Tracing a family’s ‘Memory’
‘Savage Memory’’ is the latest in the burgeoning genre of Documentaries About My Screwed-Up Family, in which filmmakers explore the radioactive aftereffects of a dominant figure on the generations that follow. “51 Birch Street,’’ “Must Read After My Death,’’ “My Architect,’’ “My Father the Genius’’ - the titles alone testify to the agony and the intimacy of these projects, not to mention axes to grind and scores to settle. “Memory,’’ from Boston-area filmmakers Zachary Stuart and Kelly Thomson, is one of the gentler entries, but it too feels like unfinished business.
The dominant personality in Stuart’s family was a big one: his great-grandfather Bronislaw Malinowski (1884-1942), a pioneering anthropologist who revolutionized the field by living for extended periods with the people of the Trobriand Islands, near Papua New Guinea, in the first decades of the 20th century. Malinowski wrote scandalous bestsellers (“The Sexual Life of Savages in North-West Melanesia,’’ 1929) and turns up as a character on an episode of TV’s “The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles’’ - he was a pop figure.
As a person, he seems to have been kind, self-absorbed, and distant - not a tyrant but not very present, either. Stuart dips into archival footage and interviews his parents’ generation - Malinowski’s grandchildren - and the one surviving great-aunt who remembers the man himself. There’s talk of a “Malinowski Curse’’ and the lingering mystery of why his grave lay unmarked for two decades, but there’s little in these thoughtful, articulate people to suggest lasting damage. Grandiosity undercut by insecurity - isn’t that a human curse?
Malinowski’s greatest personal crime seems to be that he abandoned his wife for the South Seas as she was dying slowly of multiple sclerosis. More forgivable are his sins against anthropology, expressed in a posthumously published diary that was never meant to see the light of day. In it, the great man gripes about the islanders he’s studying and veers perilously close to racism. Yet “Savage Memory’’ backs off from its own attack, interviewing a large number of anthropologists (including Robert A. LeVine of Harvard) who distinguish between Malinowski’s personal opinions and his scrupulous work.
Was there a dark shadow on his soul that slanted his writings and unraveled his family? Stuart and Thomson explore the former more convincingly than the latter, especially when they take their camera to the Trobriand Islands themselves and join Linus digim’Rina, the first islander to get a graduate degree in anthropology. The archipelago is very different than when Malinowski was there - it’s almost 100 percent Christian now, which he would have deplored - and “Savage Memory’’ carefully peels apart the layers of scientific intent and cultural assumptions.
Yet the film never convinces us that the patriarch held his own family at academic arm’s length - or it never presses the case, or it doesn’t have the smoking gun. Stuart and Thomson try to liven things up with tart stop-motion animations involving Malinowski’s books, but the treatment of his relatives feels scattered. (We don’t learn of the director’s identical twin Buddhist brother until the film is almost over.) As a study of how the spirits of the dead walk with us in life, “Savage Memory’’ strikes interesting parallels between the islanders and us. But you come away thinking of Stuart as a good person more than a good anthropologist. And perhaps that’s the point.
Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe. com. For more on movies, go to www.boston.com/ae/movies/blog.
A previous version of this review omitted the name of filmmaker Kelly Thomson.