More of a recruitment film for the cause than a serious examination of a social phenomenon, Mimi George and Rick Kent’s “Modern Tribalism” wholeheartedly embraces — and certainly romanticizes — a subculture exploring our pre-industrial roots. Their video camera roams the American West, long the epicenter of the New Age movement, to record various expressions of what it means to live in a modern industrialized nation and at the same time tap into things ancient and tribal. The journey is fatally flawed by a close attachment to the subject, to the point where basic contradictions and questions that documakers should explore are ignored. Pic is being adroitly slotted for key indie confabs and New Age-friendly fests, and may draw theatrical interest as a midnight alternative.
For all of its celebration of a pre-technology global culture, “Modern Tribalism” is American through and through — from its lack of interest in history to its basic form as a tour guide to the primitive hot spots of the West. In a visit to a Denver tattoo parlor run by friendly “Big Mike” Nickels, the camera plays on the customers’ faces as they wince through the sessions, which are given almost absurdly weighty meaning by pic’s running commentators, author Tom Robbins and West African medicine man Malidoma Some. Most likely for many of Big Mike’s customers, a tattoo is just a tattoo.
The narrators label such acts as a recovery of ancient society’s rites of passage, but this ignores dozens of other traditional and contemporary forms of these rites, both religious — like the Jewish Bar and Bat Mitzvah — and secular — like a debutante ball. Pic’s subtext amounts to a barely disguised contempt for Western modernity itself.
Pic is on firmer ground when simply observing a modern tribalist in action, such as body-piercing phenom Fakir Musafar, whose ultra-extreme punctures and distortions are documented by a visit to his workshop, which preaches finding inner awareness through the transcendence of pain. Philosophy is intercut with Musafar’s own B&W super-8 footage recording his early experiments in self-mutilation.
It is when Musafar puts his thoughts into words that things become muddled again, as when he proclaims that a new “tribal family is needed for cultural survival.” Pic stubbornly fails to delve into what tribalism actually is, ignoring notion that while several ancient tribal societies have lived in harmony with neighbors for centuries, the vast majority have not, and that the very factionalism tribes tend to foster is at the root of numerous global crises.
Especially when pic visits the annual Burning Man Festival, the sort of “tribalism” on view smacks of little more than a trendy pop culture statement. Oft-repeated claims that “this is not a trend” only reinforce that suspicion.
Outstanding vid lensing in some remote, atmospheric Western locales recalls nothing less than Antonioni’s counterculture “Zabriskie Point,” one of the first works to depict young Americans dropping out in quest of something wild.