Beyond the Gates of Splendor (****)

Posted on February 4th, 2005 in Movie Reviews by EngineerBoy

Beyond the Gates of Splendor tells an incredible, nearly unbelievable true story that spans 50 years in the lives of five families and a violent and isolated Ecuadorian tribe. If you think you might see it but don’t know the whole story, I urge you to stop reading and go, then come back here.

Really, I mean it. This is the kind of movie that is best experienced with no prior knowledge. I know, I know, you’re wondering how you’ll know it’s your kind of movie if you don’t what the hell it’s about. I’ll have to ask you to trust me here and just go. Go on, go.

Last warning, the next paragraph tells the tale, and as interesting as the story is to tell I sincerely hope you get to experience it on the big screen. Final warning. Here we go.

The Story

Back in the mid-50’s a group of five young, newly married, husband-and-wife couples moved to the jungles of Ecuador to do missionary work. Now, I personally have a problem with missionaries who go to other cultures with the express purpose of telling them that their belief system is wrong and the missionary’s is right, and the natives need to change to be “saved”. I find the implied cultural superiority to be distasteful, presumptuous, and disrespectful.

However, I do have a grudging respect for people who are so sincere in their beliefs that they will uproot their families and travel to remote, unsafe parts of the world and live spartan lives in order to do (what they think is) good. Also, even though their primary motivation is soul-saving, missionaries do *actual* good by bringing things like medical care, nutritional education, etc, that does bring real benefits.

Parking my high horse.

Now, these five families were spread out among different stations in the remote jungles of Ecuador, connected to each other by the radio and airplane. They talked frequently, got together when they could, and had a sense of community with each other. Several of the couples married while in Ecuador, and several of the couples either brought their children, or had children while there.

The Ecuadorians they dealt with on a daily basis told tales of the fierce Waodani tribe that lived in the deepest, darkest parts of the surrounding jungle, and killed with murderous efficiency at the slightest perceived affront. The Waodani had fought the burgeoning oil company presence to a standstill with their vicious “spearing raids”, where they would swoop into oil company stations and slaughter everyone there. With their crude wooden spears and a few pilfered machetes, the fierce and fearsome Waodani halted, however temporarily, the march of “civilized” progress in the Ecuadorian jungle.

The Waodani were not just a fearsome foe to outsiders, but were also prone to settling their interpersonal conflicts with spearings and machete murders. Anthropologists who later studied the tribe were able to trace back five generations of the Waodani, and determined that 60% of all adult deaths over that time were caused by homicide perpetrated by other members of the tribe.

The filmmakers are able to communicate the brutal nature of the Waodani existence because surviving tribe members agreed to be interviewed. They tell mesmerizing tales of a seemingly endless string of spearings, and each tale is punctuated by specific descriptions of how many times the deceased was speared, where the spears entered and/or exited, if entrails were exposed, how long the spear-ee lived after the spearing, and most stories end with the natives gesturing and saying (in their own unique language) that “it happened right over there under that tree”…or “they speared my father in his hammock while I was sleeping on his chest”…or “so-and-so was acting crazy, so we had to kill him and when he was dead we were happy”. These killings are related with what seems like about the same amount of angst a typical American would have when relating the story of a non-fatal car accident…shaken, but not stirred.

The five missionary men hatch a plan to try to establish peaceful contact with the Waodani. The pilot of the group figures out that if he hangs a bucket from a rope from the plane, then circles the plan tightly, he can use the harmonics of the twirling rope to gently lower the bucket down and have it stay mostly in one spot for a while. The men use this method to give gifts to the Waodani. After a few sessions, the Waodani begin putting their own gifts back into the bucket.

After a few sessions of this the men then head out and land the plane on a sandbar near the Waodani village, and bring as a gift a small scale model of the plane. Frankly, I was awed by the simple ingeniousness of this method of building trust with the Waodani. A delegation of Waodani, a man and two women, approach them and over the course of several days a rapport is established. The missionaries nickname the Waodani man “George”, and even go so far as to take him for a plane ride over his village. George shows no apparent fear, and even shouts down to his tribesman “hey, it’s me up here!” (or words to that effect).

But, through a series of unfortunate events, the tribe comes to see these five missionaries as a threat, and a spearing party heads down to the river and kills all of them.

In Hollywood, this would be the end of an interesting, but often told, tale. But in this case, the reality is that these killings were just the beginning of the story.

After the killings, the wives decide to stay in Ecuador to continue their missionary work. Then, some time later a group of Waodani women emerge from the jungle, saying that they have fled the tribe out of fear for their lives. One of the surviving tribeswomen relates the harrowing tale of fleeing the jungle and heading for the area of the foreigners, and having them raise their rifles as she approached, but she simply shut her eyes and ran at them even though she thought they would kill her. When they didn’t shoot her she signaled for the other, younger women to come out.

