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Authorship, praxis, observation, ethnography

This outlines the general arguments on which the book is based and specifies the way in which certain key terms are used, including ‘authorship’, ‘praxis’, ‘observation’ and, most importantly, ‘ethnography’. It proposes that ethnographic film-making should be thought of, not as a ‘way of looking’, but rather a ‘way of doing’, or more concisely, a ‘praxis’, that in addition to the purely visual and observational covers a range of other aspects of authoring a film, including recording sound, developing a narrative, establishing a relationship with the subjects and offering an ethnographic analysis. It is then argued that the status of a film as ethnographic should depend on the degree to which its praxis conforms to the norms of ethnographic practice as more generally defined at the time that it was made. However, it is acknowledged that this can also be a relative matter, thereby allowing a diverse range of films to be admitted to the category ‘ethnographic’.

in Beyond observation
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This introduction distinguishes between the key terms ‘documentation’ and ‘documentary’ and outlines the metatheme of the seven chapters making up this part of the book. It argues that because of a tendency to see the exercise of authorship in film-making and ethnographic value as mutually incompatible, throughout the history of ethnographic film-making, there has been a tendency to deny, sidestep or control for authorship, or to consign it either to the subjects or to the audience. It proposes that because of this failure to embrace authorship, coupled with a lack of technical competence, ethnographers working in the period prior to the Second World War left a very slight filmic legacy. Fortunately, however, film-makers with very different motivations, ranging from the propagandistic to the commercial, actively embraced authorship, producing films that, after the fact, have often been acclaimed as masterworks of ethnographic cinema.

in Beyond observation
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This Introduction presents the concept of the Author as first developed by Roland Barthes and then applied to anthropological literature by Clifford Geertz. In this conception, an Author not only writes, but in writing establishes a model to be followed by others. These followers are not considered ‘authors’ but rather mere ‘writers’, though they can sometimes be more accomplished exponents of the Author’s mode of writing than the Author themselves. It is argued that by analogy Jean Rouch, Robert Gardner and Colin Young can all be considered ‘Authors’ of ethnographic film-making. In Young’s case, this is somewhat paradoxical in the sense that he has never made an ethnographic film. However, the model of film-making praxis that he first conceived has been given substance by others.

in Beyond observation
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This Introduction first describes the investment of around £10 million made by British television in films based directly on academic ethnographic research during a ‘golden era’ running from the late 1960s to the mid-1990s. During this period, British television also supported a large number of ‘para-ethnographic’ films, which although not based directly on academic research, also involved a prolonged period of participant-observation by the film-makers. It then considers the relationship between television film-makers and their academic consultants, arguing that although the requirement to make films for a mass audience could be constraining in some respects, there were also many benefits to be gained for both parties. Finally, it suggests that in requiring film-makers to shape their work according to certain stylistic and organisational norms, British television acted as a sort of meta-author of ethnographic film-making.

in Beyond observation
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This Introduction explains that the last part of the book offers what is freely acknowledged to be no more than a partial selection, in both senses of the word, of recent films that seem to the author to have had a significant impact and/or which suggest potentially fruitful models for the future of the genre of ethnographic film.

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Films of re-enactment in the post-war period

This chapter compares two re-enactment projects carried out in the mid-1960s: the Netsilik project directed by Asen Balikci in an Inuit community of the Canadian Arctic and a project directed by Ian Dunlop with Aboriginal people in Central Australia. It argues that projects such as these posed contradictory demands: on the one hand, in order to have archival value, it was believed that they should constitute entirely objective records; on the other hand, they necessarily involved authorial intervention so that the subjects would recreate forms of living that they no longer lived in reality. The chapter shows how these two projects had very different outcomes in accordance with the technical strategies adopted. Although re-enactment projects were later criticised, the chapter concludes by arguing that despite the contradictions on which they were based, both these projects represent highly valuable contributions to ethnographic film history.

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Sharing anthropology

This chapter begins with an overview of Jean Rouch’s career, primarily in West Africa, before describing the influence on his film-making praxis of his youthful interest in Surrealism, and of his anthropological training as a student of Marcel Griaule. It then identifies the elements that he himself brought to this praxis: a collaborative methodology that he referred to as ‘shared anthropology’ and the use of mobile 16 mm technology. In the ideal case, this methodology allowed him to enter a state that he termed the ‘ciné-trance’, in which the coordination of performances between film-maker and subjects is maximised and the film-maker enters the domain of truth that is particular to the cinema, ‘cinéma-vérité’. The chapter proposes a critical account of these ideas and considers the role of language in Rouch’s films. It concludes with an assessment of Rouch’s legacy in the light of criticisms made by African film-makers.

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Before the Second World War, ethnographic films such as we know today were rare, though many had ethnographic qualities. This chapter considers those made for academic research, museums or state-funded educational purposes. It describes how after initial enthusiasm, film-making among British ethnographers declined markedly though elsewhere it was actively pursued, initially particularly by German-speaking anthropologists and, after the First World War, by French-speaking film-makers associated with museums and/or with the French imperial project. Film-makers in ‘settler nations’ in the Americas, the Soviet Union and Australia were also very active. In the 1930s, academic anthropologists in the USA began to make films, notably Margaret Mead, who, in collaboration with Gregory Bateson, shot a number of films in Bali and New Guinea. These films were primarily made for documentation purposes but some anticipated the forms of ethnographic documentary film-making developed after the Second World War.

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Films of the Sensory Ethnography Lab

This chapter considers the work of the Sensory Ethnography Lab (SEL), established at Harvard University in 2006 and which has had a dramatic impact both inside and beyond the academy. Initially, the institutional context and the ideas informing the work of the SEL are described. This work is very diverse and constantly innovative, making generalisation perilous. But allowing for numerous possible exceptions, it is suggested that there are various continuities between their praxis and that of their institutional predecessor, Robert Gardner. These are particularly evident in the attention given to visual aesthetics and to sound editing, and in the generally high technical quality of their films. Also as in Gardner’s work, both language and concern for communicating what the subjects think or feel about the world are of secondary importance. There is typically even less interest in relating those beliefs or sentiments to social relations, politics or culture. It is argued that in these regards their work, collectively, is set upon a trajectory carrying them progressively away from the conception of ethnography on which this book is based. These propositions are then explored in relation to some of the best-known works produced by the SEL prior to 2015.

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The five projects discussed in this final chapter were all carried out on the basis of a participatory film-making praxis and in the course of extended immersive ethnographic fieldwork. As such, they are offered as a range of possible models for future ethnographic film-making. The first project concerns a series of films made for a cultural mapping project aimed at establishing the land rights of a displaced San people in South Africa. The second consists of a Rouchian ethnofiction made in collaboration with transgendered people in São Paulo, Brazil. In the third case, which consists of a film about the relationship between the living and the dead in a Melanesian community, the film is constructed around the relationship between the subjects and the ethnographer, who appears on screen. The fourth case consists of a series of films about women’s lives among the Hamar people of Ethiopia. Although in this case the ethnographer does not appear on screen, these films too are clearly dependent on her relationship with the subjects over thirty years. In the final case, the ethnographer presents himself as an apprentice, sitting both literally and metaphorically at the feet of a West African master hunter.

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