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Indigenous media and the Video nas Aldeias project

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.

The definition of ‘indigenous media’

If the emergence of portable sychronous sound in the 1960s was fundamental to the emergence of more overtly participatory modes of ethnographic film authorship over the following decade, a further technological development in the 1970s facilitated a film-making praxis in which those who had traditionally been only the subjects of ethnographic films could become the authors of their own films about their lives. This technological development took the form of portable, easy-to-use and, above all, cheap analog video camcorders. 1

The widespread availability of this new technology from the late 1970s led to a great efflorescence of projects across the globe aimed at empowering ‘subaltern’ groups – that is, those who are in in some sense politically disadvantaged – by teaching them to make films that could serve to raise awareness of common problems and interests within the group, and which could then communicate these issues to outsiders, including, most importantly, other groups in a similar situation to their own. In the global North, these projects have involved such diverse groups as ethnic minorities, senior citizens and unemployed young people while in the global South, video has been a tool of ‘development communication’ for similarly diverse groups, including peasant farmers, women's credit cooperatives and street children. In the Americas and Australasia particularly, a number of anthropologists and others took advantage of this new technology to encourage the development of film-making projects among communities – variously described as indigenous, First Nations or Aboriginal – who had previously featured strongly in the canon of ethnographic film as subjects.

In the 1980s, Faye Ginsburg coined the term ‘indigenous media’ to refer very specifically to these self-representational film-making projects among culturally distinctive minorities living within the ‘settler states’ that arose as result of European colonial expansion. In her original usage, the ‘media’ part of the term referred not merely to the films themselves as physical artefacts but also to the fact that these films serve to ‘mediate’, that is, both to represent and impact upon social relations, both within the groups that produced them and between those groups and outsiders. Typically, she argued, ‘indigenous media’ productions are concerned with healing the ‘ruptures in time and history’ brought about by contact with the settler states. As such, they can be both ‘assertive and conservative’ of local identities, on the one hand documenting injustices and demanding reparations, while on the other seeking to conserve a record of traditional subsistence, religious or ceremonial practices. 2

Subsequently, other authors have sought to apply the term ‘indigenous media’ to community film-making projects taking place within polities that are not ‘settler states’, at least not in the classic European colonial mould, such as, for example, the People's Republic of China, Taiwan and Russia. The term has also been applied within Europe, including to projects among the Saami in northern Scandinavia, and even to Welsh-language programming on television in the UK. This broadening of usage has been accompanied by some scholarly debate as to whether it is appropriate to use the term ‘indigenous’ in relation to these further instances of community-based film-making, given the diversity of meanings that this term has across the world. 3

Even when used in the restricted sense originally envisaged by Ginsburg (i.e. in relation to film-making by members of communities in the Americas and Australasia), ‘indigenous media’ is a term that has come to be applied to a very wide range of productions – technically, editorially and budgetarily – from major feature-length fiction films with substantial budgets that have been screened at the Sundance and Cannes film festivals to ultra low-budget videos about such practical matters as the use of pesticides, forest management and the sinking of water boreholes. In between lie many other forms, including, activist films of various kinds, melodramas and music videos, the latter being a form that is increasingly used by younger members of indigenous communities not merely as a vehicle for musical performance as such but also as a means of expressing social and political ideas through the lyrics. All these various forms of ‘indigenous media’ production have intensified and diversified considerably over the last two decades as the Web has made it increasingly easy to distribute such media productions at minimal cost.

A comprehensive treatment of the vast range of different activities going on across the world that have been, or could be, classed under the umbrella of ‘indigenous media’ lies far beyond the possibilities of this chapter. Ginsburg herself has published a relatively recent review of this proliferating field, paying particular attention to the emergence of indigenous television stations in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Taiwan and in certain countries in Latin America (notably Mexico and Bolivia), as well as to the emergence of ‘Fourth Cinema’, that is, internationally distributed fictional feature films that not only treat indigenous themes, but are produced according to indigenous ideas about collaborative authorship. While outsiders, including in some cases anthropologists and ethnographic film-makers, might have contributed in the early days to the emergence of a few of the more high-profile contributions to the indigenous mediascape, it is clear that the relative importance of these outsider contributions has long been superseded in most instances by that of the indigenous media producers themselves. 4

In this chapter, I confine myself to a very limited arena within the general field of indigenous media, namely, an overview historical account of projects in which ethnographers and other outsiders have played a leading role as enablers of film-making by indigenous communities, with a particular emphasis on projects in Amazonia, as this is where my own regional expertise as an anthropologist lies. In the latter part of the chapter, I give more detailed consideration to the Video nas Aldeais project in Brazil, one of the most successful and long-running of indigenous media projects in the world, but still strangely under-appreciated in the English-language literature.

In considering these examples, I am particularly concerned to assess what the existence of these indigenous media projects implies for the other modes of ethnographic film authorship discussed here. Do indigenous media complement or add to these other modes of film-making, or do they, in fact, simply make them obsolete? At the very least, as Ginsburg has commented, the emergence of indigenous media means that external ethnographic film-makers no longer have a monopoly on the visual representation of cultural difference, thus providing the opportunity for a ‘salutary dialogue’ between practitioners of the two forms. But some authors have gone further, arguing that indigenous media render all ethnographic film-making by outsiders no longer necessary. If the ultimate goal of ethnography, as formulated by Malinowski himself, is ‘to grasp the native's point of view … to realise his vision of his world’, then surely, these authors contend, this function is now fulfilled by indigenous media. As Jay Ruby has asked, in his characteristically forthright way, ‘If anthropologists want to see the world through native eyes, why don't they simply watch their videos?’  5

Film-making and culture

When projects to introduce video technology to culturally distinctive minority communities, such as indigenous groups in Amazonia or Aboriginal communities in Australia, were first developed in the 1980s, certain authors argued that given that the whole apparatus of film-making is so burdened with hegemonic Western cultural values, far from empowering these communities, as the initiators of these projects liked to claim, the new technology in fact undermined those communities’ own distinctive values and thereby served to subjugate them even further. 6

