A widely disseminated, largely unquestioned 1970s ethnographic study described the Ik, a northern Ugandan tribe, as “the worse people on earth,” decrying their inhumanity and recommending that their culture be eradicated. Tickled by the account, documentarian Cevin Soling set out to discover the Ik for himself, and his motley crew’s perilous trek through war-ravaged Uganda eloquently explains why he was the first to do so in 40 years. Though generally engrossing, “Ikland’s” multiscreen displays and cross-cultural theatrical experiments prove more distracting than effective. Opening June 15 at Gotham’s Quad, the pic could parlay its curio value into a cable slot.
Initially ragged and bare-bones (much of the early footage was confiscated), the film relies on Soling’s own narration and seat-of-the-pants informality to keep things moving. Vet nature photog David Pluth, recovering from an elephant attack, joins the team in Africa. The film crew also picks up two women — Nicole Smaglick, a vivacious redhead who serves as production manager, and Fanny Walker, a drama instructor who tags along out of cultural curiosity.
The women’s presence facilitates discussion among the members of various tribes as the crew makes stops along the road to Ikland. Posed against village huts, tall grass or sky, interviewees speak freely about the Ik and about themselves. What emerges, with colorful variations, is that the Ik inspire no particular horror or disdain among their neighbors; between the frequent famines and marauding armies wont to kill indiscriminately for no reason, survival trumps all other concerns in this impoverished region.
Soling and co-director/editor David Hilbert often resort to fragmented, postcard-like of images of different shapes and sizes to capture the piecemeal nature of the expedition. But such fanciful uses of format, which served to sidestep cliche in Soling’s docu “The War Against Children,” fail to resonate either ironically or illustratively, within this laid-back, anecdotal travelogue. Thankfully, the further the film advances, the more solid and linear its visual style becomes.
When the filmmakers finally make contact with the Ik, they are welcomed into a tribe very different than advertised, the antithesis in many ways of Colin Turnbull’s “definitive” 1970s portrait, which Soling had read as a child. Rather tiresomely, however, the helmer opts to take on a sort of missionary role, serving as Western apologist for this much-maligned people.