Sky Above, the Mud Below, The (1961)

“We are here just as observers — and, if they will let us be, as friends.”

Sky Above Mud Below Poster

Synopsis:
A team of European explorers are assisted by New Guinean natives as they travel through uncharted jungle territory.

Genres:

Review:
This Oscar-winning documentary remains a fascinating (if perhaps inevitably patronizing) artifact of an historic expedition through the mountains, jungles, and rivers of “Dutch New Guinea” (now Papua New Guinea). As with earlier documentaries like Nanook of the North (1922) (or Werner Herzog’s fictional Fitzcarraldo — discussed in Les Blank’s documentary Burden of Dreams), one is consistently aware of how challenging it must have been simply to gather the footage on display: while watching the arduous, months-long trek through seemingly impenetrable landscape, we’re aware that the film crew itself was traversing the same terrain (not to mention carrying bulky, sensitive equipment). We see individuals becoming too sick to continue the journey; daring maneuvers made by pilots willing to drop much-needed supplies near the expedition (at one point the travelers go for three days without food); and cringe-inducing scenes of leeches being burned off legs. While we’re aware that the majority of the troupe eventually made it to their destination — and that radio communication was maintained throughout — the adventure feels genuinely tenuous at times, especially knowing that some of the tribes they encountered actively engaged in head-hunting and cannibalism.

At the same time, it’s hard not to feel at least mildly distressed by the exoticizing tone of both the solemn voiceover (“They say in the jungle, only fools and children ask questions.”) and many of the scenes — beginning with a staged introduction as the adventurers and a pretty stewardess smile while pointing to various locations on a globe (good thing they had that with them on the plane). As nudity, dramatic body piercings, and unsettling tribal customs (i.e., bare-breasted women suckle not just human babies but animals and adult guests) are put on display, we wish it were less obvious how superior the explorers feel to their “stone age” counterparts. Yet the filmmakers are nothing if not direct in their explanation of how and why the journey (funded by Dutch royalty) took place, making it easier for modern audiences to place the film within historical context and forgive some patronizing elements. Audiences at the time were surely enthralled by the opportunity to glimpse the lives of fellow humans so completely untouched by global influence — and modern film fanatics will likely be, too.

Note: Viewers interested in this subject matter and area of the world might want to check out the more recent documentary The Search for Michael Rockefeller (2011), which weaves similar footage from the same era into an investigation of the famous heir’s mysterious disappearance. Also recommended is the National Geographic documentary series based on Gerald Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel (2005).

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Fascinating footage of a harrowing expedition
    SAMB Laughter
    SAMB Tribal
    SAMB Leeches

Must See?
Yes, as an engaging historical document. Listed as a film with Historical Importance and a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

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One Response to “Sky Above, the Mud Below, The (1961)”

  1. A once-must – because, well…it’s a sobering, humbling experience. My guess is that only those who maintain a steady diet of documentaries or those who keep themselves open to the occasional documentary will actually see it.

    I can’t comment on the statement that there is a “patronizing” air within the film. (I’m no Margaret Mead.) But it doesn’t feel that way to me – nor did I sense that the filmmakers felt at all “superior” to the subjects of their study. I felt a sense of honest respect throughout. More than that, really – a sense of awe and wonder.

    Given the conditions, the filming is rather immaculate and even artistic.

    Personally, I couldn’t stop wondering about the customs and traditions of the various tribes. How did they acquire them?, and get all tribal members to agree to follow them – especially (often) in such elaborate detail? But I was mostly relieved that the filmmakers didn’t seem to encounter actual life-and-death situations as far as the natives were concerned. Their subjects seemed, overall, to not mind being captured on film – and, if there were things not to be seen…well, word simply got to the filmmakers that certain things were off-limits.

    Certainly a one-of-a-kind film experience – which deserved its Oscar.

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