That film-making, be it for fictional or non-fictional purposes, embodies certain specific values is surely beyond doubt. In the sense that these values are not given in nature, but are the product of human invention, one must necessarily describe them as ‘cultural’ in the broadest sense. There are certain values of this kind embedded in the very technology itself, in relation, for example, to the aspect ratio of framing, the rendering of colour and the perspective offered by standard camera lenses. There is also a whole series of conventions associated with the ‘language’ of film, be it to do with matters of detail such as the use of close-ups, or more generally, in relation to issues of characterisation and narrative structure. Film-making also poses a raft of culturally variable issues to do with what it is appropriate to see, by whom and under what circumstances, as well as with questions of ownership over images and the right to make the representations in the first place. It also entails certain fundamental philosophical or epistemological assumptions, which also cannot be taken as natural givens, about the relationship between the visible exterior of the human body and interior psychology, about the hierarchy of importance between sound and vision, and perhaps most fundamentally, about the relationship between representational realism and objective reality. 7

As film-making technology was first invented and developed in the West, there is a tendency to assume that all the cultural values associated with its use are therefore ‘Western’. From there, it is a short step to conclude that the diffusion of film-making technology propagates Western values and serves therefore to reinforce Western political power. However, this conclusion begs many intermediate questions. In the first place, although the technology and the conventions associated with its use may indeed have first been developed in the West, this does not necessarily mean that the values associated with this technology are exclusive to the West: they may also be shared by other cultural traditions, at least to some degree. The fact that this technology has been adopted so enthusiastically in the geographical East, and that it is in Asia that most of this technology is now manufactured, certainly suggests that these values are not exclusively Western.

But even if one were to accept the argument that the values associated with this technology were exclusively Western, at least in origin, this would not necessarily entail that they serve to propagate Western political power: these values may be neutral in their effects, they may be adopted so enthusiastically that they become an integral part of a given non-Western culture, or they may even be turned around so that they can be used against Western political power. As Ginsburg has argued, the view that the effect of the new technology will be necessarily destructive of non-Western values depends in great measure upon an anachronistic conception of culture as static and unchanging so that, by definition, any innovation is necessarily negative in its consequences. She argues rather for a more dynamic conception of culture and cultural identities as processes that are in a state of constant construction and transformation, within which new signifying practices such as media production may be accommodated in a positive fashion without any necessary loss of cultural identity. 8

Some early case studies

Ultimately, one might think, the question of the degree to which, or the form in which, the values associated with film-making technology can be reconciled with ideas about visual representation in non-Western societies is a matter that could be resolved by a series of empirical case studies. But isolating the various factors involved is easier said than done. In practice, in the relatively few systematic studies that have been carried out of self-representational film-making by non-Western groups, it has generally proved very difficult to disentangle the effects that arise from simple lack of experience in the use of the medium from those that could be attributed to local cultural norms.

The first and most celebrated study of this kind took place even before the development of cheap video technology. This was the project directed by John Adair and Sol Worth in the Navajo community at Pine Springs, Arizona, in 1966. Whereas later video-based self-representational projects have usually been motivated by an intention to empower the film-makers’ communities politically, this was more in the nature of a social scientific field experiment. Lasting a total of two months, its aim was to explore how cultural factors might influence the way that individuals use film as a medium of communication. With the assistance of the now-eminent anthropologist Richard Chalfen, then a graduate student, Worth and Adair gave seven Navajo a minimal, non-prescriptive training in basic film-making techniques, based on spring-wound 16 mm cameras. They used black and white film, and there was no provision for the recording of sound. The participants were then invited to make films about whatever was important to them.

Most of them chose straightforward local themes: traditional crafts (weaving and silversmithing), healing practices, the construction of a new well. However, one film-maker, Alfred Clah, who was an art student in Santa Fe, New Mexico at the time, made a more abstract film, entitled Intrepid Shadows. This explored movements, shapes and shadows in the natural environment and features an anonymous intruder, apparently identified with the film-maker himself since this intruder is wearing a traditional Yeibechai mask modified by the addition of a vertical film-strip on the face and a ‘nose’ resembling a camera lens (figure 7.1, left). These films were subsequently distributed as a collective compilation work entitled Navajo Film Themselves . 9

7.1 Navajo Film Themselves (1966). Intrepid Shadows, left, featured a character in a traditional mask modified by a vertical strip resembling film stock and a ‘nose’ suggesting a camera lens. Right, in The Navajo Silversmith, the main character walks a great deal, associated by Worth and Adair with the ‘long journey’ trope of Navajo story-telling.

Worth and Adair concluded that the films produced by the Navajo featured certain narrative codes that distinguished them quite clearly from the first films made by Anglo-Americans. As a particularly significant example, they noted that there was a marked tendency to include a great deal of walking through the natural environment, not just as a bridge between two places or activities, but as a focus of interest in itself (figure 7.1, right). This they associated with the strong emphasis on travel and the ‘long journey’ in the narratives of traditional Navajo myths and stories. However, some subsequent commentators have asked whether this preoccupation with walking was not merely a sign of the film-makers’ lack of expertise. 10

Another complication arises from the fact that by the time that non-Western novice film-makers gain access to the technology, they have usually been exposed to Western media as viewers, through television or feature films, and therefore are likely to have already been influenced by Western media values. This was certainly the case with the Navajo, and it has also generally been the case with the more recent self-representational video projects involving non-Western film-makers in the Americas and Australasia. Even in instances where this prior exposure has been minimal or non-existent, as in certain cases in Amazonia, it is arguable that the very process of instructing the indigenous people in the use of the technology already serves to inhibit them from using it in their own culturally idiosyncratic manner.

Yet notwithstanding the difficulty of carrying out any kind of strictly controlled test, there is certainly some evidence to suggest that the values embedded in the technology are not so overwhelming as to make it impossible for film-makers from non-Western backgrounds to make non-fiction films that represent, in some degree, a response to their own cultural norms of representation. This may be in relation not just to the aesthetic characteristics of the films themselves, but also in relation to the way in which the production of the films is organised.

