Ethnographic Films Capturing Their Souls Essay

Length: 19 pages Sources: 11 Subject: Mythology Type: Essay Paper: #30787341 Related Topics: Forensic Anthropology, Broadcasting, Their Eyes Were Watching God, Ethnography
Excerpt from Essay :

It should be noted that this risk of becoming simply an "ethnocentric fantasy" is something that not all filmmakers are worried about. Indeed, it might well be argued that the creation of an ethnocentric fantasy might well make an ethnographic film more popular and more profitable.

Indeed, an ethnocentric fantasy is one of the storylines that fits well into the narrative expectations of Western audiences, who will not be surprised by tales of Noble Savages or simply Savages whose lives are made better and more meaningful through contact with the West. There is also the accepted trope that is no more than simple ethnocentrism: There is certainly room for the filmmaker who produces ethnocentric movies that allow Western audiences to feel validated in the idea that their own culture is better than that of the people whose lives are being depicted.

A More Naive -- or Simpler? -- World

The roots of ethnographic film go deep into the world of the documentary made for scholars. Gregory Bateson began using film in the 1930s as a way to slow down the rituals that he was watching: Using a frame-by-frame analysis that was only possible through the use of film allowed him to derive meaning from a live event that was too over-determined for him to assess (as an outsider) without such a mechanical aid.

For Bateson, there was no question of whether his films of rituals were anything other than Bateson's own limited perspective of what he wanted to focus on. He did not have to consider any appeal of his images to a wider, lay audience.

But the use of film in ethnography began to shift almost from the very beginning of the medium so that the footage that anthropologists recorded in the field became films that were made by both scholars and filmmakers that were meant to introduce various "primitive" cultures to the "civilized" world.

The intent of many of these filmmakers was good as they wished to show the rest of the world the value of more traditional societies. There was, however, also an exploitative element of these films, at least as we view them retrospectively, since there was such a degree of power differential between those making images and those who were being depicted.

There was also, as noted above, the continuing differential between filmmaker and the filmed in terms of making a profit off of the movies.

In this sense the early ethnographic films made for a popular audience were caught in the same political, ethical webs that entangled the early written ethnographies, although in the case of the films these webs were even stickier and more tangled. (Again, it is important to note that these ethical considerations are far more apparent to us in the 21st century than they would have been at the time. This does not mean that ethnographers and filmmakers working in the first half of the twentieth century were less ethically aware than we are now; rather the prevailing ethical climate was fundamentally different.) Written ethnographers are clearly the work of the author: Nobody could read an ethnographic account by Bateson, for example, and not be constantly aware that there was a literal author to the text.

This understanding that the narrative reflected the view of an individual affects the way that a reader encounters the story presented by the ethnographer. Moreover, it is clear that the author is an outsider to the culture, a fact that might make the reader either more or less inclined to believe the truthfulness of the author's perspective.

However, people are generally more inclined to believe that a visual image (first photography, then film) tells something like the unvarnished truth. Films seem to convey to the world an unedited perspective.

This acceptance of the truthfulness of a filmed image was particularly true of the viewers of film from an earlier generation, before current digital technologies allowed for nearly seamless alterations of what had taken place in front of a camera lens.

There was also a generally greater acceptance of images that portrayed only a portion of a culture (or even an overtly biased view of a culture) in a world before the


This must be a constant consideration for the filmmaker: How much should she or he make the audience aware of the fact that what they are seeing is a particular story, not the whole of the culture.

Many people now have a far more knowledgeable and far more sophisticated understanding of how people in very distant parts of the globe live than was true three or four or five generations ago, which allows them to be more sophisticated consumers of visual images. This in turn has an effect on the ways in which filmmakers create their works. There is always a conversation between the makers and consumers of images.

However, the filmmakers' voices are much clearer and so they have a higher degree of responsibility. The maker of a popular ethnographic film should always make choices in as conscious a way as possible when balancing the rights of the people being depicted and the her or his own needs as a filmmaker.

Almost regardless of the level of sophistication of the audience for an ethnographic film, there will be an ongoing tension between the "ethnographic" part of a popular ethnographic film and the "popular" (or even "film") part of such an enterprise. Anthropologists, like other scholars, should be primarily concerned with telling the truth about their subject in a way that honors nuance and allows for the ambiguities of lived experience. (This is not to say, of course, that this always happens when anthropology is done.) Films can be made that reflect nuance and celebrate ambiguity, of course, but films are flatter than written narratives, and their focus (because of the way in which films proceed in a linear way through time and cannot be flipped back through the way that a book can) implies a certain singular way and a certain determined rate through which the world must be experienced.

Henley summarizes this duality, this tension at the heart of popular ethnography. He is referring to the Disappearing World program and similar programs.

… the films were made for a popular audience, who could not be expected to be familiar with even the most elementary of anthropological concepts. Therefore full explanations in the verbal commentary of the historical, sociological or symbological background to the visual material would necessarily have been particularly cumbersome and lengthy. The film-makers' counter-argument to the anthropologists, therefore, was that if the viewers with professional interests wanted more facts and figures, they could always look for them in the appropriate book or article, but to burden an ethnographic film with these details was to throw overboard the particular qualities that film has for achieving an understanding of other cultures. Not all professional anthropologists were convinced by this argument, whilst some went so far as to maintain that there is a basic and inevitable incompatibility between the objectives of anthropology and film-making.

BBC filmmakers (and their colleagues) would probably argue that there is in fact no fundamental incompatibility between ethnography as practiced by scholars and the kind of ethnographic film that they produce, while anthropologists are more inclined to see an important distinction between the two forms of enterprises.

The reason that there should be such a disagreement is easy to understand. An essential part of the appeal of a popular ethnographic film to the mass audience is that it conveys accurate and authentic information, that it is not simply entertainment but educational as well. Filmmakers appeal to audiences in no small part because they are offering a quality product, something very much distinct from ordinary Hollywood fare but that is, at the same time, accessible in a way that scholarship is not.

Scholars, on the other hand, have a stake in keeping a clear distinction between the kind of ethnographic work that they are engaged in and popular ethnographic film, for they want to stave off suspicions that non-scholars could do what they do. Popular filmmakers want (and may even need) the allure of scholarship while scholars do not need the allure of popularity.

Blending Different Typologies of Visual Narrative

After Bateson pioneered what would become known as ethnographic film (which is aligned with visual anthropology, although this term tends to be more associated with still photography), the field began to expand. Among the most important films made was John Marshall's the Hunters, which documented the !Kung-San people of the Kalahari during the second half of the twentieth century.

One of his films, Nai, the Story of a !Kung Woman, blended ethnographic film conventions with ones drawn from mainstream film traditions because it not only documented the cultural context of her life (thus following the norms…

Sources Used in Documents:


Grimshaw, a. (1995). Conversations with anthropological film-makers: Melissa Llewellyn-Davies. Cambridge: Prickly Pear Press.

Grimshaw, a. (2001). "The anthropological television of Melissa Llewlyn-Davies" in the ethnographer's eye: Ways of seeing in modern anthropology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press: 149-171.

Loizos, P. (1993). The Loita Maasai films: Televised culture" in Innovation in ethnographic film: From innocence to self-consciousness, 1955-1985. Manchester University Press: 115-138.

MacDougall, D. (1994). "Films of memory," in L. Taylor ed., Visualizing theory: Selected from V.A.R., 1990-1994. London: Routledge: 260-269.

Cite this Document:

"Ethnographic Films Capturing Their Souls" (2011, January 04) Retrieved November 29, 2022, from

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