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.
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.