The Ethnographer (El Etnógrafo): FIDMarseille Review

Gentle-toned documentary on a British anthropologist in Argentina casts an intriguing spell despite a slight imbalance of focus.

Ulises Rosell's documentary follows the day-to-day life of John Hillary Palmer, an English anthropologist in rural Argentina.

MARSEILLE -- Director Ulises Rosell adopts a very "softly softly" approach in The Ethnographer (El Etnógrafo), a character-study of a quietly scholarly middle-aged Englishman who has devoted his life to helping one of South America's more self-effacing ethnic minorities. Delicated, hushed and sensitive in every respect, this documentary beguiles with its low-key approach to fascinating material, its charms outweighing a certain structural awkwardness. A selection at Buenos Aires' BAFICI before its international premiere at FIDMarseille, it will find plenty of takers among similarly upscale festivals.

Main focus is squarely on John Hillary Palmer, a ruminative pipe-smoker in his late fifties who has lived in rural Argentina for the last 20 years. His relocation was originally for academic purposes, to work and live within a community of the Wichí people (who number around 42,000 in all, located in Argentina, Bolivia and Columbia) in furtherance of his Oxford University doctorate. Palmer's dedication to the Wichí - helping them with self-determination and the protection of their homelands against the encroachment of big business - is amply chronicled here.

But the film gains depth and impact from its more intimate domestic interludes involving John's wife Tojweya, herself a Wichí, and their four young children - including a baby only weeks old. So while Palmer has achieved considerable eminence in his field, winning the Royal Anthropological Institute's Lucy Mair Medal in 2009, his immersion into Wichí culture, history and customs has become much more than a matter of dry ethnography.

Despite this immersion, however, Palmer remains recognizably an upper-middle-class Brit in appearance, dress and diction -- he almost invariably uses English at home with his children, who usually respond in Spanish, and are evidently being brought up trilingually thanks to their exposure to the Wichí tongue. At one juncture Palmer telephones his mother back home in Britain, their brief chat speaking volumes about the world he has left behind -- "Are you succeeding in getting more freedom from the people?" she earnestly enquires.

In addition to the broader Wichí struggle for recognition and respect - a cause not much aided by their general air of resigned, modest meekness - Palmer is engaged in one particular case of restricted "freedom", that of a semi-relative known as Qatú. We're told that Qatú, in tribal terms a "nephew" of Palmer's has been in prison for five years, charged with - but not yet tried for - the rape of his partner's daughter. The case pivots on the exact age of the girl at the time of the sexual act, and is complicated by the apparent inaccuracy of official documentation relating to that information.

It's a murky business by any measure, even leaving aside the suspicion held by Palmer and others that Qatú's prosecution - or perhaps persecution - is primarily a response to his political activism on behalf of the Wichí people. The Qatú case is evidently a significant element in Palmer's life, but there's something awkward about how Rosell integrates it into the overall form of
The Ethnographer. Indeed, the film was for much of its gestation actually entitled Qatú, indicating a significant shift of emphasis - perhaps during the editing stage.

The results poses rather more thorny questions than they are able to answer, with Rosell (best known for 2006 romantic comedy-drama
Sofabed) and editor Andrés Tambornino perhaps needing a somewhat bigger canvas than their 89-minute running-time can afford. That said, their film serves as a solid introduction to an individual, a people and a place - the dusty, dry, barren-looking regions of Pilcomayo and Tartagal in the far north of Argentina - with sparing use of James Blackshaw's guitar score adding to the backwater atmospherics. And the finale, in which Palmer lovingly and softly says goodnight to each of his sleeping children in turn, is a vignette of genuinely moving beauty.

Venue: FIDMarseille Film Festival
Production company: Fortunato Films
Director / Screenwriter: Ulises Rosell
Producer: Pablo Rey
Director of photography: Guido De Paula
Music: James Blackshaw
Editor: Andrés Tambornino
Sales Agent: Fortunato Films, Buenos Aires
No rating, 89 minutes.

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