In a pioneering study of video production in the Warlpiri Aboriginal community of Yuendumu in the 1980s, Eric Michaels identified various ways in which the films produced by the Warlpiri film-makers reflected distinctively Aboriginal cultural values. Mostly this concerned the impact of prior kinship relationships on the control of the equipment and on who appeared in the films, but Michaels also discerned some more aesthetic effects. For example, in a film in which an old man related a well-known story about a notorious massacre of Aboriginal people by police in the 1920s, the man walked into the field of the camera from a considerable distance. Michaels associates this with ‘bringing in the Dreaming’ at the beginning of a traditional ceremony, whereby the performers dance into the ceremonial ground from the particular direction from which the ancestral story underlying their performance is deemed to have come. The same film also featured many long pans over the landscape, punctuated by zooms in and out, which, as the cameraman explained in a later interview, was a conscious reference to ancestral Dreamtime tracks. 11

Similarly, in his analysis of films produced by Kayapo film-makers involved in the Kayapo Video Project that he enabled in Central Brazil in the early 1990s, Terence Turner identified various ways in which these films reflected certain key Kayapo ideas about social relations and aesthetics (figure 7.2). In Turner's earliest ethnographic writings about the Kayapo, which predate their use of video, a recurrent theme is the way in which social and political relations are actively created and maintained through public political dialogues and by ceremonial performances. These social and political relations are also sustained through the elaborate forms of body decoration and ceremonial regalia for which the Kayapo are justly famous. Turner argued that for the Kayapo, the camcorder represented a highly effective means for recording these socially generative forms of public performance and corporeal expression. He also stressed that from the Kayapo point of view, the motivation for making these recordings was not merely to contribute to the video archive that he had set up as an integral part of the Kayapo Video Project; equally significant, indeed perhaps more so, these video recordings were also a way of increasing the publicly perceived importance of the performances being recorded, while at the same time conferring prestige on the person actually doing the recording.

7.2 Left, Mokuka, of the Kayapo Video Project, at a rally in 1989 to protest against the Altamira dam on the Xingu River. Right, the Kayapo also use camcorders to record traditional ceremonies.

Turner also discerned distinctively Kayapo qualities in the aesthetic characteristics of the films themselves. He noted that the Kayapo spontaneously tended to shoot long shots, alternating pans and midshots while avoiding extreme close-ups of the face. Once in the edit suite, they showed little interest in cutting this material down, which Turner attributed to fact that the elimination of material would clash with one of the central principles of Kayapo thought, whereby social and cultural life is conceived of as a constant, repetitive but also cumulative reiteration of certain foundational schemas laid down at the dawn of time. In collective ceremonies, these principles of replication and reiteration are played out in successive repetitions of the same dance patterns, with each performance increasing in social value as it integrates additional elements. For the Kayapo, this represents the pinnacle of beauty, both as an aesthetic ideal and as a moral and social principle. Thus, Turner proposed, in preserving every repetition of every performance, each with its successive increment of regalia and participants, the Kayapo editor, far from proving himself to be merely inexperienced, as the sceptic might suppose, was in fact replicating the reiterative structure of the ceremony itself and thereby producing a visual representation that in Kayapo terms is supremely beautiful. 12

This concern to identify enduring non-Western attributes in the films produced by non-Western film-makers is, of course, an entirely valid goal of ethnographic enquiry. However, there is a risk that in pursuing this goal too intently, one can come to endorse the same static view of culture as those who presume that the effects of the new technology will necessarily be destructive. In the absence of any firm ethnographic evidence one way or another as to the precise cultural effects of film-making technology, I would argue on first principles that it is surely inevitable that the Kayapo, in common with other non-Western film-makers, take on board certain new values when they use film-making technology, particularly if they seek to address Western audiences. Yet this need not necessarily be a negative matter, nor need it necessarily undermine their distinctive non-Western identity more generally. As Mokuka, one of the leading contributors to the Kayapo Video Project, famously asked during a visit to a film festival that we organised in Manchester in 1992, does the fact that he is holding a camera mean that he is no longer a Kayapo? The answer to this must surely be a resounding ‘no’.

But more fundamental in my view than any of these questions about the cultural freight of non-fiction film-making processes, and certainly of greater significance for the general arguments of this book, is the more ethical and political question posed by indigenous media projects, namely, how should these insider accounts be assessed relative to those produced by outsiders with ethnographic objectives? For, however good, or however poor, the fit between the values embedded in film-making technology and the pre-existing values of the community engaged in a self-representational project, the films that emerge from those projects are, by definition, insider accounts and are therefore bound to be different from those produced by outsiders. From an ethnographic point of view, are they merely different, or is one form of representation in some sense more valuable than the other?

Insider versus outsider perspectives

At first sight, indigenous media projects might seem to offer an effective solution to the sometimes seemingly intractable political or ethical issues raised by ethnographic film-making when this is in the hands of outsiders. In some situations, local communities may have become so deeply suspicious of films made by outsiders that self-representation might be the only form of film authorship that they will accept. However, this is far from being universally the case. According to Turner, the Kayapo positively welcome films made by outsiders, and do not see them in any way as being at odds with, or in contradiction to, their own self-representational productions. 13

On looking at the proposition more closely, the limitations of the idea that all ethnographic film-making can now simply be consigned to the subjects soon become apparent. There is, first of all, the general methodological point that, notwithstanding the Malinowskian rhetoric, ethnography does not consist merely of reproducing, in a literal manner, the ‘native's point of view’. Certainly, a descriptive account of the social life of a given community by a member of that community can be of great ethnographic value. But for the reasons discussed at some length in the General Introduction to this book, in order to produce an ethnographic account that goes beyond the merely descriptive, it is also necessary to engage in some form of ethnographic analysis. This applies whether or not there is any major cultural difference between the observer and the observed. That is, it is as true of an account of life in a Californian research laboratory as it is of an account of life in a remote Amazonian village. Insiders can also certainly engage in such analyses and often do, but these analyses are certainly likely to be very different from those of outsiders.

This point also applies regardless of the specific medium of ethnographic representation. There is no more reason for assuming that self-representation using video technology can replace ethnographic film-making by outsiders than there is for suggesting that ethnographic literature has become redundant now that most subjects studied by present-day ethnographers can write, and could therefore produce their own written accounts of their lives, or if they are not literate, could at least speak their thoughts into an audio recorder.

The differences between a self-representational indigenous media account of the life of a given community and the representation that might be produced by an outside ethnographer can be compared to the differences between autobiography and biography in relation to the life of an individual: both offer perspectives that are simultaneously privileged and partial, each in its own particular way.

