Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Chilean Oscar Faceoff? "No" v. "Kon-Tiki"

Several months ago, I wrote about director Pablo Larraín’s film No, the first Oscar nomination ever for a Chilean feature and, as the awards event approaches this coming Sunday, Larraín and other Chileans will certainly be paying attention. I can’t yet pronounce my own judgment on No, which has not yet reached theatrical release here in the Bay Area, though I read Larry Rohter’s recent New York Times profile of Larraín with great interest – No has generated some controversy in Chile, though necessarily not for the reasons one might think.

Other than No, I hadn’t paid much attention to the Oscar nominees but, I recently realized, there’s a second Chile-related film in the foreign language film category: Norwegian director Joachim Rønning’s Kon-Tiki retells adventurer Thor Heyerdahl’s audacious 1947 expedition from Peru to Polynesia aboard a balsa log raft. Heyerdahl theorized that humans colonized Polynesia from Peru and, by successfully concluding his 101-day voyage across the Pacific, he at least proved such a voyage was possible.

Later, in 1955-6, Heyerdahl conducted excavations on Chile's Pacific outpost of Rapa Nui (Easter Island) in search of evidence for his theories. To his eye, the presence of megalithic platforms such as Ahu Vinapu suggested connections between South America and Polynesia, but the balance of research overwhelmingly contradicts Heyerdahl's speculations. While it's conceivable that pre-Columbian peoples sailed west from Peru, Easter Island was colonized from the east, by Polynesian peoples, though it's conceivable they reached South America first and returned.

Georgia Lee, an archaeologist who has done extensive work on Rapa Nui, probably represents the professional consensus on Heyerdahl. In a recent email, she wrote me "[W]hile I found him incredibly self-centered, he did have an interesting life." Perhaps Heyerdahl's greatest legacy is is his willingness to ask big questions, even if he came up with the wrong answers. I might add that, even as a one-eighth Norwegian (one grandparent), that's as much as I'll grant him.

As for the Oscars, well, maybe it’s a stretch to link Kon-Tiki too closely to Chile. The closest the filmmakers got to Rapa Nui itself was the Maldives.

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