'Last Headhunters of the Nagas': Film Review | Mumbai 2019

Courtesy of Aryan Biju Baruah
From the headhunters’ POV.

Five octogenarians in India’s remote Nagaland reminisce over their days of hunting human heads in Aryan Biju Baruah’s documentary debut.

Up until the 1960s, when a combination of the Indian government and Christian missionaries put a stop to the practice, the hunters of Nagaland on India’s border with Myanmar viewed anyone not from their own village as the “enemy” and on occasion killed them, cutting off their heads with machetes and bringing them back to the village to proudly exhibit. In his feature debut Last Headhunters of the Nagas, which had its world premiere at the Mumbai Film Festival, young filmmaker Aryan Biju Baruah provides an in-depth portrait of the few remaining old-timers who are still alive today and who seem anxious to pass on their knowledge of tribal culture before it’s too late.

What distinguishes the doc from similarly titled Discovery and National Geographic ethnographic studies is its general effacement of the filmmaker from the film. With no voiceover and little editorializing, the film leaves center stage to a handful of colorful and very verbal retired hunters, whose urgent need to communicate their story is almost palpable. Biju Baruah, who studied filmmaking at FAMU in the Czech Republic, is a one-man filmmaking team and he makes his presence felt mainly in the organizing topics that group the scenes, like “Memories of Killing,” “Fear,” “Victims.” The overall effect is to present this sensational subject as a recognizable part of human activity, namely, warfare, reduced to its crudest common denominator, the pleasure of killing.

In the early parts of the film, the elderly brood talk candidly to the camera. Bare-chested except for a heavy necklace and faded tattoos, their earlobes are strikingly pierced by the horns of animals. Most of their hunting was for edible animals, but they got their facial tattoos as marks of distinction when they brought their enemies’ heads back from a hunt. They re-enact their hunting days like buffoons on a stage, jumping around the undergrowth and boasting, “I will kill near that tree!” Their simple, repetitive language is translated literally in the subtitles, making them seem very primitive and perhaps a little senile.

Despite their fighting words and their lack of inhibitions in recounting Nagaland history, age has taken the fright out of them and headhunting has now become a part of the local cultural heritage, like the old gravestones carefully tended by the current tribal leader, an educated man.

The hunters demonstrate chopping their victims with machetes and cutting off their heads. Longwa, who is 81, twice went headhunting and Mannyam, 84, claims to have killed four people. “I wish I could kill more,” cries Chingchok. Later, the toothless hunters show where they stacked human heads on a log “lok drum” in a communal building called a morong. When missionaries arrived and began to convert the population, the hunters resisted longer than others before eventually being baptized. At the missionaries’ insistence, the heads of their enemies were buried in the ground.

The most interesting side of the affair arrives stealthily in the final sequences, when Biju Baruah draws some moral conclusions about humankind’s natural propensity for war and conquest and its tragic consequences. One hunter says, “We killed whoever was in our path, whether babies or grown-ups.” They knew their victims, who were neighbors, by name, and burned their villages down. Some they didn’t kill but took as servants, and we see a sad old woman with close-cut gray hair who appears to be one of these slave survivors.

The filmmaker’s decision not to intervene directly with his own commentary becomes a liability here, as the identity of several tearful women becomes a guessing game. One would also like more information on the relationship of the villages today, after a hunter says their defeated enemies in the last war still bring them food and pigs.  

Visually the film is shot amid splendid mountains where scuttling clouds meet lush jungle. It gives an appropriately timeless quality to some very odd accounts.

Cast: Manniyam, Nyeiwang, Chingchok, Longwa
Director, writer, producer, editor, director of photography: Aryan Biju Baruah
Venue: Mumbai Film Festival (India Story)
77 minutes