The Tailenders (2006)
I’ve avoided owning a TV for the past 17 years, but I know I miss some good stuff on occasion, one of which is the PBS series P.O.V., which bills itself as “television’s longest-running showcase for independent non-fiction films.” And judging by their recent excellent line-up (My Country, My Country, Maquilopolis, Tintin and I) and upcoming programs (The Camden 28, 49 Up, Wrestling with Angels: Playwright Tony Kushner), they certainly seem to be living up to their mission.
One of their recent programs, The Tailenders, was screened at the Los Angeles Filmforum (specializing in experimental and avant-garde films) a few weeks ago, and it’s easy to see why. Adele Horne’s examination of Global Recordings Network (GRN), an evangelical Christian organization devoted to spreading the gospel to the “tailenders” of world evangelism–people in the remotest regions of the world–is a provocative and beautifully constructed examination of how messages are carried, translated, and received. It is not a critical exposÈ of GRN, but a thoughtful montage of cultural, sociological, and economic questions raised by their activities.
The film is video artist Horne’s first documentary feature, and it combines investigative reporting (interviews, location shooting, historical summary) with metaphorical images (salt vibrating on sound-wave Chladni plates) and poetic narration (“the pulsation of air set in motion by a spoken word sends ever-expanding ripples in all directions”). The film highlights the creative technology devised by GRN to promote its message, including cardboard record players, hand-cranked tape players, and air-dropped portable radios tuned to a single, evangelical frequency. Collapsible buses become digital recording studios, information headquarters, or makeshift movie theaters in just a few hours.
GRN (formed in Los Angeles in 1939) has translated Bible passages and sermons into 5,485 of the world’s 8,000 languages and dialects, dozens of which no longer exist, and hundreds more of which will vanish within a generation or two. Their targets are predominantly poor people living in rural areas who barely survive in today’s global capitalist economy. Horne follows missionaries to Patutiva in the Solomon Islands, where a village has prevented a logging company from coming ashore; such enterprises typically cut trees at twice the sustainable rate and only give locals 5% of the profits.
Ostensibly, the evangelicals trade in ideology (though more than a few tapes have been sold), but they also teach political passivity, encouraging communities to “cope,” or “accept” the “inevitability” of change, and to consider themselves citizens of a heavenly kingdom rather than an earthly one. In Mexico, serious social breakdowns occur in villages that share resources when upwardly mobile converts no longer participate in spiritual traditions or political organizing. (Horne points out that Catholicism has traditionally been more amenable to incorporating indigenous religious beliefs than evangelicals have been, a fact also suggested by the recent documentary The Devil’s Miner.) One convert laments the way neighboring laborers are exploited for little pay, but suggests all he can do for them is pray.
Despite GRN’s immense technical and logistical efforts (including detailed aerial photographs and an organizing system that allows dialects to be identified within minutes of contact), the art of translation proves to be a complicated and inexact science. Locals are enlisted to record translations, which are digitized on site and carefully edited to remove pauses, mistakes, coughs, etc. Others are brought in to double check the accuracy of the translations, and mistakes are common, particularly when translators take it upon themselves to ad-lib humorous or dramatic embellishment, unbeknownst to the recordists.
Horne brilliantly emphasizes the role of sound waves by shooting abstract close-ups of audio program displays or vibrating Chladni boards that arrange salt in geometric patterns according to various electrical frequencies. Communicating ideas requires physical media (like air or water) and just as the environment resonates and changes with this energy, the activities of missionaries and indigenous peoples reverberate and collide with one another, altering the world. In a sense, the salt patterns represent the audio waves, but visually, they have other associations; meaning is both lost and gained whenever energy transfers through media.
Similarly, it’s hard to say just what exactly is being communicated within such cultural interactions. GCN goes out of its way to make enticing technology in vivid colors; many rural people have never seen a cassette player before, and will play a record over and over until the groove is worn down. As Horne puts it, “The strongest message received may be the technology itself.” She highlights the traditionally lucrative relationship between technology and evangelicalism, which helped pioneer mass media in the early 20th century, and suggests that a disembodied voice is larger than life and gains perceived authority simply by its ethereal and intangible existence.
Horne raises such questions throughout the film, which compiles interviews with GRN spokespeople and indigenous people alike. At the same time, she artfully permits room for the viewer to contemplate ultimate ramifications. She doesn’t pass judgment, but identifies both definite and indefinite ways in which cultures shift upon interaction, mutually exclusive entities reshaping and rearranging according to the malleable media they both share.