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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
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This Introduction first describes the investment of around £10 million made by British television in films based directly on academic ethnographic research during a ‘golden era’ running from the late 1960s to the mid-1990s. During this period, British television also supported a large number of ‘para-ethnographic’ films, which although not based directly on academic research, also involved a prolonged period of participant-observation by the film-makers. It then considers the relationship between television film-makers and their academic consultants, arguing that although the requirement to make films for a mass audience could be constraining in some respects, there were also many benefits to be gained for both parties. Finally, it suggests that in requiring film-makers to shape their work according to certain stylistic and organisational norms, British television acted as a sort of meta-author of ethnographic film-making.

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This Introduction explains that the last part of the book offers what is freely acknowledged to be no more than a partial selection, in both senses of the word, of recent films that seem to the author to have had a significant impact and/or which suggest potentially fruitful models for the future of the genre of ethnographic film.

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Films of re-enactment in the post-war period

This chapter compares two re-enactment projects carried out in the mid-1960s: the Netsilik project directed by Asen Balikci in an Inuit community of the Canadian Arctic and a project directed by Ian Dunlop with Aboriginal people in Central Australia. It argues that projects such as these posed contradictory demands: on the one hand, in order to have archival value, it was believed that they should constitute entirely objective records; on the other hand, they necessarily involved authorial intervention so that the subjects would recreate forms of living that they no longer lived in reality. The chapter shows how these two projects had very different outcomes in accordance with the technical strategies adopted. Although re-enactment projects were later criticised, the chapter concludes by arguing that despite the contradictions on which they were based, both these projects represent highly valuable contributions to ethnographic film history.

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Sharing anthropology

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.

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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.

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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.

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The five projects discussed in this final chapter were all carried out on the basis of a participatory film-making praxis and in the course of extended immersive ethnographic fieldwork. As such, they are offered as a range of possible models for future ethnographic film-making. The first project concerns a series of films made for a cultural mapping project aimed at establishing the land rights of a displaced San people in South Africa. The second consists of a Rouchian ethnofiction made in collaboration with transgendered people in São Paulo, Brazil. In the third case, which consists of a film about the relationship between the living and the dead in a Melanesian community, the film is constructed around the relationship between the subjects and the ethnographer, who appears on screen. The fourth case consists of a series of films about women’s lives among the Hamar people of Ethiopia. Although in this case the ethnographer does not appear on screen, these films too are clearly dependent on her relationship with the subjects over thirty years. In the final case, the ethnographer presents himself as an apprentice, sitting both literally and metaphorically at the feet of a West African master hunter.

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The early films of John Marshall and Timothy Asch

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.

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The films of David and Judith MacDougall in Africa and Australia

In the mid-1970s, the terms ‘reflexivity’ and ‘participation’ became commonplace in discussions of English-language ethnographic film. Their emergence was associated with the recognition that the production of objective film records was an illusion and that the participation of the film-maker in the lives of the subjects should be acknowledged in an openly ‘reflexive’ manner. This primarily epistemological issue was overlain by the more ethical and political concern that the role of the subjects themselves in the making of an ethnographic film should also be acknowledged. This chapter analyses the contribution of David and Judith MacDougall in developing this more reflexive and participatory praxis, first in their work with pastoralist groups in East Africa, and later with Aboriginal communities in Australia.

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