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 “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]