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David MacDougall

This chapter argues that written and spoken language do not accurately convey how we actually think, or even how language presents itself in our minds. The ways images are organised in films also fail to represent accurately how we see and how we process mental images. The conventions of language and film are partly responsible for this, but the author argues that it is sometimes possible for individual artists to break the rules, bringing films closer to portraying the realities of conscious experience. For example, filmmakers such as Flaherty, Godard and Hitchcock are able to construct new and distinctive ways of looking at the world. Referring to the work of the anthropologist and filmmaker Ivo Strecker and art critic Norman Bryson, the chapter closes with a discussion of the uses of the short and long take in nonfiction cinema, comparing these with the glance and the gaze in human perception.

in The looking machine
David MacDougall

Research in the sciences, including the social sciences, is usually supposed to be conducted in a systematic way, working from research questions to the gathering of empirical data, to conclusions. But in an analogy drawn from the art of fencing, the author argues for an alternative approach in visual anthropology. Films look at the world differently from the ways we conventionally see, and these differences have optical, social and structural origins. To overcome these differences, filmmakers may have to voluntarily ‘dislocate’ themselves in order to put themselves in a position to view their subject from a different perspective, and so uncover new knowledge. The argument is supported by a discussion of the realities of ethnographic fieldwork, the processes of filmmaking, and the role of play and improvisation in the arts and other human endeavours.

in The looking machine
David MacDougall

This chapter provides a critical overview of the history of documentary cinema, which gradually lost sight of its early inspiration in the cinema of the Lumière brothers, adopting many of the features of fiction film production and modelling itself increasingly on didactic texts and journalism. In the sound era, British documentary films made under the aegis of John Grierson, despite his celebration of the ‘actual’, turned towards mass education and an idealised vision of collective humanity, and away from recording events in human lives. Italian Neorealist fiction films and changes to camera technology in the post-war period inspired a return to these objectives, but television remained firmly fixed on journalism, entertainment and public issues. Reactions took many forms, including experimental documentaries, social advocacy, biography and autobiography, and films exploring the relationship of film to reality. The rise of observational films promised a return to the more modest aim of giving audiences shared access to what the filmmaker had witnessed, despite the challenges of manipulative ‘reality’ television and designer-packaged documentaries. The essay refers to a host of influences and commentaries, including those of Edward Said, Bill Nichols, Dai Vaughan, Robert Flaherty, Jean Rouch, Errol Morris, Colin Young and Grierson himself.

in The looking machine
David MacDougall

Taking the problem of filming children’s lives as a focus, this chapter explores how environments in cinema both condition and reflect the inner life of the film subject, citing films by Rossellini, De Sica, Ozu, Antonioni and several documentary filmmakers. For the author, the experiences of filming children at a school and at a juvenile detention centre in India raised important questions about the relation of physical and social environments to an individual’s consciousness, and how this could be conveyed by cinematic means. One solution was to focus specifically on the concrete objects and surroundings that shaped the children’s perceptual world. The chapter concludes with a discussion of the difficulties of accurately portraying children’s lives in modern society, caused by parental fears and the increasing idealisation of childhood innocence. These factors may even increase the risks associated with portraying children’s lives in documentary films.

in The looking machine
David MacDougall

Colour plays an important part in the aesthetics of everyday life. It has psychological effects as well as carrying symbolic meanings, both religious and secular, and it is an important marker of cultural identity. This chapter explores the role and uses of colour at the Doon School, an elite boys’ boarding school in India where the author made a number of films. In this highly controlled community, the social aesthetics of the institution becomes imprinted on the consciousness of its inhabitants. It is intimately associated with the students’ activities, social relationships and sensory experiences. It defines their status and shapes their lives. The uses of colour at the school are also consistent with a wider social aesthetic emphasising restraint, logical thought, and the training and presentation of the body. Many of these values can be seen to have their origins in the school’s colonial history and postcolonial aspirations. The author argues that we can understand the full implications of such sensory patterning in society only through more extensive research in social aesthetics.

