BY SANJANA SHETH
Looking at the sociological concepts of dialogue and estrangement in the film
‘The Gods Must Be Crazy” contains pronounced sociological arguments about culture and gender that are explored through a mockumentary film that is comedic and (at times problematically) flippant. The basic premise of the film is to show the cultural disparity between two internally homogenised and caricatured communities - the white people and the San of the Kalahari Desert.
Within the San community, their dialogue tells us about what is valorised in their lives, how conflicts are resolved, and how they think the world operates. The “evil thing” that was the coke bottle was evil because it “could not be shared.” In a community that thought, acted and adjudicated from the perspective of collectivism, “evil” was seen as whatever disrupted family life and the peaceful ecosystem of their group. In contrast, the “civilised men” would tell you that the same bottle of coke was a powerful symbol of how capitalism and competition had produced a great drink. It does not matter to the individualistic society of the “civilised” that ownership implies there are things not everyone can access, and cannot be shared. We learn through the San’s decision and Xi’s single-minded resolve to rid themselves of the bottle because even a “most useful thing” should be banished if it threatens the stability of their collective lives.
Interaction between different communities is more complicated because it is unfortunately not just two individuals communicating, but also their context of institutions and beliefs that shape dialogue. The assumptions they make are a product of the modes of living they know. For example, Xi’s instinct was to share the meat he had captured for his group, but the white man’s reaction to the situation is hostile and results in Xi’s imprisonment. This reflects the earlier information we glean about the San being collectivistic, something that is reiterated through the consequent failure of communication - when Xi must be told he has been found “guilty.” The San not having the word “guilty” in their vocabulary evidences a cultural reality devoid of human blame, where evil is externalised to bottles falling from the sky, and this works on the assumption that their community does not believe in retributive or intentional “crime” by people. At this juncture, the white world of courts and trials needed to be sensitive to the presumably disastrous consequences of confining a man who had “never seen a wall” for three months, while Xi needed to be explained the mechanisms of modern law and order.
Group identity-defining interpersonal relations extends beyond different communities into occupation as well in the film. The communist revolutionary terrorist is called a “fake” by schoolteacher Thompson, a charge motivated by the idea that the man did not want to appear weak or empathetic not because of strength or a lack of empathy, instead, due to his identification as a member of a revolutionary group who should prioritise political expediency over human mercy.
The film also relies on our own contexts and internalised ideas about the operation of gender dynamics. The endearingly clumsy Steyn is sympathetic because we believe he deserves his love interest, Thompson, because he has, for so long, pined for her and performed heroic acts for her. The audience’s construction of heroism is also exposed as constituting not deeds of bravery, but getting recognition for doing them. It means getting a medal, getting a girl.
Ultimately, every encounter in this film and in life could be analysed as fragments of a larger picture of how cultures rely on their constructs to produce reality – realities that are different, seemingly crazy, but incredibly normal for their groups.