Last year,National Geographicpublished an article acknowledging its racist past coverage. It referred to photographs it had printed in its pages of native people fascinated by Western technology as creating an “us-and-them dichotomy between the civilized and the uncivilized”. At the time, this righting of wrongs was received as well-intentioned but too little, too late – so how can it be that a year on, a documentary likeThe British Tribe Next Dooris airing on TV?
In this new yet anachronistic “social experiment” from Channel 4,Gogglebox‘sScarlett Moffattand family spend a month in a near-exact replica of their County Durham terrace house which has been rebuilt – complete with running water, electricity and working wifi – among the mud-and-stone huts of the Himba tribe in Namibia. “I feel like our home has been upturned in a tornado and we’ve landed here,” says Scarlett, apparently channeling Dorothy fromThe Wizard of Oz.
On Monday on BBC 5 Live, Moffatt pulled out of an interview with presenter Nihal Arthanayake, who asked his listeners to email their thoughts on the program: “I’ll tell you the concept of the show and you tell me whether certain people at Channel 4 should resign, ”he said, adding,“ What it looks like is something that we thought we’d kind of left behind in the Seventies. ”It’s a debatethatwill surely be stoked when viewers hear the first thing Scarlett asks her mother ahead of traveling to Namibia, which is: “Do you know what I’m really thinking about? Where are they getting toilet roll from? How are theymakingtoilet roll? Do you know what I mean? ”
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Then, on arrival in the village of Otjeme, Scarlett responds to the Himba’s welcoming dance with the threat of vomiting – “I’m going to be sick, I don’t know what to do. ”
The show is peppered with astonishing moments which feel uncomfortably voyeuristic and close to the aforementioned “racist” images published inNational Geographic, such as when a group of villagers enter the Moffatts’ house and are afraid of climbing up the stairs, which they have never seen or used before. Scarlett holds their hands and leads them up to her bedroom, which the voiceover helpfully adds is “full of tat”.
Later, one woman sees her reflection for the first time in the hallway mirror. “I thought there was someone on the other side. That is me? ”She asks. The camera pans to the stairway where Scarlett stands watching, moved to tears.
Much of the program gawps at the foreignness of the Himba tribe and seems to boil the entire content of Africa down to a single, stereotyped, one-dimensional image. I also suspect this community was specifically chosen for the show because the women leave their breasts uncovered.
The British Tribe Next Door ’s one saving grace is that the Moffatts are largely the butt of the joke. For example when Scarlett’s father shows off his metal detector and announces he has found a tin can, one herdsman’s dry response is: “We can see that ourselves.”
And when Scarlett walks to a watering hole with some of the Himba women, they ask why her teeth are so white and she is forced to explain the western phenomenon that is veneers.
By the end of the hour, Scarlett is no longer wondering about toilet roll. The Moffatts question their indulgent lifestyles and body confidence issues, and the show will likely force viewers to do the same, but this white British family fails to be at all inquisitive about the people they are “living with” and they do not attempt to gain any anthropological insight into their new neighbors whatsoever.
It remains to be seen what the Himba, whose land has been trampled all over for the purposes of a reductive experiment, can really gain from all of this – and what the Channel 4 commissioners were smoking when they put this on TV.
The British Tribe Next Door begins at 9. 15 pm on Tuesday 22 October on Channel 4
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