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‘Ikland’ shines light on bias of historians

Stephon Johnson | 3/6/2014, 10:58 p.m.
It’s widely understood that history is told by the winners, but few understand how much is packed into that fact.
Stills from “Ikland”

It’s widely understood that history is told by the winners, but few understand how much is packed into that fact.

Cevin Soling understood this early as a child. In the documentary “Ikland,” which sports the tagline “A Film About the Worst People in the World,” producer Soling is obsessed with an essay Lewis Thomas wrote about anthropologist Colin Turnbull’s book “The Mountain People,” which depicts the Ik tribe in the Ugandan mountains as “the worst people in the world.”

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Stills from “Ikland”

“The message of the book is that the Iks have transformed themselves into an irreversibly disagreeable collection of unattached, brutish creatures, totally selfish and loveless, in response to the dismantling of their traditional culture,” wrote Thomas. “Moreover, this is what the rest of us are like in our inner selves, and we will all turn into Iks when the structure of our society comes all unhinged. They breed without love or even casual regard. They defecate on each other’s doorsteps. They watch their neighbors for signs of misfortune, and only then do they laugh.”

Soling read that essay as a class handout in seventh grade and kept it for decades, waiting for the chance to one day visit what he felt was the “last outpost of imagination in a world devoid of myth.” So Soling and his crew, in a journey to satisfy the producer’s curiosity, risked their lives and traveled through the war-torn land of northern Uganda to reach the tribe and interview them about Turnbull’s 1972 book and whether those allegations were true. Along the way, the travelers are shot at, experience dysentery and are arrested by the Ugandan army.

The trek features tense encounters with armed highwaymen, wild animals and ultraviolent Ugandan rebels. Soling eventually finds the remote and hermitic tribe, and, in the end, lessons are learned and myths are shattered on both sides.

Soling’s documentary can seem a bit safari-ish, and the producer understood that perception and addressed it in a statement on the documentary’s website.

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Stills from “Ikland”

“I also had guiding principles of what not to do,” wrote Soling. “I did not want to take an objective detached approach of treating people as experimental subjects, where comparisons to the viewer become implicit. At the same time, I did not want to take the other extreme of idealizing their society. When people were interviewed, I designed a conversational tone to overcome inherent distance, which focused on their daily concerns and enabled their dignity to emerge.”

“Ikland” demonstrates the hubris of scientists who make the worst assumptions about people based on their own bias. It also reminds people that in its essence, science is about theories that have to be proven true or false. They’re either accepted or rejected, but they aren’t necessarily accepted as fact. Soling went to northern Uganda based on curiosity and a hunch. Every now and then, a hunch can win out.

“Ikland” plays at the Maysles Documentary Center (343 Lenox Ave.) on March 12.