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