I was wondering if anyone knew anything about ethnographic film or visual anthropology in general. I just kind of stumbled upon it recently and my head’s been going dizzy just jumping from one article to another. It’s really like a whole different cinema – complete with their own figures and founders. Among them, surprisingly (and then again… not so surprisingly), are some that cross over into ours such as Flaherty and Jean Rouch of the French New Wave. I find their approach to the use of film and film structure fascinating but does anyone know of any good books/films to begin exploring from? I find it easy to get kind of lost in it all since it naturally involves anthropology too.
I can’t help you much, except to point to Chris Marker’s work, such as Sans Soleil which you no doubt know, as an example of using anthropological images from around the world in the context of a feature film. Yes, this would be an interesting subject to explore. I remember seeing a film done by the early anthropologist Franz Boas showing West Coast Indian rituals. These were apparently staged by Boas and his native actors for the camera to appear as if he were capturing ‘real’ ethnic data. When you see the amazing film, it seems to work in any case. Flaherty was certainly the pioneer in this field with the incomparable Nanook of th North.
The Tree of Wooden ClogsThe Cave of the Yellow DogAtanarjuat: The Fast Runner
-Try and see OUT TRIP TO AFRICA by Peter Kubelka which uses some amazing anthropological footage in some more amazing ways.
-Definitely quite a few of the more obscure Herzogs if taken with a grain of salt for his peculiar documentary practices: FLYING DOCTORS OF EAST AFRICA, BELLS FROM THE DEEP, WOODABE-HERDSMEN OF THE SUN, THE LORD AND THE LADEN aka CHRIST AND DEMONS IN NEW SPAIN…even HOW MUCH WOOD WOULD A WOODCHUCK CHUCK.
-Robert Gardner’s FOREST OF BLISS and the companion book MAKING OF FOREST OF BLISS as really amazing. I bet his other work is too and have been meaning to check it out for a while.
Would the infamous Leni Reifenstahl’s African work fall into this category?
And what about the Cooper-Shoedsack (partly staged) films such as CHANG and GRASS?
Riefensthal’s photo books might be worth checking out, true, though I don’t know how much ethnographic text they have, Jung, if that’s what you’re after….they’re certainly vivid works of visual anthropology.
I second Ben’s rec of Kubelka’s truly awe-inspiring Out Trip to Africa, which I believe is available to watch in mediocre quality for free on Ubuweb.
Make that OUR TRIP TO AFRICA. Typo on my part. Though maybe I should make a queer-theory experimental response titled OUT TRIP TO AFRICA.
@Kim – I wouldn’t class Atanarjuat as an anthropological film: it’s a narrative feature film made by Inuit cast & crew. So there isn’t the outsider-looking-in anthropological quality of, say, Flaherty or Rouch.
But there’s also Maya Deren’s examination of Voudoun rites, The Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti. And on the exploitation end there’s the work of Gualtiero Jacopetti: Mondo cane and Africa addio.
>>Riefensthal’s photo books might be worth checking out<<
Odd, I was remembering she did film not just stills …
2 Witkacy- It sounds like an anthropologist was involved and the production process was pretty rigorous according to the Wikipedia article under the subtopic “production”. I thought the films I selected would belong to the genre of ethnofiction.
I think the only fully realized releases from the African period are two books: The Last of the Nuba and The People of Kau.
Wow, thank you all for the responses. I didn’t expect this much so I really appreciate it. The first thing I kept thinking was Maya Deren’s Divine Horsemen too. But all the other recommendations look fantastic too. This is a lot to explore but please keep them coming if anyone else has anything to add.
By the way, has anyone read Heider’s Ethnographic Film? Or Through Navajo Eyes by Sol Worth? They seem to be regarded as classic works in the field.
@ Kim – I see what you mean – my bad.
I would also throw in the only two films I’ve seen by Francesco Rosi: Christ Stopped at Eboli; and his film of Bizet’s Carmen.
>>I think the only fully realized releases from the African period are two books: The Last of the Nuba and The People of Kau.<<
One of which I have. Thanks, Ben, I guess it’s just that she’s so identified with MOVING pictures that it’s hard to conceive of her NOT making films of the African tribes she hung out with.
check out the writing of david macdougal. you can find his stuff in “movies and methods”, and hes also written some books on his own. he’s brilliant in the realm of ethnographic film. i also believe hes a true anthropologist. havent seen any of his films though.
also, theres a ton of action (writing + filmmaking) surrounding the relatively new subgenre of “domestic ethnography.” check out the writings of michael renov to start with. as far as the films, a ton of relatively little known independent/experimental/alternative works by a ton of people.
i love documentary film theory, and my favorite subsection of it are writings on visual ethnography.
Nice nice. I actually ran into that name MacDougal while perusing about on the net. I’ll have to check him out too.
Into Great Silence is a good documentary film about monastic life.
Great call on INTO GREAT SILENCE. For that size of and indie-distributed import, it was a runaway hit theatrically, especially considering it’s essentially a 3-hour anthropological documentary with hardly any dialogue (really less than a total minute or two of speech plus some chant).
Just watched 1428 by Du Haibin. While watching i asked myself (since I’ve been getting into Wiseman lately and done some researching on him and his apparent stile of film making) what do you people consider the New Chinese Documentary Movement to be. More Cinema vérité or more ethnographic film. Or even something in between or completely different?
‘Ethnography is a qualitative research method aimed to learn and understand cultural phenomena which reflect the knowledge and system of meanings guiding the life of a cultural group.’
The interesting thing about China and the U.S. is that they’re so vast (culturally) that a documentary could qualify as either/or.
Wiseman proves this. Near Death, Public Housing, Welfare, State Legislature… It’s pretty amazing that those films all happen within the same nation. And that’s not even the half of it.
And so do films like Before the Flood, 1428, Street Life, Umbrella, Ghost Town, Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks, etc..
China is obviously less racially diverse, but culturally the difference between life in Shanghai (even on the streets) and Fengjie is astounding. Especially considering the filmmakers are total outsiders (as the opening of Ghost Town shows us).
It’s a complex question, actually.
“It’s a complex question, actually.”
But I think you gave the only reasonable answer when you said “either/or”.
Sorry couldn’t resist resurrecting this. If there’s anyone reading this who is just starting out with ethnographic film, I would recommend getting these under your belt first:
1. Nanook of the North (Flaherty)
2. Forest of Bliss (Robert Gardner)
3.Lorang’s Way (MacDougall couple) This film is part of the larger Turkana Trilogy
4. Tempus de Barista (MacDougall)
5. The Basque of Santaza from the Disappearing World Series
6. Some Women of Marrakech (Melissa Llwelyn Davies)
7. Darwin’s Nightmare (Hubert Sauper)
As for books I would recommend these:
The Ethnographer’s Eye by Grimshaw Anna (Possibly may be only interesting to anthropology students but I think it’s pretty interesting for film students and people interested in documentaries)
Picturing Culture by Jay Ruby
Transcultural Cinema by the king of ethnographic cinema: David MacDougall
The Heart of the Country by Leonard Kamerling is a very interesting study of provincial life in the countryside in Japan.
Stephane Breton’s Montée au ciel and Maison vide are also great films, much different from his earlier works on tribes in New Guinea.
Of course, the queen of ethnographic cinema is Trinh T. Minh-ha. Maybe the greatest documentary filmmaker ever, let alone her considerations of ethnography.
VISUAL ANTHROPOLOGY LIST