The fact that film-making is undertaken by insiders is no guarantee that it will not give rise to political or ethical problems since it is rare, whatever the nature of the community, for there to be complete unanimity about how social life should be understood, let alone about how it should be represented. In practice, indigenous media film-making usually falls into the hands of young people, mostly young men, because only they have the interest and, even more importantly, the lack of social commitments that allows them the time necessary to acquire the skills. As in any community, these young people will often view their society in a manner that is quite unlike those of their parents and therefore they will have very different ideas about what should be filmed.

This was the case, for example, with the project in which my then-student Carlos Flores became involved when carrying out his doctoral research in Esperanza Chilatz, a Q’eqchi’ Maya community in Alta Verapaz, Guatemala, in the mid-1990s. This project was first developed by a group of young people who were receiving funding that came from various international agencies but which had been channelled through the local Catholic church and the central Guatemalan government (figure 7.3, left). When Carlos arrived, the group was engaged in making films about development-related topics, such as community health issues or the activities of work cooperatives. Carlos then suggested that they should also make films about traditional Mayan religious ceremonies connected with the planting of crops or life-cycle rituals. This idea was warmly welcomed by older members of the community but to his surprise the film-makers themselves were initially reluctant to tackle such topics. It was only later that he realised that this reluctance was due to the fact that in suggesting this change of focus, he was undermining the position of the young film-makers as ‘brokers of modernity’ and re-empowering the older generation, whose authority had recently been greatly weakened by the civil war that had recently afflicted the region. 14

7.3 Modes of collaboration. Left, a Q’echqi’ Maya crew enquire about the planting of maize in the community of Esperanza Chilatz, Guatemala, April–May 1995; right, In Search of a Bororo Mr. Right (2019) – a romantic comedy with an ethnographic subtext.

Clearly, in communities split by political factions or other social divisions, it is even less likely that the films produced through indigenous media projects will be approved or welcomed by everyone. This may not be anything to do with the actual content of the films; it may simply be on account of the prestige that the act of film-making itself or even the mere possession of the equipment confers. Among the Warlpiri, Michaels found that film-making skills, like many other forms of specialist knowledge in Aboriginal society, became a kind of private property with the result that those who possessed it were reluctant to pass it on to others unless they stood in a particular kinship relationship to themselves. Similarly, in the case of the Kayapo Video Project, Turner discovered, to his chagrin, that guardianship of the cameras that he had introduced became the subject of intense political rivalry, not because they allowed those who held the cameras to control the content of the representations made about the community, but simply on account of the status of the cameras themselves as prestige items. 15

There are also a series of very pragmatic reasons why it is simply not realistic to rely exclusively on self-representational indigenous media projects as a means of audiovisual ethnography. In the first place, it would be optimistic to presume that large numbers of indigenous groups around the world are anxiously waiting for the opportunity to make films about themselves for the edification of ethnographers. The recent experience of another of my doctoral students, Flavia Kremer, is instructive in this regard. During the fieldwork that she carried out in a Bororo community of Central Brazil in 2011–12, she sought to interest a group of young women to work with her to develop video film-making skills. Her hope was that in doing so she would be able ‘to give something back’ to the community for allowing her to carry out her research there. But, to her great disappointment, the response was poor. Some young women did express an interest in learning how to take photographs and envisaged using these new skills to put up images on their Facebook pages. But there was little interest in dedicating time and effort to making a film about the remarkable endurance of traditional marriage patterns among the Bororo, which was the topic that particularly interested Flavia herself. In the end, rather than develop a self-representational project, Flavia opted instead to work with two young women on making a collaborative ethnofiction, which she herself shot, and in which these two women visit a distant village in search of a potential husband of the traditionally correct social category. The result was a sort of romantic comedy with an underlying ethnographic subtext. This proved to be a much more effective way of engaging in a collaborative project around a topic of common interest than going through the lengthy procedure of training her subjects to make films themselves. Although the situation that the film created was fictional in the sense that it had been entirely set up by Flavia, the two young women did in fact encounter a young man of the ‘right’ kinship category whom they both found so attractive that at first they were barely able to speak to him (figure 7.3, right). 16

Another pragmatic consideration is that even when self-representational projects have taken off well, they have often proved difficult to sustain once the initial impetus and funding provided by outsiders comes to an end. Almost twenty-five years after its foundation, in 2014, the Kayapo Video Project was still in operation, but only fitfully, and was still dependent on inputs from outsiders. 17 But the self-representational video-making project among the Venezuelan Yanomami that Timothy Asch announced in the early 1990s has disappeared without trace, seemingly without producing any films, certainly none that is easily accessible. 18

The reasons for this vulnerability are not surprising: maintaining the cameras, editing and storing the films, distributing them afterwards, all involve a commitment of resources that the members of such communities typically do not have. But the most significant issue is usually motivation: once the outside enablers of these projects have left, who are the indigenous film-makers making their films for? If they are making them at all, it will be for local people rather than for outsiders. As such, there is no guarantee that they will tackle ethnographic topics of interest to outsiders, nor even that the films that they produce will be comprehensible to outsiders since they could well depend on taken-for-granted knowledge that will be obvious to any insider but completely opaque to an external audience.

Yet another pragmatic issue concerns technical film-making skills. Learning to operate a modern digital camera is not difficult: they are generally very user-friendly and can function in a wide range of lighting conditions. Today, many young indigenous film-makers, like young people generally, can quickly master the basic functions. Conceptually, meanwhile, the idea of using the camera to make a copy of the world is not a complex notion to take on board. Although there is obviously a great deal more to skilled camerawork than simply pressing the ‘on’ button and copying the world as seen through viewfinder, the functional operation of a moving image camera is not the obstacle that it once was.

However, operating an edit suite is not only technically more complex than operating a camera, but conceptually more complex too. With the arrival of digital technology, editing systems may have become cheaper, easier to operate and portable, but this has done nothing to diminish the conceptual complexities associated with the transformation of the copy of the world produced by a camera into a film with some sort of narrative structure or argument. It is on account of these complexities that editing remains not only the film-making skill that takes the longest time to acquire but is also the point in the film-making process at which culturally variable values about the relationship of representation to reality are most likely – literally – to enter the frame.

