In 1996 a National Geographic Film appeared called ‘Borneo: Beyond the Grave’. It was about the death rituals of the Ngaju Dayak people, one of the many ethnic groups of Indonesia. Our friend and colleague, Anne Schiller had conducted anthropological research among the Dayaks for seven years between 1982 and 2000. The film was built around her presence, a young woman’s white face, amidst the practice of a culture so different from the public’s that it was meant for. That public would feel a thrill to see human remains handled so familiarly and shudder at rites that sacrificed animals. ‘Borneo: Beyond the Grave’ set out on a difficult path. It had to prevent entertainment from overcoming analysis.
Anne Schiller introduced the film to the Berkeley Circle in 2017 and put her work in the Borneo rainforest into a larger perspective. In March of 2022, she spoke to us about her 2019 trip back to the scene of her research, two decades after leaving it. An account of that talk can be read on our web pages under the title, ‘Identity Between Heaven and Earth’. It was the warmest chapter in Anne Schiller’s Borneo story to date. It spoke of the very personal relationship she formed with individuals among the Dayaks. We came to realise when in the film a Dayak friend says that he has merged his family with hers and she hers with his, he is not simply being agreeable for the camera and repeating a polite formula. There had been a life-changing event. A real coming together had taken place. It reminded us of something we had forgotten millennia ago. Blood brotherhood is more than a colourful phrase.
Every film like every photograph takes place in a time that is past. It becomes history. Examining it we realise that back then—a month, years, a century—certain things were taken for granted and went unnoticed. Now they stand out, no longer unquestioned. That came to mind watching ‘Borneo: Beyond the Grave’ again. When the voiceover qualified something the Dayaks did as “barbarian” I couldn’t help but wince. The TV news had just kept me abreast of the war in Europe and gave me details of the latest mass shooting across the Atlantic.
‘Borneo: Beyond the Grave’ is simple enough on the surface. There’s an imagined us, normal, civilised, being introduced to one of humanity’s odd off-shoots. We aren’t supposed to worry about what to do with this strangeness, only to enjoy it, as a ‘Believe-it-or-not’ curiosity. To keep us watching, there’s the fillip of an attractive young woman involved—one of us, but better looking. The narration is forced into an action scheme that’s meant to reflect something more dramatic than a social process. There’s even a smidgeon of suspense. But understanding the social process in all its implications is the goal of anthropology. The tension felt beneath the surface of the film is the effort of the anthropologist to hold off the entertainer. She would like to say, “These are human beings like us, but they have imagined a world very different from the one we have imagined. Their ways are of great interest in themselves and also help us better understand ourselves. And, by the way, though intrigued by our otherness, Dayaks also find us pretty strange.”