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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

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
Films of the Sensory Ethnography Lab
Paul Henley

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
Paul Henley

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.

in Beyond observation
Open Access (free)
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
The films of David and Judith MacDougall in Africa and Australia
Paul Henley

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.

in Beyond observation
Open Access (free)
Beyond the burden of the real
Paul Henley

This chapter begins with an overview of Gardner’s career. This was of similar duration to that of Rouch, but very different in that Gardner made films in many different parts of the world, never staying long enough in any one place to learn the local language or get to know his subjects well. It is argued that this was only one of several respects in which Gardner’s praxis was at odds with certain central tenets of anthropology as an academic discipline. Another was his frank admission that he was more interested in what his subjects’ lives signified to him as an observer than in how they themselves might understand them. The chapter continues with a consideration of Gardner’s praxis as a cinematographer,, which while being technically highly skilled, very rarely involved any kind of reflexivity or verbal engagement with the subjects. The remainder of the chapter is dedicated to a discussion of Gardner’s praxis as an editor, drawing extensively on his masterwork, Forest of Bliss, a film about cremation procedures at the Hindu holy city of Varanasi.

in Beyond observation
Open Access (free)
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
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
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