The Midful Bard – Cargo Cult

Film: Cargo Cult
Director: Bastien Dubois

“The poverty of our century is unlike that of any other. It is not, as poverty was before, the result of natural scarcity, but of a set of priorities imposed upon the rest of the world by the rich.”
– John Berger

“Avarice is fear sheathed in gold.”
– Paul Eldridge

This animated short film is set during World War II, and touches on how a native of Papua New Guinea might view the spectacular plenty of the Americans and the Japanese as it falls unbidden from airplanes flying overhead. Naturally these drops from the sky look like the beneficence of some higher power, some distant source of love.

This is the first time the Mindful Bard has devoted an entire article to one short film, but this one warrants it; It’s so well made and the subject matter so relevant that it deserves exploration. It’s no surprise that this little animated piece has won awards and nominations at film festivals the world over; it presents the extremely intriguing fact of the cargo cult phenomenon, reframing it to show its poignancy and its significance to the world at large. The film is also sublimely beautiful and a pleasure to watch.

Cargo cults have been springing up in Melanesia in some form or another since whites first started showing up in the region, bringing with them all the trappings of Western “progress.” Their occurrences have dwindled but they still exist in various forms in Melanesia, particularly in Papua New Guinea.

Theses cults, in general, manifest a fascination with the goods dropped from airplanes, predictions of the coming of a great personage or great wealth, millenarianism (predictions of impending doom or salvation in the near or distant future), and the involvement of dead ancestors, all mixed in with the particular society’s history and myth, as well as some rather confused Christian elements.

Devotees often fashion makeshift items as copies of Western goods; thus you’ll find bamboo headphones, airplanes, and radio towers, fetishes created to attract the generosity of the cargo deities.

Most cargo cults are initiated by “big men” among the natives?men who’ve already impressed the other natives with their personal wealth (usually measured by livestock) and who are thus granted authority to create a religious narrative and demand it be accepted and acted on. These men quickly achieve the status of prophets and everything they say is accepted as gospel.

Strangely enough, cargo cults are formed partly as resistance to colonial oppression, like in the sixties when young people rebelled against the establishment by buying jeans that symbolised the Wild West and working class solidarity, even as the corporations that produced them became powerful enough to put the price of jeans beyond the budgets of workers and cowboys.

Sure, It’s all down to the distinctive character of the primitive mindset, but really, are the “big men” who create cargo cults that different from the CEOs of global corporations, people who implicitly ask us to believe that the free market is a benevolent god that wants only to deliver joy and well-being?

Just like the Papuans, we’re often torn between a naive assumption that these “big men” are acting in our best interests and our gut instinct that they’re ready to throw us all under the bus to line their own pockets. True, Melanesian culture has prepared the natives to accept the cargo cult theology, but our education system also prepares us for deception and consumer slavery, giving us false information and discouraging our ability to think for ourselves.

Looking at it all from the outside, yes, the bamboo headphones and airplanes make us wince with the pathos of it, but why don’t we wince when we see how our masses worship worthless commodities like big name soft drinks, cold breakfast cereals, and heavily promoted but foul-smelling deodorant spray?just because marketing has assured them that these products will bring joy, love, and good fortune into their lives?

This little film is one stone that kills two birds: First, it shows the primitive essence of consumerism, and second, it encourages us to lay aside the vulgar but universally human urge to show off one’s material possessions, and to look instead at the nobler urge to find a beneficent power beyond it all. As the utilitarian philosophers pointed out, the ways in which we pursue happiness may be misguided, even counterproductive, but, in the end, the urge to happiness is beautiful in itself.

Cargo Cult manifests five of the Mindful Bard’s criteria for films well worth seeing.

– It’s authentic, original, and delightful.
– It poses and admirably responds to questions that have a direct bearing on my view of existence.
– It stimulates my mind.
– It provides respite from a sick and cruel world, a respite enabling me to renew myself for a return to mindful artistic endeavor.
– It makes me appreciate that life is a complex and rare phenomena, making living a unique opportunity.

A personal pick, this article and this film touches on a number of issues close to my heart, from animation to consumerism, anthropology and the interdependence of human individuals and societies. It made me interested enough to start doing my own research into cargo cults, and, to me, a Voice article that can do that deserves to be in here.