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A history of authorship in ethnographic film

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.

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.

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The principles of Observational Cinema

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

After an initial discussion of the tepid reception of television ethnographic films by academic anthropologists, this chapter charts the decline of this kind of programming in the 1990s. Although there were temporary resurgences, the overall pattern was one of retreat. By 2000, films based directly on academic ethnographic research had all but disappeared. During this period, there had however been a number of high quality para-ethnographic series, including two series on China made by Phil Agland and a number of films by Kim Longinotto about women contesting restrictive gender roles in different locations around the world. But these too became rare after 2000. If ethnographic film still exists at all on British television today, it is largely because anthropology graduates continue to enter the industry, bringing an ethnographic sensibility to their work. The chapter concludes by considering the legacies of the ‘golden era’. These include the films themselves, which are still widely used in teaching. They also include the Granada Centre for Visual Anthropology, which since its foundation in 1987 has trained several hundred people in ethnographic film-making.

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The complexities of collaborative authorship

During the 1970s and 1980s, having previously sought to make films in an objective manner, certain leading ethnographic film-makers adopted more reflexive and participatory praxes. These film-makers included Timothy Asch who worked with Patsy Asch in Indonesia, Ian Dunlop who worked with the Yolngu of northwest Australia, and John Marshall who made a series of adversarial films about the situation of the San community whom he had known since the 1950s. The chapter also considers the collaborative project of Sarah Elder and Leonard Kamerling with the Alaskan Yup’ik. It concludes that while there can often be a genuine overlap of interests between subjects and film-makers, notably with regard to recording traditional custom for future generations, there is also almost always a certain mismatch, primarily because the film-makers seek to address an external audience, whereas the subjects have in mind an internal one. In reconciling these interests, film-makers could find themselves producing films that spoke neither for themselves, nor for the subjects, which meant, in effect, that they spoke for no one. Some film-makers reacted to this situation by reverting to a less actively collaborative praxis while simultaneously encouraging the subjects to make their own films.

in Beyond observation
Recent films of David and Judith MacDougall

This chapter considers the MacDougalls’ films after they left the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies in the late 1980s. Since then, they have produced fifteen films, representing almost half their total oeuvre to date. While they have continued to draw upon key elements of Observational Cinema, they have also expanded this praxis through experimentation and innovation. One important difference with the earlier work is that only two films have involved both of them. Of the remainder, two were made by Judith working alone, while all the others were solo works by David. Another difference is that only the first two films were shot on 16 mm: the remainder were shot on digital video. All but two films were shot in India and these mostly concern children on the threshold of adolescence living in predominantly educational institutions. This particular focus was a reflection of David’s developing conviction that, far from representing a progression from childhood, adulthood often involves a ‘paring down of children’s discoveries’. The chapter concludes that though these recent films have been quite varied, what they have in common with the MacDougalls’ earlier work is immersive fieldwork, a collaborative relationship with the subjects, and a high degree of film craft.

in Beyond observation
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Authorship, praxis, observation, ethnography

This outlines the general arguments on which the book is based and specifies the way in which certain key terms are used, including ‘authorship’, ‘praxis’, ‘observation’ and, most importantly, ‘ethnography’. It proposes that ethnographic film-making should be thought of, not as a ‘way of looking’, but rather a ‘way of doing’, or more concisely, a ‘praxis’, that in addition to the purely visual and observational covers a range of other aspects of authoring a film, including recording sound, developing a narrative, establishing a relationship with the subjects and offering an ethnographic analysis. It is then argued that the status of a film as ethnographic should depend on the degree to which its praxis conforms to the norms of ethnographic practice as more generally defined at the time that it was made. However, it is acknowledged that this can also be a relative matter, thereby allowing a diverse range of films to be admitted to the category ‘ethnographic’.

in Beyond observation
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This introduction distinguishes between the key terms ‘documentation’ and ‘documentary’ and outlines the metatheme of the seven chapters making up this part of the book. It argues that because of a tendency to see the exercise of authorship in film-making and ethnographic value as mutually incompatible, throughout the history of ethnographic film-making, there has been a tendency to deny, sidestep or control for authorship, or to consign it either to the subjects or to the audience. It proposes that because of this failure to embrace authorship, coupled with a lack of technical competence, ethnographers working in the period prior to the Second World War left a very slight filmic legacy. Fortunately, however, film-makers with very different motivations, ranging from the propagandistic to the commercial, actively embraced authorship, producing films that, after the fact, have often been acclaimed as masterworks of ethnographic cinema.

in Beyond observation
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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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