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Ethnographic Film

As a means of an anthropological representation of cultures and societies, documentation through film has been a longstanding tool in the ethnographers’ kit. From the very earliest attempts to film distant cultures and make their lives known to an audience, sometimes clumsily and with much artifice involved, and at other times producing a vivid, if partial example of other lives, moving images have helped to shape a fragmented understanding of the world. This fragmentary nature is itself, however, the forum for much discussion on the role of film in anthropology and has generated a heated and ongoing debate on the merits of visual as well as textual analysis in ethnographic research. Early films shot for general consumption sought to depict simple scenes, their original value being based upon audience interest in the novelty of moving pictures, “fascinating because of their illusory power… and exoticism” (Gunning 1990: 57). As narrative form to some extent replaced these earliest examples, so the beginnings of anthropological films emerged. In the early films, both those with a visually dominant structure as well as those with a narrative thread, technology itself was being celebrated and demonstrated. Film in this earliest form was clearly not so concerned with the ethics of representation and the struggles between objectivity and subjectivity but aimed primarily to provide a visually stimulating and exciting experience based on technological advancements. Such a beginning for film based on the novelty of watching may seem a long way from current filming methods and practices, however, “in this primitive world, we find structures tantalisingly prophetic of some we know today” (Vaughan 1990: 63). Early films may have depicted people in everyday tasks, working, shopping or playing, not so much as documentary enquiries but nevertheless offering up individuals and social groups as in some way being worthy of watching and recording, for the pleasure or instruction of an audience. Whilst such images can not be called distinctly ethnographic in their purposes, the observation of people, their daily existence and the networks within which social groups move remain at the heart of anthropological study and human interest.

“Images are everywhere… They are inextricably woven with our personal identities, narratives, lifestyles, cultures and societies, as well as with definitions of history, space and truth”. (Pink 2001: 17).

So, from the earliest film, curiosity about how people live, and the seemingly privileged intimacy the camera appears to offer have, to some extent, guided social enquiry and documentation.

With time, works of fiction and more consciously planned linear filming superseded earlier forms of spectacle where the “energy moves outward towards an acknowledged spectator rather than inward towards the character-based situations essential to… narrative” (Gunning 1990: 59). InNanook of the North (1922), Flaherty is recognised as producing the first feature length documentary which portrayed the lives of ‘Nanook’ and his family. Made at a time when cameras were unwieldy and barely portable, many of the shots for this documentary had to be staged, a practice considered unethical by some quarters, but understandable when considering the cumbersome state of equipment at the time. In this example of salvage ethnography, hunting and survival skills that were being surpassed by new methods are recorded albeit in a re-produced way, dramatic licence, much relied upon for many years to come, propels and enables the narrative structure. With this early example of film based anthropology, current questions of authenticity and ethics were perhaps for the first time raised and struggled with. Nanook has been “discussed variously for its authenticity, its fakery, its romanticism” (MacDougall 1995: 229). It serves as both documentary evidence of a culture and also provides a narrative story and plot that draws the viewer in to a vicarious sharing of the Inuit’s, at times, perilous life. Flaherty’s approach, it could be argued is more respectful than some contemporary renderings of cultures, as his innovative technique offered up “an indigenous person as the hero of the film… [it] was not the usual fanciful portrayal of noble savagery” (MacDougall 1995: 230).

The question of vanishing cultures and the nature of change in all societies are pertinent to Flaherty’s work, he recorded a culture in the midst of technological change, as methods of hunting and providing shelter where adapting, and he managed to maintain, despite some carefully reconstructed scenes, a sense of respect. For the most part, although this is arguable, he avoided privileging spectacle over the individual in his filming; however, it is acknowledged that some scenes owed more to story telling than reality. “It is easy… to be critical of Flaherty’s manipulation of Nanook… but then that is the inevitability of the film idiom” (Singer 1992: 264). Despite such manipulations, “many of his scenes remain astonishingly beautiful… and, above all, his image of humanness… has had universal appeal” (Weinberger 1994: 6-7). Sensitivity and consideration for another’s life and values would appear to be axiomatic in producing not just interesting but ethically sound ethnographic films. Flaherty would show the day’s filming to the Inuit to check their own responses to the content of the film, “he was he first to screen the daily rushes for the principals for their comments” (Weinberger 1994: 6), and this directorial style gave the participants their own say in how the filming unfolded. This may not so readily be said of all ethnographic endeavours, the impulse to record in as unbiased and unobtrusive a way as possible may result in filmmakers attempting to be so invisible that they avoid any sense of reflexivity at all. This privileging of the camera and of looking, could be construed as another example of colonialism, the intrusion of the lens as an abuse of power that involves “the effacement of any marks of the presence of the photographer’s [own] culture” (Pinney 1992: 76). And the collecting of disappearing cultures on film may likewise be considered as a collecting of cultural data to be filed and consumed at will by Western intellectuals. For Flaherty as for present ethnographic filmmakers, there is a fine line between intrusiveness and genuine interest, between a hierarchical sense of ownership of the images and a democratic sprit of cooperation between filmmaker and those who are the film’s subjects. For people and cultures who do not have access to methods of recording themselves or others, such lack of access can lead to an imbalance of power. Further, they may not comprehend the broader field their images may be disseminated upon, “informants may be keen to collaborate without actually engaging fully with why a researcher would want to video record certain activities” (Pink 2001: 40).

