Tabu: A Story of the South Seas (1931)

Tabu: A Story of the South Seas
Director: F.W. Murnau
Writer: F.W. Murnau, Robert J. Flaherty, Edgar G. Ulmer
Cast: Matahi, Anne Chevalier, Bill Bambridge, Hitu, Ah Fong, Jules, Mehao
Seen on: 14.4.2018

Plot:
On Bora Bora, a young boy (Matahi) and a young girl (Anne Chevalier) fall in love. But when the girl is declared the Chosen Maid, the sacred virgin of the island by their leader, an old warrior (Hito), not even the thought of love is allowed anymore. But the boy and the girl are not willing to accept that and decide to flee.

Tabu is on the one hand an interesting look at Bora Bora’s society at the time and a glimpse at a world mostly unfamiliar to Western audiences. On the other hand it’s a white, exoticizing, racist mess that needs to be looked at with a tablespoon of salt.

Tabu is problematic in more than one way, but the most obvious is definitely the Western/white look at the people of Bora Bora. They are exoticized at every turn, made into a spectacle for the white gaze that is insufferable.

Plus, the entire narration is structured in two chapters, Paradise and Paradise Lost, the former showing the island and its natives more or less untouched by “civilization” aka colonialism, living in blissful innocence. The latter turns its eye toward a colonized island and the rampant corruption there. This racist framework is introduced in the opening minutes of the film where they state something along the lines of the natives not having morals as they are too natural for that.

When you dig a ltitle deepr into the production of the film and you learn that there were only three white guys as professional filmmakers on set with the rest of the work done by – most likely – un(der)paid natives, yet another layer of exploitation is added to the entire thing that makes it even worse.

Given all of that I was so busy grappling with the racism during the film that I barely had time for the story itself, meaning that I couldn’t really take in the film as an emotional narrative, so that part fell flat to me as well. The only thing that the film probably still offers is a historical insight into Bora Bora and its natives, but that’s an insight that needs to come with critical discussion and examination – which I didn’t get, so in the end I don’t know if that holds true, either.

I can see the film used as educational material for anthropologist and (film) sociologists, but other than that, I’d rather warn people off it.

Summarizing: problematic to say the least.

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