A fight broke out in Mishimishimabowei-teri on the second day of Chagnon and Asch’s stay in this village in 1971. The conflict developed between the villagers of Mishimishimabowei-teri and their visitors from another village. The visitors had formerly been part of Mishimishimabowei-teri, and many still had ties with members of that village. Their friends in Mishimishimabowei-teri had invited them to return, but other factions were not pleased with this, reflecting a persistent tension in this large village of over 250 people. The visitors refused to work in their hosts’ gardens, yet they demanded to be fed. One visiting man beat a woman who refused to give him plantains from her garden. She ran screaming and crying back to the village, where her sister comforted her while her brother, her husband, and his relatives attempted to settle the dispute, first with clubs and then with axes and machetes.
Eventually the fight cooled down, as one man was hurt, others placed themselves between the two groups, and women hurled insults at each other. The event lasted about half an hour, ten minutes of which were filmed. The film is constructed of four parts. The first consists of an unedited version of what the cameraman saw and the sound technician recorded, including the filmmakers’ comments (Chagnon complains at one point “that’s the tenth person today that’s asked me for my soap”). The apparent chaos of these first ten minutes is clarified in the second section, in which Chagnon explains the sequence of actions in the fight, the relationships between the actors, and how the filmmakers’ initially confused interpretation of the events became coherent. The third section diagrams the lineages in the villages involved to illustrate the fight’s relationship to long-standing patterns of conflict and alliance within the village. Finally, in an edited version of the fight, we see how the editors’ hands shape the “reality” we view. We are reminded of the tension between the need to produce a smoothly flowing film and an informative document while maintaining the integrity of the event. The Ax Fight thus operates on several levels. It plunges the viewer into the problems of Yanomamo kinship, alliance, and village fission; of violence and conflict resolution. At the same time it raises questions about how anthropologists and filmmakers translate their experience into meaningful words and coherent, moving images.