Margaret Mead and Samoa Summary and Praise For The Film By Frank Heimans

In 1926, Margaret Mead, then a 23-year old Columbia University graduate, arrived in far-away Samoa to carry out her study on the life of a Polynesian island group. Her mentor, Professor Boas had directed her to conclude whether nature or nurture was the predominant factor in determining the behaviour of the islands’ inhabitants. During the seven months she was there, she began to investigate the sexual habits of the teenage girls. The result was the 1928 publication of her now famous book Coming of Age in Samoa. In it, she describes an idyllic culture free of the stresses of adolescence; a place of promiscuity, harmony and free love. The book gripped the imagination of Americans and had a profound effect on future generations, selling more than five million copies over a seventy-year period. 

In 1940, another 23-year old, anthropology student Derek Freeman, arrived in Samoa aboard a banana boat out of Wellington, New Zealand. A fervent believer in Mead’s Samoa, he awaited the island paradise whose description had so captivated him. But instead, he encountered a puritanical and aggressive society where rape was commonplace. This perplexed him and he spent the next forty years on a quest to disprove Mead’s theory, resulting in the publication of his book, Margaret Mead and Samoa. The book turned the entire world of Anthropology on its head and made Professor Freeman a ‘cause celebre’. Margaret Mead and Samoa, the film, discloses important new evidence on this scientific controversy by discovering Meads’ closest informant, Fa’a’ Pua’a Fa’amu, whose testimony once and for all puts an end to the mystery surrounding Mead’s findings. 


“A brilliant film, brilliantly conceived, brilliantly written, brilliantly produced and photographed. The editing made points all its own and the ending was both moving and important.”
Robin Fox, University Professor of Social Theory, Rutger University, New Jersey, USA.

“The film is very well conceived and edited so that the impact it makes is forceful. The quotes from Popper, Darwin et al reinforce the fact that the film is not entertainment, or just a documentary, but a serious contribution to intellectual debate. It is not, however lacking in human interest or beauty. And the way the film ends shows Heimans’ superb imagination as a director.”
T.N. Madan, Honorary Professor of Sociology, Institute of  Economic Growth, University of Delhi, New Delhi, India.

“The photography is artistic to the point of being aesthetically thrilling. The narrative flows, bursting with information at every level, and all integrated, from the visual to auditory to the brilliant use of juxtaposition of images to create the argument. Contrasts were introduced through voices, comments, images. It was Fellini-like, to begin with a person dedicated to fame and end with a person dedicated to truth.”
Lola Romanucci-Ross, Professor of Family and Preventive Medicine and Anthropology, University of California, San Diego USA and former confidante of Margaret Mead.

“The documentary investigates the vehemence of the academic wrangle, in which any number of illustrious professors behave like characters in Porterhouse Blue, defending dubious traditions at all costs. It actually takes us to Samoa and settles the dispute once and for all by interviewing one of Margaret’s original informants, now a grand old lady in her 80s. Yes, she remembers Margaret Mead vividly. And yes, I’m afraid we did tell her a whole lot of lies. Well, it was fun.”
Phillip Adams, The Weekend Australian, 10-11 September 1988.

“Here is a clear, concise and thought-provoking account of the latest hoo-ha in anthropology, covering Mead’s work and reputation, Freeman’s findings, the debate that has since ensued and what the Samoans have to say about the whole matter.”
Sian Watkins, The Age, 15 September, 1988.

“Fa’a’ Pua’a’s testimony makes it plain that the young Margaret Mead, lacking any real knowledge of Samoan behaviour allowed herself, in certain crucial matters, to be fooled completely by her young female informants. That the American people and virtually the entire Western world should have in turn been fooled is one of the most extraordinary happenings of the 20th century.”
Derek Freeman, The Australian Listener, Sept 17-23,  1988.

Derek Freeman, 1987 (photograph by Frank Heimans)

“The film is the latest salvo in an intellectual brawl between Australian and US anthropologists, dubbed the ‘Anthropological America’s Cup’. The book was so controversial that at a meeting of the American Anthropological Association in Chicago they voted to condemn the book – an extraordinary move by normally free-thinking and dispassionate scientists.”
Paul Broekhuijse, The Sun, 18 September, 1988

“What pleased me more than any other aspect of Heimans’ excellent film was the sight of all those academics tearing at each other’s throats. Don’t include Dr Freeman in that activity, however – indeed, his quite apparent reluctance to demolish what is clearly an easy target impressed me enormously.”
Mike Harris, The Bulletin, September 20, 1988.

