The Emergence of Ethnographic Film Practice: Past Travels and Future Itineraries

The history of discourse on ethnographic film has been rife with contentions and opposing viewpoints. There have been contestations over its very definition to the issue of its proper role within the discipline of anthropology. There is not even a consensus as to when ethnographic film first emerged. A few people would cite as the genesis, the Lumière’s Arrival of a Train from 1895 and the many short actualities made and shown by traveling agents and local people trained in the equipment. It is important to note that at this time (between 1895 and 1905) Eastern peoples saw Western peoples as well as vice versa. Traveling filmmakers/projectionists both took footage of distant cultures and viewed their footage throughout their travels. These were some of the first glimpses, though often brief, that most people had of people from distant cultures moving and doing ordinary things. But most anthropologists don’t think of Arrival of a Train or the actualities that followed as ethnography at all, despite the fact that the people portrayed were not actors, often non-Western, and the action was often of the everyday. I would suggest that perhaps anthropology at that time saw itself, in Franz Boaz’s description, as a salvage operation. Consequently, what counted as ethnographic films were those whose subjects were not only non-Western, but non-urban and generally lived in societies whose ways of life were threatened by contact with the modern world.

From this perspective, it is not surprising that many accounts of ethnographic film begin with Edward Curtis’s In the Land of the Headhunters (1914), a fictional romantic melodrama made among the Kwaikutl. Despite depicting costumes and dances of ethnographic interest, there was little integration of these scenes into the larger narrative, nor was there any attempt to portray individuals in depth. Furthermore, the headhunting scenes and the evil witch character were obviously added to suit Western audience expectations. These issues were later resolved in Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North (1922). As Brian Winston has observed, while both Curtis and Flaherty utilized native Americans recreating their past culture, Flaherty created drama out of everyday events like igloo building and hunting, rather than imposing an external narrative (100). Also to Flaherty’s credit, he spent long periods of time living in the community he filmed and screened rushes for the participants. In these ways he was well ahead of his time, as participatory filmmaking seemed to disappear until Jean Rouch brought it to the forefront in the 1950’s. Nanook also brings up an important problem that continued to plague ethnography for several decades: the tendency to mythologize the native individual and to fix native culture at a seemingly changeless time untouched by modernity or the influence of other cultures. As Eliot Weinberg has aptly stated, “the struggle against hunger in the Arctic persisted whether the Eskimos carried harpoons or rifles.(6)”

Why was it then necessary to ignore the current struggles of the communities being filmed in favor of constructing idealized images of the pure, primitive man? Perhaps there is an underlying desire to view such cultures as a window into Western culture’s own past, as a living evolutionary remnant. Viewing them in this way allows the West to designate the multiple histories of different cultures as simply earlier stages of its own cultural development, authenticating its colonialist desires and erasing its own role in jeopardizing native ways of life. This tendency, which Fatimah Tobing Rony has termed the “taxidermic” impulse, persisted well into the ’50s as we can see by examining John Marshall’s The Hunters (1958), a film of four !Kung San men hunting giraffe (15).

There are many similarities between Flaherty and Marshall: neither were trained anthropologists, both spent a long period of time with their subjects, both shaped their footage into a unified narrative, and both of their films portray courageous men fighting for survival in a harsh environment. Marshall’s film also seeks to portray individuals in an archetypical fashion, offering simplistic accounts of the hunters’ personalities which we must take on his word, since the film offers little visual information by which to distinguish the characters. The film ends with the words, “And the old men remembered. And the young men listened. And so the story of the hunt was told.” This ending insinuates the continuity of the (false) narrative and projects the culture into a static, mythic temporality. It also misrepresents the importance of hunting in !Kung society which relies primarily on gathering for its sustenance.

It is important to note that Marshall later criticized this film and turned toward record-footage of discrete events in attempt to make films that were more useful in the academic context. In the ’70s he went on to take a more proactive role in making people aware of the changes being wrought on !Kung San culture as result of their being dispossessed of their land and the incursion of missionary and military activities in the area. In N!ai, The Story of a !Kung Woman (1979-80), he reworked older footage with new footage in an attempt to show how the !Kung lifestyle was changing via the story of one woman’s life over two decades and the effects of Western influence on her relationship with her community.

The problems that Curtis, Flaherty, and Marshall bring to light make it easy to see why anthropologists have been wary of how film has been used to convey ethnographic information and how the requirements of narrative can result in an anthropologically suspect product. It is understandable then that anthropologists’ discourse on ethnographic film has been cautious of the demands of art and narrative editing. Furthermore, the desire to authenticate cultural anthropology as an academic discipline and hard science led to questions of the role of film in methodology.