In my experience, Western ethnographic film students often have difficulty in mastering the process of editing and what little evidence there is suggests that non-Western novice film-makers not only also find it difficult, but may not even regard it as significant. Eric Michaels found the Warlpiri reluctant to dedicate time to editing and even when they did do so, they were reluctant to cut anything out. For his part, Terence Turner observed that even when the Kayapo Video Project was at its most active, the difference between a fully edited and an unedited video appeared not to be culturally significant for the Kayapo in the sense that they were just as willing to watch unexpurgated rushes as a film edited in a polished manner.

Similarly, in his collaborative work with Q’eqchi’ Maya film-makers, Carlos Flores noted that the film-makers’ lack of interest in the editorial process contrasted markedly with their enthusiasm for shooting. He attributed this to the fact that the shooting of the film was a very prestigious activity, partly because it was a very visible way of offering a service to the community and partly because it demonstrated the film-makers’ connection with the powerful external sponsors of the project. By contrast, the editing of the film was an activity that, for technical reasons, had to take place in a nearby city and, as such, was invisible to the community. The city was also more his environment than theirs and he also had a better technical command of the editing system. All these factors contributed to the indigenous film-makers’ feeling that they should leave the editing to him. 19

In short, although the quality of films produced through indigenous media projects can be remarkably high given the limited amount of training and experience of their makers, for quite understandable reasons they are often of only a moderate standard in a technical sense. When circulated within the community within which they were made, this may well be of no importance, while for external consumption, indigenous media films can still be of ethnographic interest, whatever the technical quality. This interest may derive simply from their status as descriptive accounts of the communities in which they were produced, but additionally, they may also be ethnographically revealing in some way, be it in relation to the topics chosen for filming, the film-making approach adopted, the relationship between film-makers and fellow community members during filming, or the way in which the films are used afterwards. In a series of publications, Turner has shown, for example, how the display of their use of cameras has become an integral part of the Kayapo strategy of performing their ‘culture’ in an objectified way for external audiences so as to achieve their political objectives on a national and even international stage (figure 7.2, left). 20 However, as a means of ethnographic representation rather than as an object of analysis, indigenous media films can also be very limited, not rising above the purely descriptive documentation of social life.

For all these reasons, it is unrealistic to assume that self-representational indigenous media can act as a direct substitute for ethnographic film-making by outsiders. Rather than thinking of one potentially replacing the other, Faye Ginsburg has suggested that it is more productive to think of the two forms of authorship as operating in the manner of the ‘parallax effect’: in the same way that the slightly different positioning of the two human eyes allows one to see in three dimensions, Ginsburg suggests that the different perspectives offered by indigenous media and ethnographic film-making by outsiders offer the possibility of a more rounded and comprehensive account of the cultural encounters that are taking place in the highly mediatised arenas of the contemporary world. 21

Yet although it might be unrealistic to assume that indigenous media can act as a direct substitute for ethnographic film-making by outsiders, it would also be a mistake to consider them as entirely different enterprises. Both may involve an attempt to communicate across a social or cultural boundary, and to do so successfully requires some sort of accommodation with those lying on the other side of that boundary. Moreover, in practical production terms, neither form of authorship is likely to be entirely autonomous. Outside ethnographic film-makers have generally required the collaboration of their subjects to make their films, while indigenous media film-makers typically depend not only on the technology but often, at least to some extent, on skills and ideas introduced by outsiders. In the same way that in the past, there was a tendency for ethnographic film-makers to minimise the contribution of the subjects to the realisation of their films, so too has there been a tendency to minimise the dependence of indigenous media projects on outside support. 22

In fact, as several contributors to the debate about indigenous media have suggested, one can identify a continuum of productions, ranging from films made by outsiders in the supposedly objective and detached manner recommended by Margaret Mead at one extreme, through the various permutations on collaborative authorship described in Chapters 5 and 6, to self-representational indigenous productions at the other extreme, which themselves range from those that are outward-facing to those that are aimed only at the community in which they were made. In effect then, though their points of departure and underlying objectives may be very different, at the midpoint on this continuum, where productions based on principles of collaborative authorship and outward-facing indigenous media productions meet, the films that emerge from these supposedly radically different processes can be remarkably similar.

The Video nas Aldeias project

An important example of this blurring of boundaries between insider and outsider productions is provided by one of the longest-running indigenous media projects in the world, namely, the Video nas Aldeias (VnA) project in Brazil. This was launched in 1987 by a Brazilian film-maker, Vincent Carelli, with the support of his wife Virgínia Valadão, an anthropologist, as a unit within an activist NGO concerned with indigenous rights, the Conselho do Trabalho Indigenista (CTI). The project is still ongoing, though since 2000 it has been an autonomous NGO in its own right rather than a dependency of the CTI. It has also moved its base from the city of São Paulo to Olinda in Pernambuco State, on the Atlantic Coast.

Although it has been the subject of relatively little attention in the English-language literature of visual anthropology, VnA has been extraordinarily productive: over more than thirty years, it has produced almost 100 films with forty indigenous communities all over the country, on a broad variety of topics and in a broad variety of formats. In doing so, it has provided training to around forty indigenous film-makers. Any profits arising from the distribution of the films are divided on an equitable basis: 35 per cent to the community where a film was made, 35 per cent to the film-makers and 30 per cent to the programme for reinvestment so as to enable further work by or with indigenous film-makers. Though Valadão died unexpectedly at a young age in 1998, Carelli remains one of the directors of the project. 23

In the early years particularly, an important principle for the directors of the VnA project was to maintain their independence from the Brazilian government, especially from FUNAI, the government agency responsible for administering indigenous affairs. In order to finance its activities, VnA has sought funding instead from a broad assortment of international donors. Notable contributors have included the Norwegian government aid agency Norad, UNESCO and the Ford, Volkswagen, Guggenheim, Rockefeller and MacArthur foundations. Only recently, and generally in connection with particular projects, has VnA received funding from the Brazilian government through the ministries of Education, Health and the Environment as well as through various academic research funding bodies, while its website suggests that it also receives funding from the state oil producer, Petrobras. Following the withdrawal of support after twenty-five years by the Norwegian government in 2016, VnA has suffered from funding difficulties, but nevertheless continues to operate.

