Roles Reversed In Schoonerwoerd
Director: Hans Heijnen
Distributors: Coe Film Associates, New York
1988 (30 minutes)
Classic Hollywood jungle movies, in which white criminals and heroes match wits in an exotic setting, all have at least one scene in common. When the white man enters the jungle of darkest Africa, the drums start pounding in warning, and soon everyone in the jungle is aware of the trespass.
Rajendra Pradhan, an anthropologist from Nepal, in his real life had the experience of being such a trespasser. It happened not in Africa, but in Holland, as he set about studying the 1,500 elderly, conservative, Calvinist inhabitants of an orderly Dutch village named Schoonerwoerd.
From the moment he arrived, the people of Schoonerwoerd were confronted for the first time with a true stranger in their midst. And they set about, in their own way, beating their drums. The first difficulty they faced was Pradhan’s colour, and most concluded that he was not black but “dark.” They were surprised at how nice a fellow he was, that he could so quickly grasp the difference between Presbyterians and Reformists, that they could talk with him intelligently, that he was clean and well-behaved. And their collective response to him was ordered and polite.
For his part, Pradhan had a very lonely time. He was in a place where by his estimation “no one expressed their feelings” and so he never knew what they were thinking or feeling. He was in a place where everything was ordered — social relations, personal emotions, people’s homes — to the degree that there was hardly any deviation in behaviour. Then one day the Dutch television company -having heard the drums — decided to make a short documentary about the people of Schoonerwoerd and their dark stranger.
What emerged is a curious and charming little film called Nice Weather, Mr. Pradhan, which, to begin with, is of interest because it documents a reversal of expected roles. Nepalis are customarily those who are studied by others, not those who do the studying! And even though the film is not very deep — it was after all made for television — it does manage to raise many issues about anthropology that are worth pondering.
To begin with, Pradhan found himself in a community in which he did not want to live, in a country he did not want to study. Perhaps his predicament was rather extreme, but the loneliness of being a stranger is a fact that all anthropologists will face in the field. In Pradhan’s case, he ended up in Schoonerwoerd not out of choice but by default, because the funding granted him for research had certain restrictions. Yet all anthropologists must have at least one moment of wondering how in the world they have ended up where they are, what they are doing there, and why they should stay. It was very giving and brave of Mr. Pradhan to speak so sincerely in the film about his own difficulties, for they are truthful and illuminating.
Another aspect of Pradhan’s experience is similarly central to the anthropologist’s experience: being a celebrity. The degree to which Pradhan has become one seems remarkable. His story was broadcast throughout Holland, was featured at the Margaret Mead Film Festival in New York, and is being distributed widely in the United States. But perhaps the attention is not as out of proportion as it appears if we consider some simple arithmetic. Multiply the attention another anthropologist might receive in an out-of-the-way village by a factor commensurate with the power of available communication technology and you will arrive at the popularity of Nice Weather, Mr. Pradhan.
What is of such compelling interest in this little film? Why does the anthropologist almost invariably become a celebrity? It is that his or her presence forces us to ask who we are. We become more aware that we are being observed, we wonder what it is that is being seen, and we begin to see our own peculiarities. The closed universe we customarily inhabit is punctured by an annoying self-consciousness, and after the anthropologist departs, we are not quite the same people, whether we care to admit it or not.
Nice Weather, Mr. Pradhan will take its place in Western society as little more than charming entertainment, but for Western anthropologists, it illustrates how potentially powerful their presence in an alien land can be. If Pradhan was able to attract the attention of so many strangers, it is not farfetched to assume that another anthropologist, in a smaller, more isolated and innocent community, would have more impact on his surroundings.
Pradhan is reportedly at home now working on a book called Dark Stranger in a Dutch Village. It is interesting that he himself figures so largely in the title. Perhaps his present effort will have more to teach us. More important than many pages of finely detailed ethnography may be a description of what it is like to be a stranger. That is a very human concern, and it is because of a sensitivity to it that Nice Weather, Mr. Pradhan succeeds.
Sassoon has worked for UNICEF in Nepal and presently edits a educational tabloid in New York.