TV series on Amazon tribe was not faked, say producers

The makers of a TV series about an Amazon tribe have rejected claims that it included fake scenes and mistranslated interviews designed to negatively portray the tribe as “sex-obsessed, mean savages”.

Earlier this week two experts on the Matsigenka tribe — Dr Glenn Shepard and Ron Snell — launched a scathing attack on the documentary Mark & Olly: Living with the Machigenga.

The pair claimed that numerous elements of the show, which aired on BBC Knowledge in South Africa and the Travel Channel in the US, were “staged, false, fabricated and distorted”.

But Oliver Steeds, the adventurer and presenter who lived with the group for several months and spent time with two other tribes in previous productions in the “Living With …” series, said he would “never seek to misrepresent the Matsigenka or any other indigenous group”.

“My purpose and my record working with indigenous peoples speaks to the facts,” said Steeds.

“I worked with the Matsigenka and other indigenous people because I believe that fair and accurate reporting of their lives and informing an audience of their cultures and history contributes significantly to their survival and strengthens their cause for their self-determined rights to life.”

A joint statement refuting the claims was issued by FremantleMedia, which distributed the show, and Travel Channel.

It was accompanied by a statement from Frances Berrigan, the former managing director of the now-defunct Cicada Productions, which made the show.

FremantleMedia Enterprises and Travel Channel said that after a “thorough investigation” into the allegations they believe that the programme “represents fair reflections” of the tribe.

“[We] remain satisfied that the programme was made to exacting and professional standards and the events and descriptions appearing on screen represent fair reflections, both of the tribe and the experience of living with them,” the companies said in a statement.

“The accusations referred to by Survival International [which published the allegations] are almost entirely opinion based or concern matters which are highly subjective and open to personal interpretation and as such are rejected.”

Shepard, who published an article in Anthropology News on the alleged misrepresentations, said the six-part series was an example of “reality TV reach[ing] new depths of irresponsibility”.

“I wonder what Living with the Machigenga was modelled on. Borat comes to mind,” he added.

Examples of alleged misrepresentation included inaccurate references to the sex life of the tribe as well as their supposed hostile attitude to outsiders.

Other accusations include “staging” events, such as a pig dance which Snell said he had never heard of in 35 years of living in the tribe’s villages, and scenes such as initiation trials, being forced to sleep outside and taking psychoactive drinks before going on a “phony” pilgrimage.

Fremantle Media and Travel Channel refuted the allegations. They said all translations were carried out by indigenous staff, not handled in post-production in London, and that traditions and rituals in the series were represented “without any exaggeration”.

“During production of the Machigenga series, as with all our productions, Cicada took very seriously its responsibility to respect the culture, history, lifestyle and privacy of the community that so generously shared its home and traditions,” said Berrigan.

Berrigan said the production company worked in “close co-operation” with the Centre for the Development of Amazonian Indians, a Peruvian non-governmental organisation with strong ties to the Machigenga community.

“Cicada never paid members of any indigenous community to participate in its productions, but we always paid individuals who provided professional services, such as translators, medics, guides and location managers,” she said. —

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