Since it was first launched, the nature of the films produced by VnA has diversified greatly. Initially, it focused very directly on activist objectives: the immediate aim was to use video to support the political claims of indigenous people to fundamental rights, including rights to land and even rights to life, and to counteract the many negative stereotypes held by non-indigenous Brazilians and reproduced in Brazilian mass media. Another recurrent theme of the films produced by VnA, now as much as then, has been the denunciation of the environmental destruction wrought by logging, ranching, mining and the building of dams in or around indigenous areas. But VnA also wanted to make indigenous people more knowledgeable about audiovisual media and of its potential to do good as well as harm. A very important aspect of this aspect of the project therefore was to use video to make Brazilian indigenous groups aware of one another's existence and in this way build a pan-indigenous consciousness that could be channelled towards the achievement of political objectives.

The goal of building up a pan-indigenous consciousness depended in part on the circulation of films but also on creating the conditions for members of different indigenous communities to get to know one another personally through mutual visiting. A relatively early film that is emblematic of this aspect of the work is Meeting the Ancestors (A Arca dos Zo’é), released in 1993 and directed by Vincent Carelli. This concerns a journey made by a number of Wayampi, an indigenous group who live in the extreme north of Brazil, close to the border with Guyane, and who have been in intermittent contact with the outside world for many years. The purpose of this journey, which was by light aeroplane paid for by VnA, was to visit the Zo’é, a fellow Tupi-speaking group, then only recently contacted, who live hundreds of miles further south, on the other side of the Amazon river. The aim of the visit was for the Wayampi to warn the Zo’é of the dangers arising from contact with the non-indigenous population. The film not only follows the visit itself, but also covers the reactions of the travellers’ fellow Wayampi when the travellers return home and screen footage of the Zo’é on a television supplied by VnA.

When he started the VnA project, Carelli intended merely to put his own film-making skills at the service of indigenous communities. But very soon, his indigenous collaborators began to ask to become directly involved as film-makers themselves. At first, indigenous film-makers were instructed informally and merely shot alongside Carelli and his colleagues; their footage might then be included in the final edited version of the film. This was the case, for example, with Meeting the Ancestors , for which a Wayampi cameraman, Kasiripiña Waiãpi, shot some of the footage (figure 7.4, left). But since 1997, the running of formal film training workshops has been a central part of VnA's work, taking place either in the indigenous communities themselves, or back at the VnA headquarters in São Paulo, and later in Olinda. The workshops in the communities, which typically last up to a month, have become the vehicle not just for training, but also for the making of films while the workshops are going on. As the training programme has been in place for so long, and will often return a number of times to a given indigenous community over a matter of years, several indigenous film-makers have been able to achieve a very high level of skill, both as directors and as camera operators. Perhaps the most accomplished of all is Divino Tserewahú, a Xavante film-maker, who has now been making films through VnA for around twenty years, not only about his own village, but also about other indigenous groups (figure 7.4, right).

7.4 Video nas Aldeas cinematographers. Left, Kasiripinã Waiãpi, who shot additional footage for Meeting the Ancestors (1993); right, Divino Tserewahú, the highly accomplished Xavante cameraman.

However, for all their many merits, both technical and editorial, the degree to which the films produced by the VnA project can be said to represent the views and interests of the indigenous communities where they are made should be finessed in a number of important respects. First of all, those who have gone through the film-making training are predominantly young men: of the thirty-eight indigenous film-makers currently listed on the website, only three are women, also all young. Second, many of them appear to be the offspring of politically important people in their communities, or to hold a government-funded post as a schoolteacher, medical auxiliary, forest ranger or the like. This would appear to confirm a pattern also noted by Turner among the Kayapo, namely, that film-making technology tends to be monopolised by up-and-coming political leaders, predominantly male. So while the VnA films are undoubtedly examples of self-representational indigenous media, they would appear to be representations that are mostly produced by a very particular group defined by gender, age and political prominence.

But the most important qualification on the self-representational nature of the VnA films concerns the editing. Although training in editing has certainly been offered to indigenous people, the great majority of the films listed in the VnA catalogue have involved non-indigenous editors, sometimes working in collaboration with indigenous editors, but often on their own. Nor is the non-indigenous contribution confined merely to the technical process of editing. While many of the films have been directed and shot entirely by indigenous film-makers, the logistical coordination of the productions, and the distribution of the films that arise from these productions, are also predominantly in the hands of non-indigenous members of the VnA organisation. The same would appear to apply to the funding of these projects.

Probably for these reasons, in aesthetic terms the films produced by VnA mostly conform to standard cosmopolitan documentary film-making codes, though within the broad range of works produced by VnA, the precise style of the films has varied considerably in light of the subject matter and the audience at which the films are aimed. Some films are activist documentaries, held together by voice-over narration. In others, a series of indigenous subjects speak directly to camera, denouncing the invasion of their lands and environmental degradation. Some consist of descriptively ethnographic accounts of ceremonial events, intercut with interviews with participants who provide some sort of exegesis. Other films are more historical, and involve extensive use of archival materials. Yet others are about the work of the VnA itself, particularly the training workshops. There are also a number of portrait films of individual indigenous film-makers, including two of Divino Tserewahú. A number of VnA films are straightforward television programmes, aimed at educating the non-indigenous Brazilian public and featuring the usual panoply of television devices such as talking-head interviews, voice-over, a presenter and jolly extra-diegetic music.

Yet this broad variety of formats includes some recurrent aesthetic characteristics. A particularly important one is the commitment to use indigenous languages, usually subtitled into Portuguese and often into other European languages as well. Unless the subject matter warrants a serious tone, there is, in general, a certain playfulness about the way in which indigenous culture is presented in VnA films that contrasts markedly with the often rather sombre tone of much ethnographic film-making by outsiders. This is something that Carelli and his associates have been particularly pleased to encourage since they see it as capturing the great sense of humour that they have encountered among indigenous people. Again in marked contrast to the works of some external film-makers, far from seeking to minimise the presence of the outside world, the VnA film-makers seemingly go out of their way to stress the juxtaposition of traditional indigenous culture with symbols of modernity, for example, by framing indigenous dancers in traditional dress so that the large satellite dish that brings television to their community is very visible behind them. The underlying message here is very clear: indigenous groups can preserve their distinctive cultural identity while also being part of modern Brazil.

