Anthropology is defined to be an academic discipline, the study of human cultures and the material of those cultures. Ethnography, on the other hand, is considered a methodology for producing anthropological knowledge.
In the 19th century Europeans became more interested in the cultures of the people they’d colonized. This new field of study was problematic from the beginning as there was often a disparity between those who were in the field; missionaries, explorers, soldiers; and those who published papers from the safety of their universities.
Later, field research and academic writing merged. Bronisław Malinowski, a well known anthropological writer, traveled the world immersing himself in various indigenous societies. His papers permeated both academia and the popular culture of his day. However, the cool observational style of his published work greatly contrasted his private diaries, put into print several decades later. They indicated the difficulty he had relating to the people he was studying and illustrated a critical outlook which some readers perceived as racist. Are either of these documents were more valid as sources? Put simply, the action of referencing and contextualizing both documents would be the appropriate contemporary method. The anthropologist’s subjectivity and the manner in which they project themselves onto their field of study became an increasingly important area of ethnographic research in the second half of the 20th Century.
Imperialism and the other ideologies that permitted colonialism have endured as problematic themes in anthropology. While such issues were partially addressed in many western societies during the 20th century. Post-colonialism and insidious forms of racism must be considered in contemporary ethnographic ethics.
As communication technology developed academic ethnography research and practice maintained a bias towards the written word. Footage was created as supplementary material but the writing was maintained as the focus. The films were created to document aesthetic activities like dance. An interesting consequence was that the resulting film archives over emphasize dance in indigenous cultures and fuel reductive cliches.
Workers Leaving the Factory (d. Auguste and Louis Lumière, 1895) was one of the first films ever created. The factory, in which this revolutionary technology was being developed also became the subject of the fledgling filmic gaze. The Lumière brothers set up a static shot of the building’s exit, a bottle neck where every employee passes at the end of the shift. The footage captured a procession of men and women flooding out. Some appeared to be performing for the camera, others quickly passed by with ambivalence.
On first appearance one is struck by how differently people dressed in the late 19th century. What was not immediately obvious, however, was that the Lumière brothers had given advanced warning to their factory staff informing them of the camera experiment. Consequently many of the employees followed the day’s convention to dress in their finest, as if they were posing for a photographic portrait. In what way does this effects one’s reading of the film and the ethnographic significance of the footage? The context of how the people’s image was captured has proven to be just as much a part of the ethnographic data as the recording it’s self.
Nanook of the North (d. Robert Flaherty, 1922) is considered the first feature documentary. This film was enormously successful and is credited as the birth of the genre. Flaherty adapts the language of narrative cinema to tell the story of an Inuit patriarch, Nanook, and his community.
However, when subject to closer scrutiny this feature was clearly problematic. From first glance it is obvious that many of the scenes were staged. Some times Flaherty was simply using the language of Hollywood cinema to represent a linear narrative; shooting a sled being pushed over a hill, for instance, requires the camera to move, re-shoot from another angle and be edited together to make it appear seamless. Non-the-less his method would have been truly disruptive to an authentic sled journey.
There are also scenes which feel utterly contrived and are more easily red as a projection of how Flaherty, a white visitor, perceived the native people. Flaherty demonstrates a gramophone recording device to Nanook, who repeatedly misunderstands the mechanism and insists on biting the record plate several times. Moments like this seem directed, and may have been constructed to please the expectations of western audiences.
It was eventually revealed that Flaherty staged most of the scenes in the film. He encouraged the Inuits to abandon their rifles and modern cloths in favor of traditional garments. Moreover, the main character was not called Nanook, nor was he married to the woman we were told was his wife. There seemed to be some ambiguity around the circumstances in which Flaherty’s original documentary footage from an earlier expedition was destroyed. This second batch of footage, which makes up Nanook of the North, seems to be an attempt at recreating and augmenting what he had previously scene.
The Documentary Modes, established in Bill Nichols’ book, Introduction to Documentary (2001), are a vital framework through which we can dissect the genres. Flaherty uses the expository mode, normally associated with an authoritative voice-over telling use what to think and where to look. For instance, David Attenborough’s entire career. This God’s eye view is manifest in Nanook of the North via the inter titles. The technology to synchronize sound with film had not been developed.
These modes are a set of tools that have developed in the past century. Despite the shifts in emphasis over the decades, there is no right or wrong technique and it is counter productive of be puritanical about what documentary should be.
Margaret Mead’s film Trance and Dance in Bali (1952) was created as a supplement to her written work as an anthropologist. This film also adopts the expository mode; her authoritative voice precisely describes well researched interpretations of the dance rituals. There is great attention paid to how the camera is used; towards the end of the film, when a state of trance is achieved by the dancers, the live action photography shifts into slow-motion in an attempt to mirror the dancers psychic state.
Between 198 and 1989 the nomadic African tribe, the Wodaabe, was the subject of two ethnographic documentary productions. Disappearing Worlds (1970- 1993) was a series produced in the UK by Granada television International. For their episode on the Wodaabe the producers employed an anthropologist to work with the crew while interviewing and filming the tribe. The second production was an independent film directed by Werner Herzog.
Unfortunately there are no online clips of Disappearing World: The Wodaabe (d. Leslie Woodhead, 1988, s.1/1 e.36/49). In the observational mode, the film gradually introduces us to the customs of this tribe, allowing the people to speak for themselves. In line with the reflexive mode, the director included footage tribes-people reflecting white film crew’s presence and their impressions of the West. The film climaxes with a ritual dance, the meaning of which is explained as a community wide courtship display, culminating in the young women of the tribe selecting a young man as a sexual partner.
This cultural sensitivity and self-consciousness is hugely contrasted by Herzog’s film, Wodaabe: Herdsmen of the Sun (1989) which mostly utilized the poetic mode. The highly strange looking ritual dance is featured in the first moments of the documentary. It is not explained nor given any context. We are simply confronted with it’s oddity. I feel Herzog was exploring his own uncanny sensations rather than attempting to understand the dance or communicate it’s significance. These introspective in-sensitivities are further exasperated by Herzog juxtaposing the dance with European music.
In typical fashion, the German auteur (who’s films I am a great fan of), narrates his documentary with an implausible poetic exposition, placing his interpretation and feelings center stage.
The penultimate and most impressive film of the evening was Alain Resnais and Rhris Marker’s essay documentary – Les Statues Maurent Aussie (Statues Also Die, 1953). This astonishing french language documentary lures the viewer in with conventional museum edutainment imagery and framing. Shot after shot of African mask are cut starkly into a static procession, all the while a frenetic french narrator delivers the director’s cutting thesis at break-neck-speed. Gradually the analysis deviated further away from polite, white, dinner party topics. We are eventually plunged into a troubling world of appropriation, exploitation and racism. It’s particularly bold that this film was made in an era when France still held sovereignty over some African colonies. Truly extraordinary; I only wish I could read subtitles as fast as the French at-ta-at-tack, machine gun delivery.
Irish Folk Furniture (2012), is a short pixilation film directed by Tony Donoghue. It is an example of contemporary documentary animation which was being taken seriously by anthropologists and by “grown-up” documentary festivals; proving once and for all that the documentary animation bubble is not such a cul-de-sac.
Many of the ideas and opinions in this article were originally shared or developed in a seminar, hosted by Sylvie Bringas, at the Royal College of Art on the 6th October 2016. Bringas co-produced an ethnographic film, There is Nothing Wrong With My Uncle (2011), with director, Dul Johnson .