16 May 2010

Anthropological and Ethnographic Films

Anthropology has a long checkered past. On the dark side, its associations with empire, colonialism and the missionary enterprise are well documented. As this legacy took shape, early anthropologists insisted that their scientific enterprise increased knowledge of other peoples and that their work played a role in 'salvaging' the remains of supposedly dying cultures, which were deemed valuable as vestiges of the past of the modern societies within which anthropology arose. The evidence of these salvage operations fills many museums today. It took some time for anthropologists to turn their attention away from collecting artifacts (which sometimes included human remains) to asking questions about cultural survival. Despite the persistence of its dark side through much of modern history, at its best anthropology remains one of the few academic disciplines that takes seriously the ways of living and ways of knowing of other peoples. Contemporary Anthropologists immerse themselves in cultures other than their own, learning languages and lifestyles in far more depth than tourists and adventurers, and many continue to grapple with issues of representing peoples and cultures, which has made anthropology more self reflective than most other academic disciplines, building into itself the possibility of reform.

In his 1973 edited collection Anthropology and the Colonial Encounter, Talal Asad characterized the dilemma faced by the discipline:
Anthropologists can claim to have contributed to the cultural heritage of the societies they study by a sympathetic recording of indigenous forms of life that would otherwise be lost to posterity. But they have also contributed, sometimes indirectly, towards maintaining the structure of power represented by the colonial system.
He further observed that, 'the basic reality which made pre-war social anthropology a feasible and effective enterprise was the power relationship between dominating (European) and dominated (non-European) cultures.' As a new generation of anthropologists, uneasy with these power imbalances, emerged during the 1960s and 1970s, many began to question the methods of the discipline and rethink some of its core assumptions.

Although this revisionist trend distanced anthropology somewhat from its colonial connections, the dark side remains a contentious issue for modern anthropology, as evidenced by the use of anthropologists by the US military for its wars and occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan. For example, an article in Military Review recommends that,
To defeat the insurgency in Iraq, U.S. and coalition forces must recognize and exploit the underlying tribal structure of the country; the power wielded by traditional authority figures; the use of Islam as a political ideology; the competing interests of the Shia, the Sunni, and the Kurds; the psychological effects of totalitarianism; and the divide between urban and rural, among other things.
The author concludes that, 'Despite the fact that military applications of cultural knowledge might be distasteful to ethically inclined anthropologists, their assistance is necessary.' Supporters of this view may point to the work done by anthropologists on behalf of the Allied effort in World War II, where several American and European anthropologists contributed studies on the enemies of the day, although the moral ambivalence of today's wars poses an ethical challenge for anthropologists who continue to debate whether or not to make such contributions.

The situation faced by anthropology today is summed up in a 2004 essay entitled 'Exorcising Anthropology's Demons' by Frederique Apffel-Marglin and Margaret Bruchac, who remind us that,
The discipline of anthropology originated in European and American intellectual traditions that focused principally on non-Europeans--the anthropologized--as exotic and primitive others. Anthropology's birth as the handmaiden of empire and colonialism, its involvement in eugenics, human specimen collecting, and other outrageous endeavors, has, after World War II, political decolonization, the Vietnam War, and the civil rights movement in the United States, been intensely scrutinized. This scrutiny has been done mostly by anthropologists themselves, spurred and perhaps stung by the response of the anthropologized who, on the whole, have rejected Western anthropologists' portrayal of their lives. This critical scrutiny of the discipline and its history has been and continues to be most salutary. It has allowed a much greater inclusion of multiple perspectives and might lead to a profound transformation of the discipline and perhaps even the dissolution of its classical form.
They conclude that, 'anthropology has not spent much of its energies on bringing about better intercultural relations. Most of its energies, until this approach began to be critically examined in the 1970's, have been devoted to constituting a privileged knowledge about an Other.' This project, they continue, 'perpetuates the power imbalance between the West and a Rest, making intercultural relations difficult, to say nothing of learning from those anthropology has studied.' Even so, heeding the warnings about intercultural relations and learning from the others, coupled with developing its self-reflective dimensions, can still offer some hope for anthropology today.

These brief background notes, while by no means the last word on the subject, provide some sense of the issues at stake in modern Western anthropology. Serious students ought to take cues from the above works and do their own research, but for now let us turn our attention to selected examples of anthropological and ethnographic films that illustrate some of the issues mentioned above.

