South African filmmaker Rehad Desai details the lose-lose situation facing the San Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert. Evicted from the ancestral lands, forced to abandon their native languages and left to fend for themselves in a state of brutal poverty on the fringes of South African society, these people face further humiliation and exploitation by having the hoodia cactus (a source of food and medicinal healing) taken from their remaining lands by the conglomerate Unilever for use as a dubious weight loss product. (Ironically, Unilever makes the junk food that helps contribute to obesity.)
Despite an agreement signed with the South African government to see profits from the harvesting of hoodia, the Bushmen have yet to enjoy any financial returns. The Bushmen are even denied partnership in the patent that has been placed on hoodia, a clear violation of their intellectual property rights.
“Bushman’s Secret” as an indictment on how today’s South African government would sooner kowtow to multinational corporate demands than provide basic services for its own people. It also shows the long history of crude and cruel treatment of native peoples by white interlopers in South Africa, from the early part of the 20th century (an old newsreel sneeringly states the Bushmen had no history or morality) to today (the fat white owner of a park that was once the Bushmen’s ancestral home blatantly accuses a Bushman leader of not being a part of the evicted tribe’s bloodline).
If Desai’s filmmaking is occasionally on the sloppy side (a lot of footage is cloaked in obscuring shadows and his attempt to get Unilever’s input is a brief scene of reaching corporate voicemail messages), the story he brings forth is shameful and jolting. The film deserves to be seen by as many people as possible.