This chapter begins by relating the emergence of ethnographic film on British television in the 1970s to the Reithian broadcasting principles whereby television franchise holders were required not only to entertain their audiences, but also to ‘educate and inform’ them. It then compares the two basic formats of ethnographic film on British television. One of these was the comparative format favoured by the BBC, in which material from several different groups, each based on the research of a different anthropologist, was compared in the course of a single programme, as exemplified by the series, Family of Man (1969–70) and Face Values (1978). This is contrasted with the ‘one-by-four’ format, in which films of one hour about one social group were constructed around one central theme based on the research of one anthropologist, as exemplified by the Granada Television series, Disappearing World, which ran, with various interruptions, between 1970 and 1993.

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This chapter discusses developments in ethnographic film-making on British television in the 1980s and early 1990s. It describes how, in the late 1970s, a dispute between management and unions at Granada Television led a number of the leading producer-directors to leave Disappearing World and set up similar series elsewhere on British television. It was also around this time that Channel 4 was set up to promote innovative programming. This included two contrasting para-ethnographic series: Caught in a Web, three films directed by Toni de Bromhead, which compared a Dorset village with a small town in the south of France, and Baka, a feature-length film about a gathering-hunting group of the Cameroon rainforest, directed by Phil Agland. The BBC also broadcast various para-ethnographic series, including The Ark, about London Zoo, shot and directed by Molly Dineen. The final part of the chapter considers the cycle of nine films about the Maasai of East Africa in which Melissa Llewelyn-Davies was involved, first as a researcher and later as director, between 1974 and 1993.

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This chapter considers a range of film genres that prior to the Second World War led to the production of works of ethnographic interest, even though their primary motivation was commercial. Beginning with a discussion of the reportage films produced by the Edison and Lumière companies, and by the French newsreel companies Pathé and Gaumont, it then briefly considers the US travelogue genre. The main body of the chapter proposes that three major works produced for commercial purposes but claimed retrospectively as masterworks of ethnographic film history – Grass, In the Land of the Head Hunters and Nanook of the North – should be read as emerging from a combination of the travel film and the exotic melodrama genres.

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The early films of John Marshall and Timothy Asch

When John Marshall filmed the San people of the Kalahari Desert in the 1950s and Timothy Asch filmed the Yanomami in Amazonia in the late 1960s and early 1970s, little re-enactment was required to film traditional ways of living. However, these film-makers also struggled to reconcile the perceived need to produce objective film records with the requirements of making a film with a narrative structure, that is, a ‘movie’. To circumvent this dilemma, Marshall and Asch developed the ‘event-sequence’ method. This involved identifying spontaneously occurring events with an intrinsic beginning–middle–end structure and then filming these without intervention. In this way, they hoped to produce films that would have the narrative characteristics of a ‘movie’ but which would also constitute an objective record. Initially applied to Marshall’s San footage, the method was most extensively used by Asch in his work with the Yanomami. But by 1975, it had become apparent that this attempt to have the best of both worlds was illusory.

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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.

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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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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.

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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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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.

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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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