David MacDougall
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Ethnographic film
Evolution of a concept
in The art of the observer
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This chapter discusses the varied historical and epistemological conceptions of ethnographic film, from the idea of films conceived as museum collections, to so-called ‘illustrated lectures’, to films made as visual equivalents of written ethnographies, and films that explore the performative, emotional and underlying cultural patterns of human societies. The pros and cons of several approaches are considered, along with their different methodologies. Among these are the various forms of observational cinema, ranging from films focusing on the filmmaker’s immediate observations, to those using narrative methods, to those creating more multi-level structures. The chapter describes how some films extend existing filmic possibilities in the temporal and sensory realms, in their uses of narrative, in emphasising thematic elements, and in combining several of these approaches in the same film. The author concludes that if ethnographic filmmaking is to develop its full potential, no single approach can be held up as the only legitimate one.

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The art of the observer

A personal view of documentary

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