May 3, 2011

The Mark and Olly Follies: Reality TV series misrepresents tribal people

Reality TV reached new depths of irresponsibility in Mark & Olly: Living with the Machigenga [sic]. Aired on the Travel Channel in 2009 and on BBC in 2010, the show features Mark Anstice and Oliver Steeds, swashbuckling adventurers who travel to remote locales to “get accepted” by exotic tribes. Mark Anstice, a former British Army officer who now spends much of the year “wearing little more than a vegetable,”[1] briefly returned to military life during the Iraq War. Oliver Steeds is a self-styled “21st century Indiana Jones.”[2] Their first hit show, Living with the Kombai, was made in New Guinea. A Papua-based pilot posted this review on Amazon.com: “I met some people that work with the Kombai and they told me about how the show was made…[Mark and Olly] requested for the people to act ‘native’ to fit there [sic] plot. It is filmed to make you believe that it’s just these two guys trying to adapt but in reality the whole thing is staged.”[3]


"The program is rife with egregious mistranslations and outright falsifications."

“Chili up the Arse”
Mark and Olly then ventured to Amazonian Peru. As I describe in the May 2008 issue of Anthropology News[4], I happened to be in the same Matsigenka community when a scouting team from Cicada Films visited Manu Park in October 2007. The cameraman, Matt Currington, found the people there too “Westernized.” As he remarked to me at the time: “the shorts, the guys playing soccer, the school house, that just won’t cut it with Mark and Olly.” In violation of park permits and against my warnings, the crew sought out isolated groups further upriver. As reported in Peruvian Health Ministry documents and the international press[5], their visit apparently unleashed a cold epidemic: four Matsigenka died of respiratory infections and dozens became seriously ill. The crew was banned from returning to Manu by the Park administration. The regional indigenous association, FENAMAD, carried out an investigation and mounted an international media campaign. The Association of Social Anthropologists of the UK registered a formal complaint with the British broadcast regulator, OFCOM.

Mark Anstice in New Guinea "wearing little more than a vegetable." Photo source Mark and Olly Blog (accessed Feb. 2009; later removed).

Yet despite this outcry, Mark and Olly persisted, ultimately filming with Matsigenka villages outside the park in a different region. In the program blog, Anstice described their host and village chief, Jacinto, as a “deranged lunatic” who threatens to “ram a red hot chili up my arse.”[6]

During the show, Jacinto is subjected to an embarrassing interview about his sex life. When he says, “I will have sex another day,” the English translation reads, “I have sex every day.” In the segment, Jacinto appears worried that two men like Mark and Olly traveling together without wives will succumb to the temptations of anal fornication. He supposedly threatens to rub chili peppers on sensitive organs. The Matsigenka are a discreet people, hardly obsessed with sex, and loath to offend. I am certain this segment was scripted or deceptively translated and edited.

Irreality TV
As an anthropologist who has worked with the Matsigenka for 25 years, I denounce such disrespectful representations. I also refute their false characterization of the Matsigenka as “the most elusive tribe of the Amazon… so little known.”  Anthropologists and linguists have studied the Matsigenka since the 1950s and missionaries have worked there for over 300 years. Today, the Matsigenka face tremendous cultural and environmental challenges especially since a gas pipeline was built through their territory, yet none of this broader contemporary context is mentioned. No one involved in the series appears to have read any of the numerous books or articles about this large, well-documented cultural group: they can’t even spell the name (“Machiguenga” is a Spanish transliteration, “Machigenga” is the show’s neologism).

The Matsigenka are generous hosts. It is inconceivable they would subject foreign visitors to the initiation trials portrayed in the show, forcing Olly to sleep outside for laziness, making them “gather food for the tribe,” sending them to search for a lost child, insisting they take a psychoactive brew before embarking on a (phony) pilgrimage, abandoning them on a raft in rapids, making them compete with a third suitor for a young bride, and otherwise testing their “manliness.” In one scene, Olly is subjected to painful ant stings, since “according to Matsigenka tradition he must be cleansed” and “endure the ancient punishments” for the supposed faux-pas of buying deer meat: the entire scene was fabricated and has no basis in ethnography. Distorted translations suggest that a woman secluded in a hut with an ill newborn is considering infanticide (she is just obeying the traditional post-partum seclusion rite), provoking much spurious online debate.[7] Such portrayals are false and insulting, leading audience members to comment on the program blog that the Matsigenka are mean and savage people.[8]