The missionary widows hear about these tribeswomen and end up meeting and befriending them, and beginning to learn about the language and culture (and horrors) of tribal life. It turns out that several years earlier another Waodani tribeswoman had done the same thing, and was now living the life of an Ecuadorian peasant rather than a jungle tribeswoman. The widows and the expat tribeswomen bond, and soon another delegation, made up of men and women, exit the jungle and approach the missionaries. They express remorse for the killings, as they found they were triggered by stories that they later learned were untrue. They invite the widows to come and visit them, and one of them does, taking along her five year old daughter.

Incredibly, they end up living with the Waodani for years, and they are also joined by some of the other missionary widows. Through their interactions with the Waodani, they express the horror with which most of the rest of the world views murders, and actually begin to convince the tribe that the vendettas and revenge murders have to stop, or it will spell the end of the Waodani. Astonishingly, village by village, the Waodani agree to stop the killings.

The anthropologists who later studied the Waodani express that this was an amazing cultural transformation. The Waodani way of life was unchanged except for this facet, no new tools were introduced, no technology, no farming techniques, none of the hallmarks of cultural dilution. Just the stopping of the killings, with the transformation going from the first village to the last in the course of a few months. And the change has been permanent, at least to date.

One of the women ended up living out her life with the Waodani, leaving only for cancer treatments, but returning to the tribe to die when she learned she was terminal. The five year old daughter lived there for years, and later returned when she was baptized because she wanted to be baptized in the river by the village, and she wanted her adopted Waodani family there. In an astonishing case of irony or joyfulness, the two Waodani who held her arms and leaned her back for her baptism were two of the men from the party that killed her father.

As a grown man, the son of one of the murdered missionaries returned to the Waodani with his two sons, and lived with them for years, as well. When his son returned to the States and was graduating from high school, he asked that one of the Waodani elders come to his graduation. He called this Waodani “grandfather” in the Waodani language. In another ironic/joyful instance, this man he called grandfather had also been in the party that killed his grandfather.

The Film

The film is mesmerizing from the beginning to the end. The film starts by telling a bit about the Waodani and their ways, but then immediately jumps to modern-day interviews with the surviving widows and children. The widows begin by telling how they met their husbands, what they were like, how they ended up in Ecuador, what life was like as a missionary, what it was like to raise kids in the environment, etc. All of this is very quaint and might even be boring except for the fact that you can’t help but notice they aren’t talking to any of the husbands, plus for some reason you’ve been told about a tribe of murderous Ecuadorian tribespeople, and your mind starts making connections.

As the story progresses, you don’t have to imagine much, because there are photographs and films of their missionary life. Some of these films and photos are so clear and relevant that you begin to suspect that perhaps they were “dramatic recreations”, but as they switch from the widows today back to the films of yesterday, they are unmistakably the same women at a younger age.

There are even films and photos taken by the husbands at Palm Beach, which was their name for the strip of riverbank where they landed their plane to visit the Waodani. We see film of George and the two women, photos of the men and George, film of one of the Waodani women performing a detailed inspection of the plane.

We also see film and photos of the search parties that searched for and found the men. We see non-gory photos of their bodies.

The current-day interviews are also riveting. They interview one of the other missionary pilots, who led the expedition to find his friends. His breakdown on camera while relating the tale is heart-wrenching. The wives also alternate from glowing happiness when relating the good times, to soul-anguishing tears when relating the dark times. The interviews with the kids and grandkids are less painful, because as children they didn’t quite experience the full horror of what happened, and they also were instrumental in the peaceful reconciliation with the Waodani.

There is also a funny and heartwarming denouement, where the Waodani grandfather comes to the United States for the grandchild’s graduation. They show Grandfather going through grocery stores, riding the walkways of airports, and doggedly attempting to understand the myriad of different faucet configurations in American bathrooms.

This footage is interspersed with an interview with his wife back in the Ecuadorian jungles, where she expresses her disbelief in his description of airport walkways (“they stand on the trail, and the trail moves”), and his assertion that they have no gardens, but instead get food from giant “food houses” (grocery stores). She laments how fat he was upon his return. He sticks by his assertion that the way food is taken from the food house is by getting the attention of the check out girl and getting her to smile at him (after first being ignored). The narrator tries to explain that he had to give her something (his credit card), but the slyly logical old Waodani says, “yes, but you didn’t fool me because she gave it right back to you!”.

In an amazing footnote to the story, it seems that initially the Waodani refused to participate in the documentary, ostensibly because of their shame over their prior way of life and the murders of the missionaries. However, during their travels in the US and interactions with missionary family members, the Waodani became aware of the Columbine school shootings. The shootings struck a chord with the tribe, and they hoped that by telling their story they could help others learn by their example of turning away from violence.

So, the story is amazing. The film is amazing. Do yourself a favor and go find this film. Here in Houston it was showing on one screen of one google-plex theater, not at the art houses, and I fear it will not be long in release.

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