The difference between an “A” and a “The” to begin the subtitle of Ghostland: The View of the Ju’hoansi amounts to the difference between voyeurism and ethnography. Although the two practices are often conflated, especially when referring to early-20th-century documentary, voyeurism is a distinct, unwelcome mode of visual address, whereas ethnography finds its perspective through the interaction between filmmaker and subject. In cinematic terms, Jean Rouch’s Moi un Noir and Jaguar helped to confound the relationship between European interests in African societies through what Rouch called a “cine-trance,” in which he sought to release the authorship of his film via a collaboration with numerous subjects.
German director Simon Stadler attempts a similar sort of creative relationship with the Ju/’hoansi Bushmen of Namibia, whose lives have been drastically altered since hunting was outlawed by the government in 1990. No longer capable of self-reliance, the Ju/’hoansi now profit through selling handmade trinkets and souvenirs to tourists. Stadler pays careful attention to shot placement, which reinforces the film’s awareness of spectatorial perspective. When a group of European tourists hunch over a handful of Ju/’hoansi people to take photographs, the camera surveys the scene from a low angle and thereby places the viewer into the position of the documentary’s subject.
Stadler’s attunement to shot distance and angle implicitly addresses issues of power and control as a filmmaker, even if it doesn’t necessarily resolve them. Early sequences in Namibia perceive the difficulties of shielding tradition from shifting laws and European influences with an amicable presentation of Ju/’hoansi perspectives, which prevents condescending directorial dips into spectatorial pity or distanced curiosity. Stadler carves out a handful of subjects through samples of conversations and ceremonies, including chau, who’s interested in the communications possibilities of new technology, and tci!xo, who ponders modernizing her hut with a double bed.
However, the crux of Ghostland involves four of the Ju/’hoansi, including chau and tc!xo, traveling to Frankfurt following an invitation from a German foundation. The result is less considered and complex than the stretches in Namibia, primarily because Stadler is set on constructing a facile fish-out-of-water scenario. This feels especially so when one Ju/’hoansi woman remarks how Germany seems like another world as the group travels on bus through Frankfurt, which is followed by a complementary, offbeat soundtrack cue that reinforces her sense of displacement. Other moments, as when a Ju/’hoansi member realizes they are now tourists, yield a similar result; Stadler luxuriates in obvious and comedic constructions of culture clash, which allows the viewer to simplify the relationship between Europe and Africa as a whole.
In accordance with these aesthetic aims, the film hustles the Ju/’hoansi visitors from place to place and mines their insights and perceptions with thin curiosity. As the group walks by a homeless man asleep on a sidewalk, they wonder if he’s poor, sick, or both. Throughout a viewing party for a soccer match, Stadler cuts between cheering Germans and the smiling Ju/’hoansi guests. Afterward, kxore, chau’s wife, admits she finds the Germans to be big and loud and concludes: “We’re not used to that.” For all of Ghostland’s genuine interest in social heritage, the film too comfortably settles into repetitious recognitions that Germany isn’t like Namibia.
The film’s nagging representational problem stems from its reductive sense of place and portraiture of emotional displacement, which gradually phases out the possibility of thornier revelations. Stadler seems to be asking the wrong questions throughout, as if trying to perpetually capture a range of uncertain reactions from the Ju/’hoansi as an end point. Thus, each scene more or less replicates this structure, whether the Ju/’hoansi are at a dance party or inquiring about cattle-raising practices. If the film remains modestly resonant for its kind-hearted presentation of people who hunger for alternate perspectives of their own lives and those of others, it’s at the expense of a richer delving into the historical trajectories that inform its cultural snapshot.