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'End of the Spear' shoots...and misses

CANASTOTA, N.Y. -- In January 1956, a Waodani tribal member named Mincayani
led a raid which ended in the deaths of five American missionaries,
including bush pilot Nate Saint, in an attempt to keep "foreigners" out of
the dense eastern Ecuadorean rainforest they call home.

At the invitation of a Waodani woman who had renounced her tribe's
tradition of killing each other, Elisabeth Elliot, widow of martyred
missionary Jim Elliot, and Saint's sister, Rachel, settled with the tribe
despite the potential for violence. Their Christian witness ultimately
changed the lives of the Waodani.

The new feature film, "End of the Spear," offers a fictionalized retelling
of the real-life series of events that led to the conversion of a tribe to
Christianity, inspired countless missionaries worldwide and forged
Mincayani's unlikely relationship with Saint's son, Steve. It opened
nationwide, with much support from Christian groups, Jan. 20.

The tribal homicide rate dropped 90 percent within a few years of Elisabeth
Elliot and Rachel Saint's arrival into the tribe, according to the "End of
the Spear" Web site: www.endofthespear.com/behind-the-spear.html. Their
witness is credited with laying the foundation for the close father-son
relationship Mincayani and Steve Saint enjoy today.

Since 1997, the two men have toured the United States to share the story of
how the Waodani abandoned their violent ways.

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Every Tribe Entertainment produced "End of the Spear," which won the 2005
Crystal Heart Award at the Indianapolis-based Heartland Film Festival, an
event that honors filmmakers whose work "explores the human condition by
artistically expressing hope and respect for the positive values of life."
(The studio's 2004 film, "Beyond the Gates of Splendor," which told the
story of the missionaries' demise from the Waodani perspective, won the
2002 Crystal Heart Award.)

At first, the Waodani refused to allow "Beyond the Gates" to be produced.
But when the killings at Columbine High School were described to tribal
members, they enthusiastically encouraged its production as a way to share
with the world how their tribe was able to put an end to such senseless
deaths.

Not everyone has bought into the pro-assimilation message of "End of the
Spear," however. Its depiction of indigenous people as savage brutes
parrots a familiar refrain: As an editorial in the Cornell (N.Y.) Daily Sun
put it, "From the start, the Waodani's ways are portrayed as generally
wrong and those of the missionaries are generally right ... Such a
patronizing view is somewhat disturbing in its efforts to make the very
grey territory of cultural interaction into a black and white portrayal."

The film's viewpoint distracts viewers from contemplating the catastrophic
effects such an intrusion has had on the Waodani's land itself, according
to New York Daily News movie reviewer Jami Bernard: "In reality, the
intrusion of Western ways has been disastrous to the region, where oil and
logging concerns are stripping land and culture. In documentary footage
played over the closing credits, the real warrior is introduced to American
fast food and returns to his people too fat and sluggish to spear himself a
snack, let alone a missionary."

"End of the Spear" avoids exploration of the negative effects of the
Waodani's "Westernization," focusing instead on the pacifism missionary
contact brought to a tribe described by anthropologists as the most violent
people ever documented (their fierceness prompted Shell Oil Co. to abandon
plans to perform exploratory drilling in 1948). The tribe's struggles to
reorganize its internal power structure and represent itself to the outside
world in the wake of Western influence also go unexamined.

A third cinematic revisit to the Waodani's homeland, exploring such aspects
of their contemporary experience, would be welcome to complement the
evangelical propaganda.