The producers assume no one in the audience understands Matsigenka, but I do. When a villager “surprises” them in his garden at night and says he thought they were “a herd of boar,” the translation reads, “If you were colonists, he would have tied you up and cut off all your skin.” The program is rife with egregious mistranslations and outright falsifications. The Matsigenka phrase, “You come from far away where lots of gringos live” is translated as “We use arrows to kill outsiders who threaten us.” In a rafting scene, a Matsigenka remarks of the duo, “They’re playing instead of rowing,” but the translation reads, “They’re going to die.” During what is portrayed as a solemn meeting of community elders to discuss Mark and Olly's fate, but which appears to be staged, the village leader asks in Matsigenka, “Good afternoon, what are we here to talk about?” The translation reads, “When they arrived, I treated them like small boys…now we’re starting to treat them like brothers.” In the final episode, the non-sequitur, “This time I did it right, the same way as yesterday,” in Matsigenka is translated, “Sometimes they tried too hard and hurt themselves.”


Community leaders discuss the aftermath of the unauthorized visit of Mark and Olly's scouting crew to isolated villages in Manu Park (Nov. 2007).  
*Note the partially erased word "[C]icada Productions" on the blackboard, and the name of the Matsigenka man, "Kenkea" (or Kian-Kian) who came to inform the health clinic about four deaths due to a respiratory epidemic attributed to the film crew's visit.

Farce Unveiled
Ron Snell, who also speaks the language and visits often, posted his reaction: “How did they get the Machiguengas to do so many things that are completely out of character and so contrary to their culture?... How did they produce the ‘wild pig dance’, which we have never seen in 35 years of living in Machiguenga villages?...About all we could conclude is that they paid the Machiguengas to perform for them, saying things the Machiguengas wouldn’t ordinarily say and doing things the Machiguengas wouldn’t normally do.”[9] Snell encountered two of the film’s native protagonists in the city of Quillabamba: “Our suspicions were correct. They entered the village on a well traveled path and only veered a few feet off the path to film themselves ‘hacking their way through the jungle.’ They contracted someone to make new cushmas [cotton tunics] so everyone would be wearing one. They staged the whole drama about one of the guys being accepted and the other treated as a lazy outsider. Since they couldn’t get to the Pongo [rapids] by balsa raft, they used a motorboat to get there. The translator quickly became disillusioned with the whole thing, but kept going because of the money. He is ashamed and embarrassed that he had anything to do with it.”[9]

I am shocked by Mark & Olly’s narcissistic antics, their gross misrepresentations of Matsigenka culture, and their disregard for consequences inflicted on native communities. I am dismayed with Travel Channel’s involvement since the parent company, Discovery Channel, worked with me on two award-winning films about the Matsigenka, Spirits of the Rainforest and The Spirit Hunters. Before we began filming, executive producer Steve Burns insisted I watch Baka: People of the Rainforest, an acclaimed documentary about the Congo. He was setting high standards, and it paid off: Spirits of the Rainforest won two Emmy Awards in 1993, including “Best Cultural/Informational Film.” I wonder what Living with the Machigenga was modeled on. Borat comes to mind.


---Note: This piece was published simultaneously with minor abridgement by the American Anthropological Association in Anthropology News Vol. 52, No. 5 (May 2011), pg. 18. Quoted material is verbatim from the film and the sources noted below. Some online sources have been altered or inactivated since they were first accessed and downloaded.

---August 2011 update: International media coverage of the story first reported here can be found at Survival International, Indian Country, The Huffington Post, The Guardian and many other news outlets. 