“(In her book) Mead was doing more than telling a story we all like to hear. She was assisting in the debate on nature versus nurture. Her conclusion that the culture of Samoa produced adolescents free of the storm and stress of American adolescents seemed to affirm the case for nurture and the belief in the perfectibility of humankind. Sharp questions emerge about the methods of the anthropologists of Mead’s time. She protected her informants’ identity. So she should. Yet this protection meant that it was not possible to check or replicate her data. Heimans shrewdly puts on the screen a remark of Charles Darwin: ‘No one’s observations can be trusted until repeated’.
Dennis Pryor, The Age, 1 October 1988.

“Epimedes the Cretan who said that all Cretans are liars posed a famous problem for logicians. Samoans who say that all Samoans are liars discredit those who believe anything they may say. Surely Professor Freeman cannot believe that the testimony of a confessed liar will finally persuade his colleagues that Mead’s account of Samoa was wrong? Nevertheless, the debate has had a special resonance within anthropology, for it has fed the contemporary unease about ethnographic fieldwork and writing. Doubts on this score trouble anthropologists more than any substantive questions today, for they have invested a great deal in the credibility of their characteristic research methods.”
Adam Kuper, Head of Department of Human Sciences and Head of Anthropology, Brunel University 1985-2008, (published in Nature, Vol 338, 6 April, 1989

“Aussie filmmakers continue to slay them overseas. Frank Heimans’ startling documentary, Margaret Mead and Samoa has just carried off the Blue Ribbon, the top prize of the prestigious American Film and Video Festival in Chicago. It examines one of anthropology’s hottest controversies.”
The Weekend Australian, June 10-11, 1989

“The film is engaging, fast-paced and contains some fascinating interviews. Heimans’ film clearly manipulates the material (what documentary doesn’t?) but it is well constructed and interesting. Teachers who wish to use it in the classroom will undoubtedly find that it sparks a lively discussion among their students.”
Margaret Wilson, Anthropology Today, 5 October, 1989.

“The making of mistakes by humans, in science as in all other forms of human activity, is altogether commonplace. It is beyond question, however, that if science and scholarship are, in Francis Bacon’s words to ‘turn on the poles of truth’ there can, within them, be no toleration of error. In historical research, it is the ascertaining of the historical truth that is all-important, however troublesome this truth may turn out to be for the ruling ideology. I am thus in entire agreement  with Sir Geoffrey Elton’s declaration that ‘It is the historian’s duty to put myths in their place (which is in the discard), regardless of what some people may feel about it.’ That a Polynesian prank should have produced such a spectacular result in centres of higher learning around the world, misleading the entire intelligentsia at large, including such sharp-minded sceptics as Bertrand Russell and H.L. Mencken is wonderfully comic. But behind the comedy there is a chastening reality. It is now apparent that for decade after decade in university and college lecture rooms throughout the Western world students were misinformed about an issue of fundamental human importance by professors, who by placing credence in Mead’s conclusion of 1928, had themselves become cognitively deluded. There is much to be learned then from the history  of Margaret Mead’s Samoan researches, and especially about what can happen to the highly intelligent, the well-intentioned and the totally sincere in the hazardous course of anthropological field work. As my favourite Samoan proverb avers: ‘It is in deep waters that the qualities of a canoe are tested’.”
Derek Freeman, The Australian, April 3, 1996

“The Mead-Freeman controversy has yet to subside. David Williamson made it the subject of his play, Heretic, posing Freeman and Mead as two headstrong protagonists in the central debate about nature versus nurture. From an early age Freeman was an avid mountain climber who scaled mountains around the world. Until his heart failed him, he continued climbing new intellectual peaks and develop passionate personal interests.”
James J. Fox, The Sydney Morning Herald, 18 July, 2001 

Fa’a’ Pua’a Fa’amu (photograph by Larry Gartenstein, 1989)