Margaret Mead speaks with a sense of urgency about the vanishing cultures and societies of the world and advocates the use of filming to capture these moments before they are lost. She sees the role of anthropology as recognising how “forms of human behaviour still extant will inevitably disappear” (Mead 1995: 3). She laments the rapid loss of cultures as, “all over the world… irreproducible behaviours are disappearing” (ibid: 4). In an impassioned piece, she charts the loss of these cultures and extols the validity of ethnographic filming, her passion could be regarded as not necessarily taking into account the actual individuals she regards as worthy of filming. “The isolated group or emerging new nation that forbids filmmaking… will lose far more than it gains”. (Mead 1995: 7-8). Issues of trust and respect emerge here, for all her ardour about the permanent loss of cultures, Mead could be missing the point that many of these cultures will continue to exist in an ever developing form, and their own sense of value and worth may be unchanged regardless of whether they are filmed for posterity or not. The desire to capture on film before change eradicates practices and social processes could be driven by a fear of change and a lack of recognition that all cultures are likely to alter and adapt to some extent. And though, as with all change some things may be lost to the detriment of the culture, so too there can be gains.

Ethnographic film is deservedly valued by anthropologists as capturing diverse and isolated groups from all over the world, but to imagine other cultures are best when static and unchanging is to misunderstand the purpose of ethnographic study. The very nature of visual images tends to fix life at a certain point, denying the future reality any recognition, “the inherent problem in visual representation is… that it reifies and freezes” (Hastrup 1992: 19). This not to say that Mead is necessarily wrong in wanting to capture changing cultures before their practices are lost forever, rather, the fear of loss suggests that some ethnographers consider changing lifestyles lack the validity of earlier, more ‘authentic’ ones. Whilst it is of value to observe and record customs and to celebrate their breadth of diversity, it is unhelpful to dictate how these may be recorded for posterity; for cultures that prioritise verbal acts of memory; images may not be of such importance.

“The appropriateness of visual methods should not simply be judged on questions of whether the methods suit the objectives… evaluations should be informed by… how visual knowledge is interpreted in a cross-cultural context” (Pink 2001: 33).

This sense of urgency and loss may, however, have some weight, in Anne Makepeace’s filmComing to Light, she uncovers the work of Edward Curtis and his extensive recording of the North American Indians. Curtis utilised a romantic and staged photographing of the culture, often depicting individuals in their best clothes and removing signs of contemporary life such as clocks. But this has been appreciated as a reminder of lost traditions for a nation who to some extent have lost their sense of identity in the larger mass and press of American society. With this valuing of former and to some extent lost traditions, perhaps Mead has a point, the archiving of tribal and cultural practices can be valued from within the culture itself. Makepeace observes that the arguments about Curtis’s staging of some photographs were of more concern in academic circles than with those whose ancestors appear in Curtis’s portraits. “In general, the people who criticize Curtis are not Indians; they're people in academia who need to make a point” (N.Y. Times 2001). Arguments about validity perhaps best lie with those who are being recorded rather than with academics who may regard the filming of disappearing cultures as an intellectual exercise more than one of memory and identity. In this instance, the work of Edward Curtis has been reinstated by Makepeace as an archive of value to the North American Indians and a reminder to the wider American community about who existed first on the land. “When we make ethnographic films, we utilise the most powerfully pervasive memory-making device in the history of human culture.” (Kuehnast 1992: 191). In a country where the Native Americans have suffered from their lands being taken and their culture diluted, this sense of history and roots provides a valuable community identity. It is possible that for this group, Mead’s assertions are correct, “department after department… fail[s] to include filming… while the behaviour that film could have caught… for the joy of the descendants… disappears” (Mead 1995: 4).