A decade in the making, the television series Millennium: Tribal Wisdom and the Modern World is a good place to begin our inquiry into anthropological and ethnographic film, especially in light of the point made by Apffel-Marglin and Bruchac about learning from those being studied. The series was hosted by the late American cultural anthropologist David Maybury-Lewis, who was a loved and respected teacher at Harvard throughout his career and who also founded Cultural Survival in the early 1970s, which was dedicated to 'promoting the rights, voices and visions of indigenous peoples.' Over its ten episodes, Millennium set out to bring the stories of anthropology to a non-specialist television viewing audience, the first major attempt at such an endeavor. With its companion book of the same name, authored by Maybury-Lewis, the series is in many ways unique for its emphasis on 'tribal wisdom,' suggesting that the intention was not just to know about other cultures but to also learn something from them. This is further emphasized by the series juxtaposing studies of tribal cultures in Africa, Asia and the Americas with those of peoples living the modern Western lifestyle in Canada, Europe and the United States. But rather than taking an area studies approach and drawing boundaries between 'us and them,' the series utilizes a thematic structure that encouraged meaningful comparisons, focusing upon some of the perennial anthropological questions such as those related to kinship, courtship and cultural identity, as well as those related to wealth and power, science and magic, health, ecology, and others. The series, produced as the Western millennium approached, was also an attempt to re-assess the modern lifestyle in light of ways of living and knowing of tribal peoples and carried a strong message in favor of community and environmental survival, not just for tribal peoples but for humanity as a whole. This moral emphasis left the series, and its companion book, open to criticism for being 'sententious,' as one reviewer in the academic journal Cultural Anthropology put it, raising questions about what aspects of anthropology should be promoted in the popular media. Despite these criticisms, its main achievement was to broaden the discussions of anthropology beyond the halls of academe and attempt to make it relevant to our lives today.

Maybury-Lewis was not the first anthropologist to use the ethnographic project as a form of self-criticism. One of the founding figures of modern anthropology, Margaret Mead received a great deal of attention for her work along similar lines. A student of Franz Boas, who himself revolutionized modern anthropology by insisting that his students embark on systematic fieldwork and employ the ethnographic method in an attempt to distance the discipline from its essentialist and racist roots, Mead was one of the first anthropologists to use research as a way to formulate critiques of Western societies. She famously made the contentious conclusion that the peoples she studied in Papua New Guinea were free of the sexual repressions that plagued her own society at the time and subsequently used her field data to weigh in on the nature/nurture debate, following Boas, and coming firmly down on the nurture side, arguing that aspects of behavior ascribed to biology are actually culturally constructed, which was part of the Boasian anti-racist project. Mead's conclusions were later intensely scrutinized by Derek Freeman, who claimed her work was fraudulent and outlined his position in Margaret Mead and Somoa: The Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth, later made into a documentary film. Nevertheless, her name often ranks high in the discipline and her works are still read by anthropology students the world over and she did more than most other academics in bringing anthropology into a public forum.

For our purposes here, we can point to two films that examine the Mead legacy, one more or less sympathetic to her life and work and the other highly critical. In Margaret Mead: An Observer Observed (1998), associates and scholars, including Mead's daughter Mary Catherine Bateson, provide an overview of her life and rise to fame within the ranks of anthropology. The film includes re-enactments of Mead's fieldwork experiences, clips from ethnographic films she made, and interviews and media appearances as she became somewhat of a public intellectual in later life.

The second film, Papua New Guinea: Anthropology on Trial (1984) presents the Mead-Freeman controversy, including interviews with the people and their ancestors who were studied by Mead, before presenting the views of a new generation of anthropologists who put their skills to work on behalf of the people they are studying. The latter point is illustrated by John Barker, who is shown collecting folktales of the older generations in collaboration with and on behalf of local peoples as part of his fieldwork experience. Andrew Strathern, former director of the Institute of Papua New Guinea Studies (IPNGS), discusses the role of locally situation institutes as a way to change the relationship between anthropologists and the peoples they study. IPNGS produced a number of ethnographic and anthropological films, such as Chris Owen's 1983 film Tighten the Drums: Self-Decoration Among the Enga, which looks at the highly developed and symbolic forms of body art among the Enga people of the Western Highlands of Papua New Guinea. Anthropology on Trial concludes with a consideration of 'native anthropology' in which the formerly anthropologized turn the tools of the trade on Western societies, featuring a Papuan graduate student working on a study of kinship systems in American society. A brief online study guide provides some thoughtful questions for reflection that could be utilized while viewing Anthropology on Trial.