Another recurrent feature is the relating of mythological narratives. In the early films particularly, these narratives are sometimes told with the aid of video special effects (which now look rather dated) or, less frequently, animated cartoons. Alternatively, they may be told through re-enactments by members of the community where the filming is taking place, not in any enclosed theatrical space but in the locations of their everyday life – in their collective houses, on the central plaza of the village, or out in the forest. These re-enactments, which are particularly common in the recent films made in the Upper Xingu region, clearly reflect the centrality of mythological narratives to indigenous life, as well as indigenous ideas about performance and its relationship to historical reality. Even so, in formal terms, these re-enactments are shot and edited in a manner that follows standard cosmopolitan film conventions very closely.

Both the form and subject matter of the films produced by VnA underwent a decisive change when the film-maker Mari Corrêa joined the programme in 1998, following the death of Virgínia Valadão. Although she is Brazilian, Corrêa had trained at VARAN, the centre set up in Paris by Jean Rouch and his associates. Through her influence, the films produced by the project began to pay much greater attention to everyday life. Corrêa's concern was to convince indigenous film-makers that their culture inhered not just in dramatic ceremonial display and mythological narratives, but also in how they lived out their lives on a daily basis.

A particularly striking example of this new work was From Ikpeng Children to the World , a video ‘letter to the world’ from children living in the Xingu Park in Central Brazil. This was released in 2001 and featured a group of four Ikpeng children introducing everyday aspects of their life (including even their latrines) as well as certain traditional subsistence techniques of their grandparents. This film was shot and directed by three adult Ikpeng film-makers, including one woman, though it was edited by Corrêa. Later the same team combined again, though this time with Corrêa in a directorial role, to produce a conventional feature-length documentary for adults, Pïrinop , released in 2007 and aimed at international audiences. This film combined present-day footage with archival materials and re-enactment to reconstruct the traumatic period following the Ikpeng's first contact with Brazilians and their enforced transfer to the Xingu Park in the 1960s. 24

In recent years, the films produced by VnA have involved various different combinations of insider and outsider contributions. At one extreme are investigative documentaries, mostly shot, directed and edited by Carelli himself. These films include IauaretêWaterfall of the Jaguars , released in 2006, about the official demarcation of indigenous sacred sites in the Upper Rio Negro; the harrowing Corumbiara , released in 2009, a remarkable first-hand witness account of the contact between isolated indigenous groups and an expanding front of loggers and landowners in Rondônia shot over a twenty-year period; and, most recently of all, the even more disturbing Martírio , released in 2016, which traces the long history of land invasion and violence against the Kaiowa Guarani people who live in the extreme south of Brazil. One could debate the extent to which these films should be described as ethnographic films, but they are certainly of great ethnographic interest, and are clearly based on a close collaborative relationship with the indigenous subjects over an extended period. However, in contrast to many other VnA productions, they do not involve indigenous people in any prominent technical roles.

At the other extreme, VnA has continued to produce works that have been shot and directed entirely by indigenous film-makers, even if they have also involved non-indigenous editors. Some of these films are unambiguously ethnographic. Particularly good examples of this latter kind of work are the films made by two brothers who live in the Xingu Park, Takumã and Maricá Kuikuro. These films include Nguné Elü (The Day the Moon Menstruated), released in 2004, which concerns Kuikuro ideas regarding the link between the moon and menstruation, and Imbé Gikegü (Scent of the Pequi Fruit), released in 2006, which explores the association between the fruit of the pequi tree and fertility. These films combine actuality footage of collective ceremonial dancing and some scenes of everyday life with interviews and the re-enactment of scenes from origin myths. Although a severe critic might point to certain loose ends, particularly in Imbé Gikegü , both films compare well with the work of most outside ethnographic film-makers. One major difference is that as the two brothers are filming their family and friends, a wonderful degree of intimacy with the subjects emanates from the films that no external film-maker could ever hope to match.

In this particular case then, if an anthropologist wanted to know how the Kuikuro view the world, or at least the particular questions of how they view the relationship between the moon and menstruation, or between the pequi fruit and fertility, they would indeed do well to follow Jay Ruby's advice and simply watch their videos. But accomplished though they may be as ethnographic films, they could not in any sense be considered the result of the efforts of Takumã and Maricá alone. As indicated in the credits – entirely openly – these films were made during the course of various VnA training workshops in the film-makers’ community and were edited by Leonardo Sette, a non-indigenous Brazilian contributor to VnA, trained in Cuba and France. Two distinguished non-indigenous anthropologists, Carlos Fausto and Bruna Franchetto, are credited with being ‘advisers’, while Carelli and Corrêa are credited with being ‘co-ordinators’.

More recently, the same team worked together again, with some reshuffling of roles, to make The Hyperwomen , a feature-length documentary, released in 2011. This concerns the Janurikumalu, a Kuikuru women's festival, variants of which were once performed throughout the Upper Xingu region, which has a certain renown in the literature of Amazonist anthropology on account of the overt teasing of male sexual prowess that it involves. The Hyperwomen was jointly directed by Sette and Fausto, co-directed and shot by Takumã and two other Kuikuro cameramen, and produced by Carelli. It is an ethnographic film of the highest technical and editorial quality, and has been screened at a number of major documentary film festivals (figure 7.5).

7.5 The Hyperwomen (2011). This film about the Janurikumalu ceremony was shot and co-directed by the indigenous cinematographer Takumã Kuikuru.

However, as is clear from Eu já virei espirito (I Have Already Become A Spirit), released in 2013, which describes the making of The Hyperwomen , jointly directed by Fausto and Takumã and shot by Carelli, the ceremony was in danger of disappearing and was only performed on this occasion for the purpose of recording it on film for posterity. (These circumstances explain perhaps why one of the recurrent themes of The Hyperwomen is the passing on of songs from one generation of women to the next). More broadly, this film formed part of a more general accord between the director-anthropologist Fausto and Afukaká, the chief of the Kuikuru, to make a series of films in order to preserve traditional Kuikuru culture for future generations. As Fausto has described, this was an agreement that they had arrived at over a cup of coffee early one morning when they happened to coincide – in New York. In short, when considered simply as a filmic text, The Hyperwomen may appear to be a very ‘classical’ ethnographic film, but it is one that has emerged from a far from ‘classical’ set of circumstances. 25

These films made with the Kuikuru represent not so much a replacement for ethnographic films made by outsiders as a different way of combining contributions by insiders and outsiders. In that they are based on the identification of a common interest between insiders and outsiders in using film to preserve a record of traditional custom, they are not that different from the collaborative film projects described in Chapter 6, notably those of Ian Dunlop in Australia and of Sarah Elder and Leonard Kamerling in Alaska. What is different is that in the VnA films, the indigenous subjects have been able to play much greater technical and directorial roles, greatly enriching the films in the process.

