Recent films of David and Judith MacDougall

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
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.

in Beyond observation