In a somewhat similar vein, also taking the native perspective seriously but not strictly a work of native anthropology, the 1988 film Cannibal Tours turn its attention to ecotourists in their search for exotic others. Again focusing on Papua New Guinea, the film alternates between scenes and interviews with tourists shopping for trinkets, visiting sacred and historical sites and shooting photographs and scenes featuring critical commentary by native peoples about the habits and attitudes of the tourists. (Three short clips are available for viewing here.) In an essay 'On the Making of Cannibal Tours,' the film's director Dennis O'Rourke suggests that his work is partly about a quest for the unattainable, that through the film
we can recognise in these Western tourists both the hopelessness of their experience and we can recognise ourselves. We can also recognise (at least sub-consciously) the tourists’ implicit understanding that anyone who will see them in the film shares their sense of hopelessness, in the face of such a futile search for Utopian meaning, which is their touristic experience.
In addition to the peoples and cultures of Papua New Guinea and other regions of the South Pacific, perhaps the most anthropologized peoples of the world are those of the myriad cultures and societies found on the African continent. Featuring contributions by one of the great grandfathers of ethnographic film, Jean Rouch, the 1996 film by Guy Seligman The Dogon: Chronicle of a Passion surveys the ethnographic fascination with the Dogon peoples of Mali, including the story of Marcel Griaule whose work among the Dogon raised many questions about the relationship between anthropologists and their informants in the field, when fellow anthropologists contested the validity of Griaule's characterization of Dogon cosmology. The Dogon are featured in Episode 6 of the Millennium TV series mentioned above, and the Griaule controversy is discussed by Maybury-Lewis in the companion book.

Aside from these works that in one way or another take anthropological quest itself as their subject matter, there are of course quite a number of ethnographic films that focus attention more exclusively, in a more formal academic fashion, on the anthropological other as an object of study, and in different ways reflecting the debates and controversies of anthropology. For example, An Initiation Kut for Korean Shaman focuses on Korean Shamanism. Produced in 1991 by Laurel Kendall based on her 1987 book Shamans, Housewives and Other Restless Spirits, the film is noteworthy for taking viewers through the initiation ritual of a young woman who has been selected for training in the Korean shamanic tradition, and is also important as an ethnographic work taking seriously the lives of women and their stories.

Although there's often a fine line between travel films and ethnographic films, they at times raise similar questions. For example, the 1946 work by Australian photographer Charles Mountford, Walkabout: A Journey with the Aboriginals, is worth considering not only for its depiction of aboriginal peoples but because, as the introductory title card says, 'In 1974, at the request of the Aboriginal people of the area involved, certain sequences showing ceremonial life were removed from the film.' This points to a problem faced by many anthropologists, as well as photographers and filmmakers, who may be tempted to put their own fame and fortune ahead of the rights of indigenous peoples to be left alone, which besides raising again the crucial question of representation reminds us that the discipline, and similar endeavors involving indigenous peoples, owe their existence to the people depicted, although this is not always admitted or appreciated. As just one example, the famous 1980 film The Gods Must Be Crazy, which in a way pokes fun at the anthropological quest and which made use of aboriginal peoples of South Africa as actors, grossed over 100USD million globally but the lead actor, the 'native' upon which the plot hinged, was paid only 2000USD. Although the director, Jamie Uys, later tried to rectify this by paying the actor 20,000USD and a monthly stipend, the case reminds us of the pitfalls of a 'shoot and run' attitude that is unfortunately common in academia and the arts as well as in the media.

At times, anthropological and ethnographic points are made by filmmakers who are not necessarily working within academic anthropology. One could point to, for example, The Great Ceremony to Straighten the World, a 1994 documentary by musicologist Jann Pasler that won honorable mention from the American Anthropological Association. Pasler examines the annual ritual of the Balinese people to re-invigorate their culture poised on the verge of disintegration due to the tourism industry and other encroachments. As an outcome of this film, as well as her other film about music and rituals in Bali, Taksu: Music in the Life of Bali, Pasler came to the conclusion, in Writing Through Music: Essays on Music, Culture, and Politics, that,
in the late 1980s my research in Bali and India introduced me to other value systems as well as other musics, leading me not only to make two documentaries about music in ritual contexts but also to rethink the meaning and the use of music in the West. As the ideology of progress and the avant-garde itself came increasingly under question, the postmodern world reminded us that politics and sociocultural circumstances are part of the creation as well as reception of all art, and that what we know is often linked to what those in power want us to know.
Sometimes, anthropologists are faced with the unknowable in their work, which although does not bode well for maintaining the myth of scientific certainty claimed by other academic disciplines. In this regard, the 1987 short film Choqela: Only Interpretation is useful for its reflection on the act of knowing about others, and that in the end we may have 'only interpretation' rather than certainty. The filmmaker, John Cohen, embraces this point in his realization that sometimes those being studied may not know the origins of various rituals or traditions, even as they continue to perform them, suggesting that the will to know for sure on the part of modern academic disciplines is not universally shared among the anthropologized, which in turn raises questions about the purpose of anthropological research. The social anthropologist Vassos Argyrou reflected on this paradox of interpretation in Anthropology and the Will to Meaning: A Postcolonial Critique (2002) by suggesting that anthropology may always be doomed to failure in its stated goal to better know ourselves and others because of the convolution of sameness and difference within itself. Check out a review of this interesting work here.