in The looking machine
Abstract only
David MacDougall

The introduction describes the book as a set of essays based on the author’s practice in ethnographic and documentary filmmaking. The essays attempt to close the gap between the experiences of the filmmaker and of the film viewer, moving from personal observations to more theoretical essays on film construction and reception, and finally to the role of documentary film in anthropology and public discourse. Two key themes of the book are the relations between filmmaker and film subject, and between filmmaker and viewer, in particular with regard to how much access the viewer is given to the realities of the filmmaking process – a major concern of the new documentary cinema of the 1960s. Another concern of the book is the power of film to evoke physical sensations, an important element in recent ethnographic filmmaking. However, the author cautions that this power should not simply become one more method of manipulating the viewer.

in The looking machine
Abstract only
Essays on cinema, anthropology and documentary filmmaking

The looking machine calls for the redemption of documentary cinema, exploring the potential and promise of the genre at a time when it appears under increasing threat from reality television, historical re-enactments, designer packaging and corporate authorship. The book consists of a set of essays, each focused on a particular theme derived from the author’s own experience as a filmmaker. It provides a practice-based, critical perspective on the history of documentary, how films evoke space, time and physical sensations, questions of aesthetics, and the intellectual and emotional relationships between filmmakers and their subjects. It is especially concerned with the potential of film to broaden the base of human knowledge, distinct from its expression in written texts. Among its underlying concerns are the political and ethical implications of how films are actually made, and the constraints that may prevent filmmakers from honestly showing what they have seen. While defending the importance of the documentary idea, MacDougall urges us to consider how the form can become a ‘cinema of consciousness’ that more accurately represents the sensory and everyday aspects of human life. Building on his experience bridging anthropology and cinema, he argues that this means resisting the inherent ethnocentrism of both our own society and the societies we film.

David MacDougall

This chapter presents the camera as a ‘looking machine’ that extends human perception. However, photography and film fix the act of looking, placing further constraints on who can look at what, and forcing the act of looking into specific channels. The constraints take the form of artistic conventions in filmmaking itself, commercial pressures, community standards of propriety, legal and ethical concerns, and ultimately self-censorship. Filmmakers often compromise their work by colluding too closely with the aims of sponsors and the film subjects themselves. The author suggests that all these forces pose serious challenges to the ability of filmmakers to represent honestly what they see, resulting in lop-sided portrayals of human experience, particularly in documentary cinema. He argues that it may therefore be necessary to make ‘impolite’ films that challenge viewers’ cultural rigidity and ethnocentrism.

in The looking machine
David MacDougall

This chapter addresses the problem of portraying space in the cinema and the position the film viewer imagines himself or herself to occupy when watching a film. Beginning with the rendering of depth in early films, the author argues that this was never the important question; rather, it was the question of how the viewer related to sensations of being included or excluded by the images on the screen. The sense of exclusion was partly resolved through editing techniques such as the shot/counter-shot technique that incorporated the viewer in the action and also by employing deep focus and proximity to close objects, as in the films of Orson Welles. Equally important were narratives that involved the viewer through identification with the characters, as well as the culturally constructed ‘cinema of familiarity’ of genre films and the work of certain filmmakers such as Ozu. Although none of the methods employed fully succeeded in overcoming the problem of cinematic space, the author argues that, at least in nonfiction cinema, filmmakers can limit it by being more open about their own intentions and the limitations of the medium.

in The looking machine
David MacDougall

In this chapter the author notes that, for some people, ‘observation’ connotes an attitude of surveillance. Despite this, the term is a useful summation of the original documentary idea, which was to show viewers as accurately as possible what the filmmaker had seen. ‘Observational cinema’ emerged as one of several closely related documentary approaches of the 1960s, with close ties to anthropology. Unlike other forms, it placed the filmmaker at the centre of the film as an investigator of on-going events, a position shared with the viewer. This approach was encouraged by the introduction of new, light-weight cameras and sound recorders and was inspired partly by Italian Neorealism and partly by live television. While often perceived as aspiring to detachment and scientific objectivity, it was in fact a highly authored form, involving a close relationship between filmmaker and subject, and representing the limited point of view of the individual observer. The author argues that while the long camera take is often regarded as the primary characteristic of observational cinema, its true marker is a commitment to the sustained witnessing of specific events. A further consequence of observational filmmaking is that it has stimulated reflection on what it means to observe.

in The looking machine