Not only was it important to understand how film can be used to (re)present cultures, but also how film could be used to gather data, or rather, evidence in the form of record-footage. In this regard, Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson’s Balinese study in the 1930’s is an important and illustrative case. Mead tried to treat the camera as a primary recording device and not simply as a mechanism to illustrate a thesis, a proposition aided by new, lighter 16mm equipment. She suggested that note-taking was an inadequate way of recording behavior and ritual activity, and that recording these largely visual events on film would allow for greater analysis and reanalysis of data. There was an underlying assumption that an examination of a culture’s psychological characteristics could be made from a study of their bodies and movements, and that film (and photography) may allow fieldworkers to capture and represent such visual data in a fuller way than written accounts alone (Lakoff, 2).

This notion of using film to capture patterns of human behavior for scientific analysis has a long history, dating back to Félix-Louis Regnault who in 1895 took high-speed chronophotography footage of a Wolof woman making pots at the Exposition Ethnographique de l’Afrique Occidentale. His subsequent films aim to compare movement across different cultures, but specifically to demarcate physical differences amongst races(deBrigard, 5). Mead extended Regnault’s purely physiological studies to an exploration of how behavior can be used to understand the “ethos” of a culture, defined by Bateson as “a culturally standardized system of organization of the instincts and emotions of individuals” (Bateson & Mead, xi).

However, the films resulting from this study, The Character Formation in Different Culture Series and Trance and Dance in Bali, do not succeed in fulfilling her goals. The observations and analysis spelled out in the voice-over narration seldom seem conclusive on the basis of the corresponding visuals. Also Mead’s own call for using long takes was not apparent in Trance and Dance which is edited for continuity and has many cuts. This contradiction may have been a result of Bateson’s having different notions of how film should record an event, favoring a more exploratory approach than Mead (Jacknis, 161). Finally, it seems that the copious data was never fully analyzed or reanalyzed the way she had hoped it would be. Despite this failure, Mead continued to support the idea that film could be useful as anthropological data given that it included long stretches of unedited footage, that is if it is mainly record-footage (Mead, 9). Alan Lomax, Karl Heider, and Timothy Asch also supported this idea, further adding that synch sound, utilization of long shots that encompass whole bodies and events (as opposed to close-ups), and accompanying written material are necessary if film is to be anthropologically sound (Heider, 6; Asch, 199-204).

This tendency towards using the camera as an observational tool was further supported by the concurrent documentary styles of direct cinema and cinema verité, which were somewhat obsessed with the idea of achieving verisimilitude to the actual experience of watching people and events unfold with a minimum of interference. It did not take long to problematize the initial arrogance of being an innocent and invisible observer and the fact that there were serious ethical problems associated with the surveillance mode of filming. In addition there were serious limitations of what record-footage or strict observationist cinema could show. David MacDougall points out that if filmmakers limit themselves to only unprovoked manifestations of behavior during filming, they often do not get access to the events and information that subjects take for granted (MacDougall, 124). Also since human behavior is such a tangled web of contingencies, associations, and motivations, simply rendering an event faithfully in the sense of duration and natural sound is obviously insufficient to the task of understanding the meaning of what’s actually taking place.

Thus, a new form of participatory filmmaking was called for, one in which there was an understanding that what is being recorded is the relationship between the observer and the observed. This has been accomplished in several ways. MacDougall cites as an example Jean Rouch’s experimentations with role playing in Jaguar, which allowed the subjects to play roles and create their own images of themselves (128). Another very different approach was used by Sol Worth and John Adair in their project, Through Navaho Eyes (1972) which allowed Navaho people to make their own films in an attempt to see whether, in fact, they have a different ways of seeing and ordering visual space. While these films obviously make some assumptions about why and how subjects choose to portray themselves, they do point towards a new direction for ethnographic film which does not eschew the evocative and experiential potentials of cinema. They also suggest a realization that film, though not equivocal to written accounts, may in fact provide altogether different kinds of information.

Moreover, rather than pigeonholing film as either scientific instrument or inherently narrativizing / aestheticizing mechanism, ethnographers can use it as a reflexive interpretive device that leaves open the possibility of multiple points of view. Having had to confront the fact that the complexity of human behavior always eludes both scientific specificity and broad generalizations, it seems we are poised to explore how more complexly structured films utilizing satire, argument, and a full range of aesthetic techniques fulfill this task.

Lastly, it seems that prescriptive formulations of the definition of ethnographic films should give way to an acceptance of a variety of techniques that serve the diversity and specificity of the subjects themselves and which are better suited to the particular relationship that exists between the filmmaker and participant.

About the Director

Prerana Reddy

Prerana Reddy is the Director of Public Events at the Queens Museum of Art, where she organizes screenings, performances and talks, as well as overseeing its community outreach programs. She received her MA in Cinema Studies at New York University and is a co-founder and programming collective member 3rd I NY, which exhibits South Asian film & video on a monthly basis. She is also a documentary filmmaker whose work has explored such topics as alternatives to juvenile detention and the 2004 World Social Forum in Mumbai. She currently sits on the board of Alwan for the Arts and is the director of their annual New York Arab & South Asian Film Festival. She also completed a three-year term on the board of the South Asian Women’s Creative Collective. Prior to working at the Queens Museum, she was a curator and program administrator for the New York African Film Festival at Lincoln Center.