Such records, however, can only ever be fragmentary, a partial representation of one version of reality, in the case of Makepeace’s film, they were part of a jigsaw alongside oral traditions and still surviving memories, particularly as some of the children Curtis photographed are still alive today. Makepeace’s film and her own painstaking recreation of Curtis’s struggles and the resulting photographs gave the subjects’ descendants valuable support in more fully establishing their identity in the face of a wider community that did not share their history. “Because these are disappearing types of behaviour, we need to preserve them in forms that will permit the descendants to repossess their cultural heritage.” (Mead 1995: 8). If indeed it is correct that “America may be considered one of the visual imperialists of the world” (Kuehnast 1992: 184), projecting and enjoying a near world-wide reach of its own selective images, then Curtis’s work, revitalised and framed through Makepeace’s film stands as an antidote, her work and persistence in bringing Curtis’s photographs to prominence have given a people back their sense of self. As an act of ethnography, this serves as a re-writing of a people into a new and deepened meaning of what it means to participate in and experience their culture. Although some purists may see the Native Americans’ re-adoption of some practices as a pastiche, for the individuals themselves, it would appear they have recognised Curtis’s work as a valuable document and have been more than able to interpret it for themselves in a way that sits well with their own values and sense of tradition. Ultimately, the ethnographic film can claim few rights as to the ownership of the images, or their subsequent interpretation. Criticisms ranged against ethnographic films have regarded them as “extending anthropology’s indecent appropriation of the voice of colonised peoples” (MacDougall 1995: 220). Makepeace’s film has been instrumental in reengaging people with their ancestry and their interpretation of Curtis’s work has been an act of relative autonomy, giving them the right to take the film and the images the film portrayed and reinvest them in their culture.

In Curtis’s film In the land of the War Canoes (1914), he portrays the Kwakiutls in British Columbia, this film documents a dramatised version of the culture, its values and practices, in a feature length piece. “After 1910 a few films about non-European societies appeared that suggested a dawning interest in an indigenous point of view.” (MacDougall 1995: 228-9). Curtis’s film was instrumental in setting out a template for a style of ethnographic narrative which was taken up and used by Flaherty some years later. Again he has been criticised for romanticising a culture in his depiction of a tale of tribal love and revenge. As suggested above, critics have noted that in his photographic work he has removed signs of contemporary life from the images, and In the land of the War Canoes is considered by some to freeze a culture, setting it apart from the wider community and depicting it as unchanging when in fact it was altering. Similarly, his work has been seen as too simplistic, resisting a more complex reading of a people, as even “the simplest human events unfold in a tangle of attendant activities, emotions, [and] motivations” (Weinberger 1994: 12). Despite these and other criticisms, the film is considered by many as a primary example of an ethnographic film, meticulously portraying a rich and vibrant culture. Curtis used a storyline to explicate to a wider audience Kwakiutl culture and practice, providing dramatic tension to convey the participant’s experiences and trials in a way that would enable an audience to understand and empathise with them. Thus, from its earliest days, “the filmic forms of knowledge produced in… ethnographic film are necessarily entwined with the fictional cinematic forms of Hollywood” (Devereaux 1995: 4).

The issues of representation and validity persist, from the early ethnographic films to present, and notionally, more informed ones. In Curtis’s work, which was groundbreaking in its depiction of a people, despite using emerging techniques of story telling, the aims of ethnographic films are evident as “a form intended to mediate across cultural boundaries” (Ginsburg 1995: 259). His dedication to detail and photographic sense of scene-setting convey, albeit in a fictionalised way, more perhaps than some ethnographic films that have had access to much more sophisticated technology. In part this could be because of his ignorance, given the nascent form of his craft at the time, of academic arguments for and against ethnographic filming of cultures and customs. Working as a pioneer, he took the stylised forms of story-telling and mythology to record the practices and beliefs of a culture that would have been unknown to most audiences. However earnest these representations, however, they can only ever reveal a portion of the truth, as in all ethnographic fieldwork, “records can never be exhaustive. They remain selective accounts of what actually happened… frozen images” (Hastrup 1992: 15). Despite the fact that any film can only bring remnants of the truth, Curtis’s work would appear to have stood the test of time, he brought a culture to the attention of his audience and although those images are inevitably consumed by the dominant culture, in part merely for the pleasure of watching, his work remains valid and pertinent.

Set against quite a different backdrop, the work of Dziga Vertov inhabits an urban setting and embraces and appears to celebrate technology and the advancements of humanity. Whilst the work of Curtis, Flaherty and Makepeace valorises cultures that may appear timeless to some eyes, or at least slow to change, Vertov draws upon the swiftly changing metropolis and its inhabitants. The film is open to many interpretations, partly because Vertov uses innovative techniques and sometimes openly acknowledges the camera’s presence, the style invites debate and an imaginative ownership of what is being watched. The viewer may more readily be able to place their own reading upon what they are observing due to the open style of filming whereby Vertov lets the camera run seemingly with little directorial input.

