The film presents several interactions between the natives and the tourists. It is evident that while the tourists feel elated about their presence in the village, the locals are ‘doing what they have to do’. The general attitude among tourists is that they have come to experience an exotic but primitive culture. Consequently, they can be seen trying to carry evidence of this primitiveness with them through photographs of half-naked children and forgotten human altars. On the other hand, the locals appear to loathe the presence of these strange elements in their land but the natives are forced to accommodate the tourists for commercial reasons. The tourists are in control of their presence in this ‘strange’ land on most occasions they are the ones leading the locals and asking questions. An anthropologist can have several explanations for this tourist behavior. First, the superiority of tourists is mainly dependent on the fact that they have money or they have a more rigid sense of identity than the natives have. The locals have been introduced into a culture where money is a determinant of value. Consequently, the tourists find it hard to control situations where their money is devalued. Tourists also appear to be proud of their superficial money dependency even in the midst of what they consider to be a ‘pure’ culture.
The Sepik people were only introduced to the concept of money by German colonizers. In O’Rourke’s film, the natives are bothered by the glaring inequality between them and their visitors, courtesy of their low buying power. While tourists bargain out of greed, the artifact sellers only assign prices to their wares by their value. The locals are aware that the tourists can afford to gather knowledge and experience by using their money to travel. Consequently, the locals lose in this capitalist equation because they cannot afford to impact their economic situation. These uneven economic situations are evident when locals bargain their wares downward or only buy items of little value. The same principle applies to the natives’ arrangement with the tour operator. There is little chance that the locals are in a position to bargain the terms of tourists’ entry into their territory.
The tourists in the film are here on an exploitative expedition in the same manner as the colonizers. Their commercial exploitation is characterized by suspicion as they are of the view that if they lose their money advantage, they will be closer to primitiveness. This sense of bad faith is evident in the film when a German tourist claims that the natives ‘do not know the value of money, and continues to suggest that artifact traders could be exploiting the tourists. In his view, he is doing the Sepik a favor by giving them money.
The ideology of reciprocal-redistributive economy among the natives is the reason why they consider their economic transactions with the tourists to be largely trivial. Somehow, the natives realize that getting money and having it is not a straightforward endeavor. One of the locals who claims to be an ex-cannibal says to the cameraman that the tourists are wealthy people, but he does not know whether their wealth is inherited or distributed by the government.
The ironic meaning of “Cannibal Tours” is that the tourists are coming to New Guinea to encounter cannibals but they turn out to be the real cannibals. For instance, the woman who is selling the necklace points out to the tourists that they (the tourists) have all the money when all she has got is her few shells. This encounter is a strong indicator of the cannibalism that O’Rourke sought to point out.