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Essays on cinema, anthropology and documentary filmmaking

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

A personal view of documentary

The Art of the Observer is a personal guide to documentary filmmaking, based on the author’s years of experience as a writer on film and a maker of ethnographic and documentary films. It devotes particular attention to observational filmmaking and the distinctive philosophy and methodology of this approach. Each of its chapters addresses a different aspect of filmmaking practice, offering both practical insights and reflections on what it means, in both intellectual and emotional terms, to attempt to represent the lives of others. The book makes clear that documentary cinema is not simply a matter of recording reality, but also of analytically and artfully organising the filmmaker’s observations in ways that reveal the complex patterns of social life.

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David MacDougall

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

in The looking machine
David MacDougall

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

in The looking machine
David MacDougall

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

in The looking machine
David MacDougall

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

in The looking machine
David MacDougall

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

in The looking machine
David MacDougall

This chapter traces the way in which films have evolved from portraying scenes to be ‘looked at’ to strategies of making the viewer feel present within the film, to films in which the sensory world is more fully evoked and embodied. The last tendency is apparent in the composition of images and the editing dynamics of silent Soviet cinema, but it later emerged in attempts to evoke a broader range of sensations, involving touch, taste and smell. In some films the presence of the human subject is often felt in ways that seem to transcend conventional ideas of representation, as in some of the films of Bresson, Tarkovsky and Bergman. The reasons may be found in terms of ‘tactile space’ and ‘close-range’ vision as well as in a kind of shared proprioception, recently corroborated by findings in cognitive science. Such impressions may also be experienced by filmmakers in the act of filming and then be communicated in tacit ways to the viewer. Visual anthropology has been influenced by these moves through recent films attempting to create a sensory ethnography. This ‘sensory turn’ suggests the possibility of a cinema of consciousness that more fully reflects our experiences of everyday life.

in The looking machine
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David MacDougall

Evocation of physical sensations in the cinema go beyond the five primary senses, for combinations of images and sounds are capable of evoking a much wider range of sensations, including those of movement, pressure, nearness and distance, wetness and dryness, viscosity, and so on. Citing Michel Chion, the author examines how the sound-image becomes a new phenomenon that produces a heightened sense of material presence. Although some of our responses are innate, others are dependent on context and experience, which may explain why films are more effective at evoking sensations of touch than of taste and smell. The aesthetic profile of different cultures is another factor. The cinema can be coercive in forcing us to see what we would ordinarily avoid, challenging our assumptions. On the other hand, its very technology often misrepresents our seeing, leading to an anodyne version of reality. The sensations and emotions of the filmmaker while filming are also important, and for filmmakers the cinema can become a way of reaching out to the subjects of their films. But ‘sensory’ cinema should not become an end in itself; it achieves value only within the context of human relations.

in The looking machine
David MacDougall

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

in The looking machine