“Reflexive documentary… arose from a desire to make the conventions of representation themselves more apparent and to challenge the impression of reality… the viewer’s attention is drawn to the device as well as the effect”. (Nichols 1991: 33)

Vertov’s inclusion of the camera’s own possibilities and the presence of the camera operator in some shots is a significant detour from other ethnographic films of the time, “the veil of illusory absence is shorn away” (ibid: 44). As a critique of fictionalised narratives and escapist fantasy, Vertov strove to detail ordinary people in their daily lives and work, from a socialist perspective this suggested the importance of labour and industry as a way towards progress and change. His approach is a reflexive act that openly admits to the artifice of filmmaking, particularly as he employs many camera tricks such as the split screen and freeze frame. In this reading, his film is an experimental and early detour from the instructive and observational films as well as more fictionalised accounts produced during his life time; he rejected dramatisation in favour of the realism of life unfolding. As a social document and film concerned with depicting people, Vertov is fervent in his desire to record ‘the people’, and yet his own beliefs and values, from a contemporary perspective seem dedicated more to the greater impulse of the Soviet era. People in the film appear reduced to being part of the machine, industrial units that lose any sense of individual characteristics and personal values and beliefs. They are portrayed almost as tools of the greater good, striving through physical toil towards a collective goal and are devoid of any real individuality. In his symbolic city of ceaseless activity the more personal aspects of Curtis or Flaherty’s films, and the new found relevance of Makepeace’s documentary are absent. For all Vertov’s desire to depict the truth in as unbiased a way as possible, he proves himself to be immersed in his own culture and time.

Vertov’s belief is in the eyewitness role of the camera, presenting what he might consider is an unmediated reality which uses the camera “not in its egotism but in its willingness to reveal people with absolutely no pretence” (Vertov quoted in Rouch 1995: 87). Perhaps his seeming commitment to the neutrality of filming is reflected in more recent opinions on the role of ethnographic documentation, where “due to the apparent materiality of [films]… they have been perceived as accurate records of the ethnographic reality” (Hastrup 1992: 13). Such an assertion can never, of course, be the whole truth; films are valuable, but only in reflecting one aspect of anthropology, filtered through the producer’s own choices and production values. All forms of documentation have their own merit in bringing knowledge and understanding to social processes,

“it is impossible to rank visual and textual representations of ethnography in terms of different degrees of accuracy. Rather they display different kinds of accuracy”. (Hastrup 1992: 14)

As an experimental process, Vertov’s work has a place in the canon of ethnographic films, as a strong assertion of his own technique being the correct or truthful one; he stands on more tenuous ground. His commitment to Kino-Pravda, filmed truth, is an important advance in the development of ethnographic filmmaking, but as a singular approach it can alienate its subjects. “Many reflexive texts… present the filmmaker… less as a participant-observer than as an authoring agent.” (Nichols 1991: 58). A postmodern approach may be more constructive, one that accepts “ethnographic knowledge and text can only ever be a subjective construction, a ‘fiction’ that represents only the ethnographer’s version of reality.” (Pink 2001: 19). Inevitably, each person’s version of reality is their own and all knowledge is filtered through a range of perceptions and consciousness, Vertov’s work stands as a social text that records more than he intended. Where some early ethnographic films sought to detail the inhabitants of distant lands in a stereotyped way, Vertov’s style wished to let the camera speak for itself and for people’s lives to be depicted without comment or, he believed, bias. Like Flaherty, he approached his subject in an innovative way, “Vertov was doing sociology without knowing it and… Flaherty… ethnography also without knowing it” (Rouch 1995: 86). Both practitioners had to break new ground and developed their own ways of doing so, Flaherty and Vertov “had to resolve those problems which always present themselves… techniques… were still quite elementary” (ibid: 87).

It would seem that issues which troubled early ethnographic film still have some hold today, although sophisticated techniques now exist, the fact remains that representations are problematic. There is always a gap, even in the best films, we are not “usually asked to see from a literal perspective… but rather from a position in fictive space” (MacDougall 1995: 226). This is inevitable as we can only ever partially comprehend another’s thoughts and motives, and film can not easily be claimed as a truth when matters such as editorial decisions, ownership of the images and the reasons for filming in the first place are considered. With the earliest anthropological films, the opportunity to record disappearing cultures for academia and a broader public led to a multiplicity of techniques and methodologies. Vertov experimented with his approach to production and editing to bring a social document which is still challenging and exciting to watch. Similarly Flaherty and Curtis produced films that are still discussed as being part of the range of broadly ethnographic footage worth studying. Makepeace revisited Curtis’s work and to the eyes of some she encountered, his photography held more than novelty or aesthetic value, it evoked a deeper meaning too. Each of these filmmakers has produced work which, once out of their hands has been open to multiple interpretations. The films have provoked many points of view and contributed to an increasingly “complex understanding of a cultural consciousness … construct[ing] a way of looking at the world that is intersubjective and… communal” (MacDougall 1995: 250). As a means towards a deeper understanding of other peoples and cultures, the ethnographic film continues to serve the aims that propelled its earliest work, informing, raising issues for debate and destabilising power relations as interpretations render different readings and meanings from film.


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