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(cover picture) Stuart, Zachary & Kelly Thomson
2012 Savage Memory. Jamaica Plain, MA: Sly Productions.

Notes: DVD, 77 minutes
Reviewed 21 May 2012 by:
Jack David Eller <>
Community College of Denver, Denver, Colorado, USA
Medium: Film/Video
The film follows a layered landscape of narrative threads: the story of Malinowski’s last surviving daughter and her ambivalence towards her father’s painful legacy; the Trobriand Islanders surprising personal relationship to Malinowski as they witness the impact of westernization on their changing customs; and the story of Malinowski himself-- the triumphant, self-made mythical anthropologist.

ABSTRACT:    A great grandson of Bronislaw Malinowski remembers the work of his ancestor, as well as the man’s impact on his family and descendants, in this profound study of memory, legacy, and loss.

I have reached an age, demographic statistics suggest, where I have more past than future. So, necessarily, memory has become an increasingly salient subject for me, as it has for anthropology and for social science more generally—not only individual memory but social or collective memory, whether than collectivity is a family, an organization, an ethnic group, an indigenous society, or a state. And, as Jacques Derrida has stressed and as is all too apparent by simply looking around, we are all haunted by the ghosts of the past, whether those ghosts are ‘great men,’ great events, great ideas, or simply family patriarchs—or, in the case of Bronislaw Malinowski, all of the above.

“Savage Memory” is a remarkable and memorable film, made by one of his great grandsons. Appropriately enough, it opens with a quote from “Myth in Primitive Psychology” about immortality of soul, setting the stage for the insightful study of ancestors, ghosts, and legacies to follow. Every anthropologist knows the work of Malinowski, a patriarch of the discipline just as he was the patriarch of a family. The film introduces his fieldwork with Trobriand Islanders through black and white photos and the memories of anthropologists who have felt his influence. Curiously though, his own family is relatively unaware of his work; some even see him as a negative force in the family, the carrier of the ‘Malinowski curse.’ In particular, his eldest daughter Jozefa never talked about him.

Therefore, his descendant and filmmaker is left to piece together his story from the fragments that are left. Malinowski, the film stresses, was one of the first scholars to understand that what other people do actually makes sense. “Ethnography has introduced law and order into what seemed chaotic and freakish. It has transformed for us the sensational, wild world of savages into a number of well ordered communities, governed by law, behaving and thinking according to consistent principles, ” he wrote in Argonauts of the Western Pacific and repeated here. However, his great grandson wonders what did Malinowski meant by ‘savage,’ so he treks back to the Trobriand Islands today, where he finds Linus digim Rina, native anthropologist who describes Malinowski’s first field trip, during which he lived and worked with the chief. On his second field trip he stayed in a village on the lagoon so as to get his own authentic perspective on everyday life. But whether ethnographic ‘facts’ are as factual as we think is questioned by the comments of a Trobriand elder who tells stories about Malinowski—although he probably never met the great man. It may be a general truth that great men are difficult to live with and work with. After all, greatness demands a certain high level of commitment, not to mention egotism. In the film, modern anthropologists speculate that Malinowski was hard to work with, and his family still ponders the patriarch’s effect on them, generations later. His youngest daughter, Helena, collected his papers and writings, building an archive and publishing letters between him and his wife Elsie. The film acknowledges that he left his three daughters with Elsie, who was suffering from multiple sclerosis, while he pursued his discipline-changing research. It also points out the irony of Malinowski’s interest in Trobriand ancestor spirits even while he kept his own family at a distance (quite literally). Of course, some of Malinowski’s findings have come to be disputed, not least by Annette Weiner, and one of the more amusing scenes in the movie features an elder who recalls the work of Weiner and complains that she did not pay her informants; therefore, he insists that he did not give her the full information and that he finds no value in her work.

At any rate, the video identifies Malinowski’s extended stay as a historical breakthrough in anthropology, also pausing to note Boas and the formulation of participant observation. But the film also ponders what it felt like for the Trobrianders to be studied anthropologically, not least their sexual behavior. Yet, even in the case of The Sexual Life of Savages Malinowski had a way of making their ‘exotic’ ways seem sensible. Inevitably, though, a discussion of Malinowski’s fieldwork must raise the issue of his diary, which was never intended for publication. As all anthropologists know by now, it portrays a man of at least occasional racist attitudes, alienation and vulnerability. Obviously his opponents would use the diary to damage and discredit him, but as other anthropologists confess, how many of us would like to see our private diaries or other private thoughts published for all the world to see? What Malinowski’s diary does show us is a man obsessed with understanding himself. But we must never forget that Malinowski was a human being, just like us, and he was thus a family man. Various of his descendants talk about the Malinowski ‘family curse,’ which they see as a combination of insecurity and grandiosity, of being condemned to be sarcastic know-it-alls. Simultaneously, at least some Trobrianders appreciate his influence on them and their society as positive: since society is a living changing thing, his ethnographies are invaluable to the locals themselves as documents of their former culture, a culture that has suffered many insults, not the least of them Christianity. Even a contemporary Trobriand reverend complains that his people today are living a ‘photocopy’ of Western life. Thus, one of the few recordings of life before this ‘virtual culture’ is Malinowski’s work.

The film concludes by pressing the contrast between the historical figure (the great anthropologist) and the human figure (“who left his daughters feeling undervalued”). Whether the family curse existed before his first wife’s death, it certainly manifested in his second marriage: Malinowski’s second wife allegedly absconded with his letters as well as with the family silver. His living kin argue about Malinowski’s lasting effect on his descendants, particularly as transmitted through the damage done to his daughters. Trobriand ideas about spirits and reincarnation are presented as an implied analogy to the Malinowski family and the ‘reincarnation’ of Malinowski’s influence. Paradoxically, Malinowski wrote extensively about mortuary practices across cultures, but he did not allow his own daughters to attend their mother’s funeral in 1935. And when Malinowski died 1942 his grave received no headstone for over twenty years—not until 1966, when one was placed by a former student. What does that mean for the memory of Malinowski? Unfortunately, the people who actually knew him are either dead or losing their memories of him, including his daughter Helena, whose decline into dementia means that those memories, as well as all of her memories, will soon be gone. Then all we will have are ghosts—and a discipline, an indigenous society, and a family of descendants haunted by those ghosts.

Level/Use: Suitable for college courses in cultural anthropology, history/theory of anthropology, anthropology of memory, and Melanesian/Trobriand Island studies, as well as for general audiences.