In an article on 'The Needs of Ethnographic Film' published in a 1977 special issue of Cambridge Anthropology, Jerry W. Leach distilled 'a rough set of guidelines for making ethnographic films' from papers given at an international conference on visual anthropology. Since the journal does not have wide currency in film circles, it is worth reprinting these in full:
1. Seek cooperation from the film subjects.
2. Avoid large or alien crews.
3. Be prepared to spend a lot of time, i.e. not just a few weeks.
4. Acclimatise people to the camera.
5. Use participant, i.e. hand-held and mobile, camerawork.
6. Do not rate exotic subject matter more highly than normal everyday behaviour.
7. Let informants speak for themselves on film.
8. Avoid staging, reconstructing, or directing as much as possible, but if unavoidable then identify such material in the film or in print.
9. Use synchronous sound.
10. Avoid music, i.e. non-indigenous music, in the soundtrack.
11. Let viewers really see the subject matter, i.e. avoid persistent choppiness.
12. Do not think of a film as a kind of lecture, i.e. avoid overpowering narrators.
13. Artistry and technical excellence come second to conveying the subject matter well.
14. Admit the presence of the camera and the filmmakers in the film.
15. Try to see that subjects and participants get to view the finished product if appropriate.
Two Laws shares the assumptions of participant-ethnographic cinema with regard to the responsibilities of filmmakers towards the people they are filming. But, interestingly enough, although the film's aesthetic strategies are continent on priorities of Aboriginal custom and social relationships, these strategies also happen to accord with those of realist cinema. The most striking example of this is the use throughout the film of a wide-angle lens. In an interview with the filmmakers conducted by Tina Kaufman and published in a dossier accompanying the film, this is explained as follows:
…traditional Aboriginal people find it insulting to go in on a closeup of a face or hand. They do not like the body dissected… When looking at other films of Aboriginal places the people always discussed the land, the mountains and the rivers, whether is twas good country for hunting. The wide-angle lens allows people to be placed in the country. Further, the use of the wide-angle lens was in keeping with the complex structures of kinship and the strong notions of the group. For example, on person might be talking for older people who are sitting behind them. Because men and women always sit separately a wide-angle lens was necessary to show this, as often in other films, the camera focuses on one or other group and ignores the fact that both groups are participating in the discussion or action. Moreover, the wide angle destroys the notion of truth spoken through an individual representative of the group. With the use of the wide-angle in group discussions, contradictions are revealed within the frame.Andre Bazin. But these questions about cinematic space arise from ideas of social space which appear to be of crucial importance in Borroloola ideology. Since the filmmakers were also given 'skin' relationships (that is, a spatial position within the social structure) and since the people themselves were involved in operating technical equipment, the position of the camera and sound recorder in relation to what was being filmed was highly constrained, and subordinated to social structural determinations. Clearly, this is very different from the kind of decision making about camera angling that takes place in the production of most films, documentary or fiction, where decision are usually based on informational or narrative content combined with the filmmakers's notions of 'what makes a good shot.' Given this radical departure from conventional film practice, which confers on the film a similarity of 'style' throughout, it is unfortunate that the reasons behind it could not have been inscribed within the film-text itself. We have to resort to extra-textual sources--interviews with the filmmakers, for example--to explain why the film looks the way it does.
Kinship and social structures have always been a problem for ethnographic film. Although they are the fundamental basis of written anthropological discourse, and crucial determinants of individual and group activity, they are simply not photogenic. Obviously the makers of Two Laws were wary of minimising the historical and political impact of their film by reinscribing the Borroloola people as exotic natives with strange ideas about who sits where. But this is a film in which those concerned insist on the difference of their own laws, insist that social structural issues are the idiom for arguing land rights. The extent to which the filmmakers respected those laws fundamentally determines what we as an audience are allowed to see. Equally, though, the audience should have been respected enough to have been told why.
Similar questions can be posed about the use of acting and the reconstruction of historical events, although these devises are much more successfully integrated into the film-text. Two Laws was shot chronologically, and this is communicated by the way the people seem, as the film proceeds, to gain greater confidence as actors. In the first part, Police Times, the story of the roundup and forced march is told both through the memories of old people and also through a dramatisation in which the young men of the community take on the role of their forebears. This dramatisation is observed with the same wide-angle lens and eschews the conventions of continuity cutting: inserts, reverse shots, etc. Consequently, the film never allows this process of remembering to fictionalise the incident being recalled. On the contrary, it documents the learning process as the old women instruct the younger people, including the white man playing the police constable, Stott, who carried out the wishes of the cattle barons by evicting Aborigines from their tribal lands.
Strachen and Cavadini, the actors had very little experience of television or film, as they noted in their interview with Tina Kaufman:
There had been some John Wayne westerns and Kung Fu films that had come to Borroloola. There is no radio, newspapers or television. The films had been seen by the younger people but the old people had never bothered to go. Apart from the school kids, most people hadn't liked the films.To what extent is this process of remembering through drama an imposition of the white filmmakers?
These scenes stand next to others in which people retell their own memories of the events concerned. Here the participants seem to perform more readily to camera and, like exponents of the oral tradition everywhere, flesh out their stories with moments of acting; a man tells how a policeman beat him, and for a moment he is that policeman hitting a tree with a baton and shouting. But the film wishes to distance itself from these memories by juxtaposing them with the reconstructed scenes. There is here an implicit criticism of the way the memories of individuals are frequently used in documentary cinema, both as 'evidence'--a guarantee of truth--and as a ploy to draw an audience into an easy identification with the oppressed. At the same time, however, the film seems to fear the possibility of emotional response to these memories. 'Distanciation devices' may have become an intolerable orthodoxy among independent filmmakers. Perhaps we should recognise, as Brecht did in his poem 'On Everyday Theatre,' that the oral tradition contains quite enough distanciation devices of its own. In 1929, when he wrote that poem, Brecht was calling for an aesthetic which allowed the audience to be distanced from the drawing-room conventions of bourgeois theatre. Are filmmakers not involved in a different set of imperatives when dealing with the conventions of a kind of documentary filmmaking which issues for its subject matter people's memories of oppression?
This, of course, raises the question of the intended audience for Two Laws, a question also prompted by the fact that much of the film's dialogue is in English, an unfamiliar language to most of the participants and not the one in which their tribal laws are formulated. The filmmakers give a very interesting and somewhat surprising answer to this question:
Many of the films that we screened to the community during the first few months were films in the language of other Aboriginal communities, American Indians, or Africans. The people were pleased that they spoke their own language and were aware that the subtitles were a good idea for a European audience but they were making Two Laws for other Aboriginal communities as well as Europeans. As traditional communities are unskilled in reading, subtitles are inappropriate. The people chose to speak in English which for some is a very new and difficult language. It was quite a struggle at times but the people are very committed to developing communication between different Aboriginal communities.
[This review was written by Mick Eaton and originally published under the title 'Another Angle on Anthropological Film' in the journal Screen, Vol. 24, No. 4, March/April 1983, pp. 55-59. The film is now available on DVD from Facets media. Articles about the film can be found in the journal Studies in Documentary Film. The dossier noted above, from which quotes are taken, is no longer available.]