The films of David and Judith MacDougall in Africa and Australia
Paul Henley

In the mid-1970s, the terms ‘reflexivity’ and ‘participation’ became commonplace in discussions of English-language ethnographic film. Their emergence was associated with the recognition that the production of objective film records was an illusion and that the participation of the film-maker in the lives of the subjects should be acknowledged in an openly ‘reflexive’ manner. This primarily epistemological issue was overlain by the more ethical and political concern that the role of the subjects themselves in the making of an ethnographic film should also be acknowledged. This chapter analyses the contribution of David and Judith MacDougall in developing this more reflexive and participatory praxis, first in their work with pastoralist groups in East Africa, and later with Aboriginal communities in Australia.

in Beyond observation
Open Access (free)
The complexities of collaborative authorship
Paul Henley

During the 1970s and 1980s, having previously sought to make films in an objective manner, certain leading ethnographic film-makers adopted more reflexive and participatory praxes. These film-makers included Timothy Asch who worked with Patsy Asch in Indonesia, Ian Dunlop who worked with the Yolngu of northwest Australia, and John Marshall who made a series of adversarial films about the situation of the San community whom he had known since the 1950s. The chapter also considers the collaborative project of Sarah Elder and Leonard Kamerling with the Alaskan Yup’ik. It concludes that while there can often be a genuine overlap of interests between subjects and film-makers, notably with regard to recording traditional custom for future generations, there is also almost always a certain mismatch, primarily because the film-makers seek to address an external audience, whereas the subjects have in mind an internal one. In reconciling these interests, film-makers could find themselves producing films that spoke neither for themselves, nor for the subjects, which meant, in effect, that they spoke for no one. Some film-makers reacted to this situation by reverting to a less actively collaborative praxis while simultaneously encouraging the subjects to make their own films.

in Beyond observation
Open Access (free)
Authorship, praxis, observation, ethnography
Paul Henley

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
Open Access (free)
Films of re-enactment in the post-war period
Paul Henley

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.

in Beyond observation
Open Access (free)
Beyond the burden of the real
Paul Henley

This chapter begins with an overview of Gardner’s career. This was of similar duration to that of Rouch, but very different in that Gardner made films in many different parts of the world, never staying long enough in any one place to learn the local language or get to know his subjects well. It is argued that this was only one of several respects in which Gardner’s praxis was at odds with certain central tenets of anthropology as an academic discipline. Another was his frank admission that he was more interested in what his subjects’ lives signified to him as an observer than in how they themselves might understand them. The chapter continues with a consideration of Gardner’s praxis as a cinematographer,, which while being technically highly skilled, very rarely involved any kind of reflexivity or verbal engagement with the subjects. The remainder of the chapter is dedicated to a discussion of Gardner’s praxis as an editor, drawing extensively on his masterwork, Forest of Bliss, a film about cremation procedures at the Hindu holy city of Varanasi.

in Beyond observation
Paul Henley

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.

in Beyond observation
Paul Henley

After an initial discussion of the tepid reception of television ethnographic films by academic anthropologists, this chapter charts the decline of this kind of programming in the 1990s. Although there were temporary resurgences, the overall pattern was one of retreat. By 2000, films based directly on academic ethnographic research had all but disappeared. During this period, there had however been a number of high quality para-ethnographic series, including two series on China made by Phil Agland and a number of films by Kim Longinotto about women contesting restrictive gender roles in different locations around the world. But these too became rare after 2000. If ethnographic film still exists at all on British television today, it is largely because anthropology graduates continue to enter the industry, bringing an ethnographic sensibility to their work. The chapter concludes by considering the legacies of the ‘golden era’. These include the films themselves, which are still widely used in teaching. They also include the Granada Centre for Visual Anthropology, which since its foundation in 1987 has trained several hundred people in ethnographic film-making.

in Beyond observation
Films of the Sensory Ethnography Lab
Paul Henley

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.

in Beyond observation
Recent films of David and Judith MacDougall
Paul Henley

This chapter considers the MacDougalls’ films after they left the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies in the late 1980s. Since then, they have produced fifteen films, representing almost half their total oeuvre to date. While they have continued to draw upon key elements of Observational Cinema, they have also expanded this praxis through experimentation and innovation. One important difference with the earlier work is that only two films have involved both of them. Of the remainder, two were made by Judith working alone, while all the others were solo works by David. Another difference is that only the first two films were shot on 16 mm: the remainder were shot on digital video. All but two films were shot in India and these mostly concern children on the threshold of adolescence living in predominantly educational institutions. This particular focus was a reflection of David’s developing conviction that, far from representing a progression from childhood, adulthood often involves a ‘paring down of children’s discoveries’. The chapter concludes that though these recent films have been quite varied, what they have in common with the MacDougalls’ earlier work is immersive fieldwork, a collaborative relationship with the subjects, and a high degree of film craft.

in Beyond observation
Open Access (free)
Paul Henley

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