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A history of authorship in ethnographic film
Author: Paul Henley

Beyond Observation offers a historical analysis of ethnographic film from the birth of cinema in 1895 until 2015. It covers a large number of films made in a broad range of styles, in many different parts of the world, from the Arctic to Africa, from urban China to rural Vermont. It is the first extensive historical account of its kind and will be accessible to students and lecturers in visual anthropology as well as to those previously unfamiliar with ethnographic film.

Among the early genres that Paul Henley discusses are French reportage films, the Soviet kulturfilm, the US travelogue, the classic documentaries of Robert Flaherty and Basil Wright, as well as the more academic films of Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson. Among the leading film-makers of the post-war period, he discusses Jean Rouch, John Marshall and Robert Gardner, as well as the emergence of Observational Cinema in the 1970s. He also considers ‘indigenous media’ projects of the 1980s, and the ethnographic films that flourished on British television until the 1990s.

In the final part, he examines the recent films of David and Judith MacDougall, the Harvard Sensory Media Lab, and a range of films authored in a participatory manner, as possible models for the future.

Paul Henley

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.

in Beyond observation
Paul Henley

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.

in Beyond observation
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Sharing anthropology
Paul Henley

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.

in Beyond observation
Paul Henley

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.

in Beyond observation
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Indigenous media and the Video nas Aldeias project
Paul Henley

From the 1970s, cheap lightweight video camcorders underpinned the making of films by indigenous subjects. Often referred to as ‘indigenous media’, a term first coined by Faye Ginsburg in the 1980s, these works are now of a highly variable character, ranging from feature-length fiction films to modest informational videos. This chapter confines itself to a review of a limited number of indigenous media projects in which anthropologists have played an important role, with a special emphasis on those set up in Amazonia. It also considers some general questions raised by these projects, such as whether the use of modern audiovisual technology undermines traditional indigenous identities and whether film-making by outsiders is redundant now that indigenous people can make their own films. The latter part of the chapter is dedicated to an extended account of the Video nas Aldeias project in Brazil, which has been running since 1987.

in Beyond observation
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The principles of Observational Cinema
Paul Henley

The chapter begins by describing how, in 1966, at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), Colin Young set up the Ethnographic Film Program through which the principles of Observational Cinema were first developed. Young had a sophisticated knowledge of cinema but had neither experience as a practical film-maker, nor a background in anthropology. He therefore left the practical working out of these principles to various film-makers associated with the programme, including Paul Hockings and Mark McCarty, David Hancock and Herb di Gioia, and most of all, David and Judith MacDougall. The chapter then offers a summary of the most salient features of this praxis as formulated by Young himself, but also by David MacDougall. The final part of the chapter describes how Observational Cinema evolved further after Young returned to Britain in 1970 to run the National Film and Television School (NFTS) and encouraged further ethnographic film-making from there.

in Beyond observation
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The early films of John Marshall and Timothy Asch
Paul Henley

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.

in Beyond observation
Paul Henley

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.

in Beyond observation
Open Access (free)
Paul Henley

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