[1]  http://mark-and-olly-blog.travelchannel.com/ accessed and downloaded February 18, 2009.
[2] http://oliversteeds.com/ accessed Feb. 20, 2011.
[4] "The reality (TV) of vanishing lives: An interview with Glenn Shepard." Anthropology News 49(5): pg. 30 (Washington, DC: American Anthropologist Association, May 2008). Online at http://www.aaanet.org/issues/anthronews/ANarchives.cfm; http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/anne.2008.49.issue-5/issuetoc.
[5] http://www.survivalinternational.org/news/3166 accessed April 30, 2011.
[6] http://mark-and-olly-blog.travelchannel.com/ accessed and downloaded February 18, 2009.
[7] http://hubpages.com/hub/cultural-differences
[8] http://mark-and-olly-blog.travelchannel.com/ accessed and downloaded February 13, 2009.
[9] updated version of this blogpost at http://assets.survivalinternational.org/documents/620/ron-snell-markandollie.pdf; originally accessed and downloaded at www.plattepost.com/Websites/sublimesitecmsdemo3/Images/MarknOlly.doc June 11, 2010 (now inactive).

13 comments:

  1. My involvement with reality TV in the music business has shown it to be rife with falsities and ineptitude. However, Mark and Ollie's show has hit a new low... Let's hope their show gets cancelled soon.

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  2. En general no me gusta lo litigiosa que suelen ser algunas sociedades de paises "desarrollados". Sin embargo, creo que es lo unico que podria forzar a personas involucradas en este tipo de falsedades a respetar los derechos de los pueblos. Como alguien menciono, el Travel Channel nunca se atreveria a hacer algo similar con una minoria de Norteamerica, pues tendrian miedo de las consecuencias.
    Por otro lado, este es un tema que valdria la pena conversar en reuniones de lideres indigenas, de manera que se tenga un poco mas de cuidado con los foraneos que llegan con camaras, dinero y una agenda pre-determinada. Que bueno que el autor de este blog y Ron Snell no hayan dejado que este abuso pase desapercibido.

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  3. Hello, Glenn H. Shepard,
    In a world of lies and fantasies, you have brought to light some reality in the true sense of the word. Thank you for shedding some light on the matter!

    Luciano Souza, São Paulo, Brazil.

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  4. Surely there must be some broadcasting code of ethics that would get these guys shut down: can't find any outcome on OFCOM.

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  5. Loredana what an incredibly inappropriate place for that type of comment. I believe the BBC will never air these again, and I've asked Cicada when they'll be coming out with Mark & Ollie 4, just for giggles.

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  6. I'm very grateful to the author of the blog to point out such situation which is unfortunately widely spread. Many times we have read of false picture from war battlefield. The main problem is that money is not attractive for indigenous people but for white people first. In globalization era nothing is important but individual goals and, 24h broadcasting TV need to fill their palimpsests. If a little company have good idea and contact cannot make a production cause to many rules are to be satisfied before a video is aired but if a great company make a bullshit, soon it's aired in spite of the same rules. Not only technical quality has lowered since decades but also interest in truth. Thank you again for keeping us informed on ethnical misinformation...

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  7. Hi Glenn,
    Do you know if this case was echoed by the Peruvian press?

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  8. I thank all of you who have commented on this posting. To Eric, I haven't seen any reporting on the Peruvian press, though one reporter did get in touch with me. But then again the show hasn't aired there yet.

    Regarding OFCOM, they essentially washed their hands of the complaint filed by the UK anthropology association. But now Survival International has developed a code of ethics (see http://www.survivalinternational.org/news/7589) and are trying to make the BBC and other broadcasters aware of ethical issues when filming and representing tribal peoples.

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  9. I still have seen no reporting in the Peruvian press on this story, though I was interviewed by one Peruvian-based journalist. I recently became aware of a cross-posting in Peru by CAAAP, a respected center for applied anthropology:

    http://www.caaap.org.pe/home/component/content/article/149-programa-de-tv-un-montaje-falso-inventado-y-distorsionado.html

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  10. I watched my first episode of this series today - something just didn't feel right about these guys - so I looked them up online, and look what I found out !! On the other hand I have found your extremely interesting site. Thank you...

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    Replies
    1. Dear FirePheasant,

      I'm glad you found the post illuminating. Thank you very much for your comment and I hope you continue to enjoy the blog!

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  11. AnonymousJuly 17, 2013

    I worked at a biological station in Manu Park near a small group of Matsigenka. They were so kind and beautiful. We had not brought enough food for our 4 month field season and they brought us fruit almost every day.

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    1. Oops. Somehow I missed this thoughtful comment! I must have been traveling. Cocha Cashu is paradise! I have been there many times, and the station has a long history of friendly relationships with the nearby Matsigenka. Thanks so much for writing and for following the blog, Glenn

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