The Lost Tribes: articles

Tribal warfare

The premise behind Nine's new reality series Lost Tribes is simple. Three white Australian families sign up for a mystery holiday and the chance to be on TV. To their horror, they discover the exotic destination they imagined is a desert or a jungle where they must eschew the comforts of civilisation in exchange for a primitive existence for 10 days.

If there's a whiff of familiarity about the concept, it might be because last year the ABC screened Worlds Apart and Bruce Parry's gonzo-doco Tribe, both of which explored the consequences of Westerners inserted into remote cultures. Lost Tribes owes more to Survivor than either of these, although producer David Galloway plays down the reality TV label.

"It's not a game; no one gets voted off," he says. "It's an authentic cultural experience. It's a unique opportunity for these people to find out a way of life that, incredibly, still exists in the 21st century. And some of the tribal people emphasised to us that they wanted to show people from outside what their lives were like and in many cases how difficult their lives are."

Anthropologist Kalissa Alexeyeff, from Melbourne University, takes issue with the show's supposed authenticity. "The show is a gross misrepresentation of what these tribes are like, which I find offensive," she says. "We want them to act primitive for our entertainment but their lives are a lot more complex than that ... It's not really about those tribes; it's about Western fears and desires. It's an exotic backdrop or playground for these Westerners to discover themselves."

Anthropologist and filmmaker Bob Connolly, who, with his wife, Robin Anderson, spent a decade living close to tribespeople in Papua New Guinea, says truly remote tribes would not allow unknown Westerners to dress in traditional costume. "It's like suggesting that someone who goes to a Catholic country from an agnostic family suddenly takes communion. It just doesn't make any sense. To fly in strangers and then to suddenly dress them up in all that stuff is a television producer's idea of what might interest their viewers."

Connolly concurs with Alexeyeff on the danger in romanticising tribal life for Western entertainment. "We [overdo] presenting tribespeople as the mysterious other - that they're not quite human. The one thing that I came away with from living among tribal people is that our similarities are so much greater than our dissimilarities."

However contrived their experiences may have been, the families involved in Nine's show echo that sentiment. "If you strip away and come down to their basics, they're just the same as us," says Mel Povey, a 51-year-old primary school teacher who lived with Mentawi people in Indonesia. "They have the same values - they believe in their family, making the best they can for their children, their loved ones. We have all that in common."

Lynn Fraser, who stayed with the Himba in Namibia, says: "It was a male-dominated society. But you see that here as well. You see women that get trodden on by their husbands and do whatever their husbands want."

Much is made in the series of the families' discomfort but they all speak of the positive aspects of the experience: enlightenment, an appreciation for basic luxuries back home and new-found fame. "I'm actually hoping to get into TV and all that kind of stuff," says 18-year-old Ashley Sherry, whose family stayed with a Zulu tribe in South Africa. "I'd probably do another reality show. I'd love to do Survivor - that'd be crazy."

Povey says her husband entered the family in the show partly because of their daughters' performing arts ambitions. "We thought this would be a wonderful opportunity. It just might be an opportunity for them to be noticed and maybe have a further career, whether it's modelling or TV or something in the public eye."

Lynn Fraser was so inspired by the experience that she plans to take a self-funded volunteer trip back to Africa to help poor communities. For others, the whole thing was a bit of a lark.

"It's 15 minutes of fame and after 15 minutes, I'll still be here doing what I'm doing," Glenn Sherry says. "I hope people watching get a bit of a laugh."

Lost Tribes airs on Nine on Sundays at 6.30pm.

By Bridget McManus
May 7, 2007
Sydney Morning Herald