Category: Werner Herzog / In category: 9 of 10 / Overall: 94 of 100
Made in 1969, the year after his feature-length debut ‘Signs of Life’, the 45-minute documentary ‘The Flying Doctors of East Africa’ is – even by Herzog’s admission – an impersonal project:
“I was asked to make it by colleagues of the doctors themselves, and though I do like the final result, it is a film that is not particularly close to my heart. In fact I do not even call it a film, it is much more a Bericht, a report.” (Quoted in Herzog on Herzog, ed. Paul Cronin.)
Indeed – to be a little more blunt – it often feels like on of those clunky public information films you’d expect to see lampooned on ‘The Simpsons’ (“I’m Troy McClure, you might remember me from such films as …”). The film documents in po-faced style the work of the Flying Doctors service established in Tanzania by the English surgeon Michael Wood, staffed mainly by volunteers and maintained almost entirely by charitable contributions.
The vital importance of being able to ferry medical staff by air in two hours to remote villages it would take a day to get to by jeep is established quickly, and there’s no doubt that Wood and his team are heroes in the efforts they make and the painfully limited resources they have to cope with.
On the minus side, the interview footage is often stilted. It’s evident that even the otherwise entirely capable and confident Wood is ill at ease in front of the camera. The most wooden interviewee is a nurse who vocalises, word by hesitant word, the difficulty of communication with the natives (in the unreconstructed style of the times, she cringingly refers to them as “these people”).
The outcome of communication problems is, however, serious. A young boy, nil by mouth prior to major surgery, is secretly fed by his parents who mistakenly believe that they are fortifying him. Complications under anaesthetic result in his death. Herzog immediately identifies the key issue as cultural differences:
“The most interesting scenes stemmed from my interest in vision and perception. One of the doctors in the film talks about showing a poster of a fly to the villagers. They would say, ‘We don’t have that problem, our flies aren’t that large’, a response that really fascinated me. We decided to take some of the posters … to a coffee plantation to experiment. One was of a man, one of a huge human eye, another a hut, another a bowl and the fifth – which was hung upside down – of some people and animals. We asked people which poster was upside down and which was of an eye. Nearly half could not tell which was upside down and two-thirds did not recognise the eye … For the locals these five objects apparently just looked like abstract compositions of colours. It was clear there brains were processing images in a different way.” (Quoted in Herzog on Herzog.)