Reviewed by: AAA Executive Program Committee
Of interest to: Practicing and Applied Anthropologists, Teachers of Anthropology in Community Colleges, Students
Primary Theme: Evolution
Secondary Theme: Immigration/Migration/Citizenship
Created by an applied anthropologist and a documentarian, NARWHAL-AMERICAN (2019, 95 minutes) is a quirky love story and science mystery set in contemporary New York City. When newlyweds MARCO and LIBBY turn to an unconventional geneticist for help getting pregnant, they discover that Marco and his secretive immigrant community belong--technically speaking--to a second species of humans. The film pairs anthropological and genetics research with a fictional story, diverse actors, real-world locations, and vérité style.
The advanced screening is followed by a Q&A with the filmmaker and a chance to provide anonymous feedback, giving AAA attendees the unique opportunity to see, discuss, and shape a movie before it premieres.
Narwhal-American embodies multiple conference themes. The plausible but fictional premise--a couple’s infertility leading to the discovery of another species of the genus Homo living in Queens--is built on cutting-edge understandings of evolution and genetics. This particular group of “Homo narwhalensis sapiens” lives as an immigrant enclave community. How they came to America is a familiar story, as is Marco’s journey to make a life bridging “Little Narwhal” and Manhattan and come to terms with an identity that is both “Narwhal” and “American.”
The film shows the entire scientific process from observation to hypothesis through data gathering and sharing results with stakeholders. We realistically portray lab and fieldwork from the perspectives of scientist and participants, raising ethical questions about consent, compensation, and consequences. The thorniest ethical issues involve paternalism and gene modification.
We created the film so it would be accessible to a broad audience, however it should be of particular interest to teachers looking for an unusual tool to spark student discussion and to anthropologists thinking about how to communicate science outside of academia.
We collaborated with Harvard and Carnegie Mellon geneticists to provide the Narwhal species a plausible backstory grounded in Ting Wu’s and Ruth McCole’s work on ultra-conserved elements of DNA and their colleague’s input on population genetics. The short version? When the genome of the population of a Caribbean island drifts just far enough apart from mainlanders that they can no longer interbreed, their culture adapts to genetic isolation.
Given filming constraints and the demographics of the neighborhoods where we filmed, we hired Latinx actors and non-actors to portray the Narwhal. I’m sharing the film at AAAs in order to hear my colleagues’ thoughts on the choices we’ve made around representation and to unpack the challenges and opportunities our choices might present.
Your feedback will help us make the film the best possible exemplar of the anthropological imagination, one we hope will inspire conversations long beyond a Q&A.
ABOUT THE FILMMAKER: Carylanna Taylor is an applied cultural anthropologist (PhD 2011 - University of South Florida) who has worked in Latin America since 1990. The “Narwhal” people and their community, “Little Narwhal,” are directly shaped by her dissertation research with Honduran immigrants living in Long Island and by living in a Dominican neighborhood in Manhattan with her husband, writing/directing/producing partner Jacob Okada.