Several films blur the distinctions between documentary, travelogue and ethnographic film, remaining related to the anthropological project but not necessarily created for  anthropologists. A good example is Boatman, a 1993 portrait of life on and around the Ganges at Benares by Gianfranco Rosi, which illustrates how the dead are cremated, buried or dumped, according to caste or wealth, and shows the living coming to mourn, worship, bathe, gape and ply their trades on the banks of this sacred river. Besides its non-judgmental tone, the film is impressive for the way it balances the contradictions of the complex lives it reveals, and the way it combines poetry with wit. The film is also noteworthy for the light touch of the filmmaker, who lets the images and people speak for themselves. Rarely seen today, Boatman won the best documentary prize at the 1994 Hawaii International Film Festival.

One methodological point that sets more recent ethnographic films apart from their early predecessors is the absence of an overarching narrative voice. Like Boatman noted above, the Alaskan Eskimo Series produced from 1972-1988 by Sarah Elder and Leonard Kamerling, includes examples of ethnographic films made in what might be called a more cinema verite style. The Drums of Winter, portrays the ritual life of a remote Yukon village through a detailed look at the role of dance in community life, and At the Time of Whaling, features the whale hunting practices of an Alaskan aboriginal people. Elder and Kamerling discuss these and other films in this informative interview. Perhaps ironically, as the formal anthropologizers have dropped the overarching narrative voice, the formerly anthropologized sometimes adopt it in films made about their own lives. For example, in My Village in Nunavik, a 1999 autobiographical documentary, Canadian aboriginal filmmaker Bobby Kenuajuak uses narration as a reflection on the traditional lifeways of his own Inuit people.

One can find a wide variety of films from many times and places that could be loosely included in this discussion of anthropological and ethnographic film. A few are worth noting here. While not an ethnographic film per say, Contras City (1969), an early effort by Djibril Diop Mambety, depicts the post-colonial contradictions in Dakar, Senegal through a look at its architecture. A short review is available here, although it says the film was begun in the late 1990s while in fact Mambety made Contras City in the late 1960s. The director went on to produce a number of well known narrative films on culture, life and society of West Africa. More recently, Maja Tillmann-Salas, videographer for Proyecto Andino de Tecnologias Campesinas in Peru has produced a series of short documentaries depicting the culture and ritual life of the indigenous peoples of the Andes, including such titles as Sallqa Mama, which presents the relationships between peoples of the region and the lands they inhabit, and Puchka Kururay: Threading Life Around, focusing on a ritual held four times annually in which children known as bailiffs learn to converse with the deities. This latter point raises a serious question for anthropological inquiry, which tends to be primarily secular in its outlook while ignoring or even dismissing the sacred. The anthropologist Edith Turner put it this way in her 1994 study of visible spirits in Zambia: 'anthropologists have shown themselves to be fundamentalist secularists, however much they bend over backwards to empathize with the people they study.' (Turner's comments are from her chapter in the 1994 book Being Changed: The Anthropology of Extraordinary Experience.) Syrian filmmaker Omar Amiralay produced an important work in his 1974 profile of Everyday Life in a Syrian Village, valuable not only for the ethnographic detail it provides but because it also chronicles the impact of the Syrian government's controversial land reforms of the 1970s on the population of rural areas and for a rare glimpse into the attitudes of policy officials toward village life. A restored version of the film was featured in a 2006 film festival and it can be viewed with English subtitles on YouTube.

Without any pretensions toward authority and completeness, the foregoing selection of films related to anthropology and ethnography is intended to illustrate the multiple perspectives upon and within the anthropological project, if we can define that project in terms of the quest to know one another. It will ultimately be up to viewers to evaluate these films for their contribution to this ongoing project of knowing one another and whether or not they have facilitated meaningful intercultural communication.

[This article is by J. Progler and is part of a longer work in progress on education and media. Progler teaches Culture, Society and Media at Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University in Japan.]

1 comment:

  1. There's a related article on viewing ethnographic films here.