Documentary 'Tong Tana' lets you roam rain forest with Stone Age people

April 18, 1991|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

Oh, those wacky Swiss.

Now here's an otherwise sensible young man named Bruno Manser, in wire-rim glasses and of serious demeanor, who would look comfy dipping his bread into a fondue pot, sipping a mild liebfraumilch and reading Hesse in any cafe in Zurich. But, no.

Bruno may be currently glimpsed stomping around barefoot in the deepest jungles of Borneo, dressed entirely in a loincloth, with rawhide bicep and calf bracelets. That tube he's carrying isn't storage for his pool cue: It's his blow gun. He's hunting monkeys. Bruno hasn't just gone native, he's gone Penan.

The Penan are a Stone Age race living uneasily between an unsympathetic government and an avaricious lumber industry in the rain forest interior of Borneo. And Bruno is the focus of a documentary made by some intrepid Swedes called "Tong Tana," which will be screened at 7:30 tonight at the Baltimore Museum of Art as part of the Baltimore International Film Festival.

The subject is nominally the vanishing lifestyle of the Penan, and Bruno plays the same role in the drama, approximately, that Mary McConnell did as Stands-with-a-Fist in "Dances With Wolves": bi-cultural, he (like she) is our access to an otherwise forbidden world.

The film is fascinating if a bit atonal in its approach. Frankly, Bruno is so interesting and so well-adjusted to his two cultures that it's a shame filmmakers Jan Roed, Frederik von Krusenstjerna, Bjorn Cederberg and Kristian Petri abandon him at the halfway point. They then launch into a completely by-the-numbers examination of the Penan's shaky place not in the fragile ecosystem but in the larger political and economic system that surrounds the tribe and is busy nipping away at it.

Of course it's outrageous when big timber companies hack away at a 60,000-year-old wilderness forest and displace an ancient people in order to make cheap knickknacks for the export trade, but the Swedes are so monotonous in their recapitulation that it becomes dreary, no matter how politically correct. "60 Minutes" would have done it much better.

Far more fascinating is the long passage among the Stone Age Penan and their hunting-subsistence culture. The movie makes no bones about it: These people kill to live, and it takes us on several hunts, and stays with the process through butchering. In fact, so central to life is hunting that their entire concept of manhood is involved in it: A boy reaches adolescence when he kills a squirrel and manhood when he kills a monkey.

As a pictorial document, "Tong Tana" is absolutely first rate: It captures both the density and the majesty of the remote jungle and now and then pauses to conjure up a sunset over the mountains to die for.

The second screening tonight is also anthropological in nature: It's a double feature, beginning at 9:15 p.m., consisting of "Black Water" and "Herdsmen of the Sun." The former is about a Brazilian fishing village, and was made by local filmmaker Allen Moore, who will be present; the latter is by Werner Herzog and is about courtship rituals in Africa.

For more information, call the Baltimore Film Forum at 889-1993.

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