches, primitives of the Canary Islands, and tries to uncover who they were, where they came from, what they did and what happened to them. To those with an interest in ancient tribes and archaeology, the interest is obvious, but to others it may seem like a documentary film to pass over. However, the brilliance behind the movie, which packs an awful lot into its sub-one hour running time, is that it uses the Guanches to examine elements of humanity and mankind and highlights just why delving into ancient history and literally digging up the past is so important.
What we discover, through the talking heads of experts and footage of what is left of the Guanches, is that they were not natives of the islands but were most likely taken there by the Romans from Africa. Quite why the Romans did this is open to debate, although it is thought that the Guanches were prisoners of the islands and that their tongues were removed to stop them talking to one another. Subsequently, they communicated through a whistled language. Equally fascinating is that each island had its own tribe and the three islands never spoke to, traded with or perhaps even knew about one another.
This leads to the film’s centralised notion of humanity’s life long search for its own place in the universe. The Guanches may not have realised that there were worlds beyond their own and were quite possibly a people with no idea of where they had come from or where they were going. As we as a race continue to seek similar answers to this day through science, religion, philosophy and so forth, we can start to see how this is an inherent trait of human characteristic that appears to be the very structural fabric of what makes us human.
The Guanches, it is believed, looked to the overbearing mountain of ‘Taeda’ that they believed was an omnipotent presence that oversaw them. Again, this ties into the ancient idea of a deity and refers to the complex notion of whether mankind continues to believe in Gods of various guises either because it is built within us, or because we still, like the Guanches, have no real explanation of why we are here or where we are going.
The way the documentary ties all these philosophical questions into what is essentially an interesting history lesson is its key masterstroke.
And as Savages in Foreign Lands ends with an all too familiar extermination, the Christian colonialists wiping the Guanches from the earth by diluting their beliefs into their own religion and gradually absorbing their bloodline amongst their own (like what would have happened after the credits rolled on Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto), we understand the importance of making your mark on this world and how vital it is to not be forgotten by history.
While Savages in Foreign Lands will primarily appeal to those interested in ancient history, its examination into a forgotten tribe and its relevance to our own humanity, is no less fascinating to all who are interested in the history and future of the human race.