The VnA project has afforded these indigenous film-makers the opportunity to acquire the necessary skills, not just in providing technical training in the first place, but equally importantly, in providing them with a framework within which to develop their skills over a prolonged period of time. However, VnA is a highly unusual project and one that is not easily replicated. In order to achieve their objectives elsewhere, under different social and historical circumstances, ethnographic film-makers may well need to develop other ways of managing their relationship with their subjects – other ‘ways of doing’ ethnographic film-making – so that not only will they and their subjects feel that the results are valuable, but also their audiences.


1 I am grateful both to Faye Ginsburg (in 2015) and to Carlos Flores (in 2017) for their comments on preliminary drafts of this chapter, but its deficiencies are entirely my own responsibility. Both these scholars have a far more in-depth grasp of this topic than I do, and I can only hope that the limitations of this chapter will spur each of them on to write a synthesising monographic treatment of the kind that the field of visual anthropology desperately requires.
2 See, for example, Ginsburg (1991; 1994 and 1995a ).
3 For more recent applications of the term ‘indigenous media’, see Wilson and Stewart (2008) and Wortham (2013). Also Zhang (n.d.), for an account of film-making by Chinese villagers. In a specifically South American context, important recent publications include Schiwy (2009), Zamorano Villareal (2017) and Muenala (2018), while for a Central American example of indigenous media see
4 See Ginsburg (2011). More recently, Ginsburg has proposed a more comprehensive term, ‘relational documentary’, that would embrace all forms of film-making, including ‘indigenous media’, that are posited upon respectful – though sometimes off-screen – relationships between film-makers and subjects, the recognition of the accountability of the former to the latter, and the observance of appropriate cultural protocols in the production of such films (Ginsburg 2018).
5 See Ginsburg (1994), 64; Ruby (1995b), 77; also Malinowski (1932), 25.
6 For a particularly direct expression of this argument, see Faris (1992), 170–1.
7 A vigorous discussion of the cultural issues raised by film-making by non-Western groups was prompted by an article by James Weiner published in Current Anthropology in 1997. This in turn provoked a series of counter-comments by other scholars, including by Faye Ginsburg, Marilyn Strathern and Terence Turner (all 1997).
8 See Ginsburg (1995a), 259–60.
9 The films were later analysed by Worth and Adair in a joint monograph, Through Navajo Eyes (1972). See also Chalfen (1992; 2007 ) while for a re-reading of the films following their repatriation to Pine Springs in 2011, see Peterson (2013). See also the Penn Museum website at
10 The sceptics include Heider (1976), 43, and Winston (1995) 179–80.
11 See Michaels (1986), 61–8. For a more recent and sophisticated treatment of the way in which local cultural norms may influence both the mode of production and the content of films made in Aboriginal communities, see the work of Jennifer Deger among the Yolngu of Arnhem Land, northern Australia, particularly her book (Deger 2006) and her website,
12 See Turner (1992a), 8–11. The anthropologist and film-maker Glenn Shepard has identified similar principles underlying the work of a new generation of Kayapo film-makers. See his blog entry, dated April 2012, at (accessed 11 February 2019).
13 See Turner (1995), 105.
14 See Flores (2007), 213–14, 222, n. 6.
15 Michaels (1986), 55–6; Turner (1991b), 75–6.
16 The final version of the film was entitled In Search of the Bororo Mr Right and has since been widely shown at festivals and other venues.
17 This was the situation as reported to me in 2014 by Terry Turner in a personal communication. However, very sadly, Terry himself died the following year, and since then I have no further information.
18 Asch et al. (1991).
19 See Michaels (1986), 60; Turner (1992a), 7–8; Flores (2007), 215–16.
20 See Turner (1990; 1991a; 2002 ).
21 See Ginsburg (2011), 237–8, also her earlier and more developed formulation of these arguments in texts such as Ginsburg (1994 and 1995b ).
22 This is the essence of the critique by Melinda Hinkson of Eric Michaels’ pioneering work with the Warlpiri (Hinkson 2008).
23 Some fifty of the films produced by Video nas Aldeias (translated as ‘Video in the Villages’) are now distributed with English subtitles by DER: see Further films, sometimes also subtitled in English are available via the programme's website at from whence they are distributed through YouTube or the digital platform provided by the Canadian Inuit organisation, IsumaTV. In this chapter, background information about the project is drawn from this website or from two articles by the documentary film scholar Patricia Aufderheide (1995; 2008 ).
24 In the anthropological literature, the Ikpeng are often referred to as the Txikão, though this was originally a name used by other indigenous groups rather than an autonym.
25 See Fausto (2011).
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Beyond observation

A history of authorship in ethnographic film

  • 7.1 Navajo Film Themselves (1966). Intrepid Shadows, left, featured a character in a traditional mask modified by a vertical strip resembling film stock and a ‘nose’ suggesting a camera lens. Right, in The Navajo Silversmith, the main character walks a great deal, associated by Worth and Adair with the ‘long journey’ trope of Navajo story-telling.
  • 7.2Left, Mokuka, of the Kayapo Video Project, at a rally in 1989 to protest against the Altamira dam on the Xingu River. Right, the Kayapo also use camcorders to record traditional ceremonies.
  • 7.3Modes of collaboration. Left, a Q’echqi’ Maya crew enquire about the planting of maize in the community of Esperanza Chilatz, Guatemala, April–May 1995; right, In Search of a Bororo Mr. Right (2019) – a romantic comedy with an ethnographic subtext.
  • 7.4 Video nas Aldeas cinematographers. Left, Kasiripinã Waiãpi, who shot additional footage for Meeting the Ancestors (1993); right, Divino Tserewahú, the highly accomplished Xavante cameraman.
  • 7.5 The Hyperwomen (2011). This film about the Janurikumalu ceremony was shot and co-directed by the indigenous cinematographer Takumã Kuikuru.


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