Film as Ethnography, Peter Ian Crawford and David Turton, editors. Manchester: Manchester University Press in association with the Granada Centre for Visual Anthropology. 1992. ISBN 0-7190-3683-6. 322 pages with illustrations. softbound no price.
Innovation in Ethnographic Film: From Innocence to Self-consciousness. Peter Loizos. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 1993. 224 pages with illustrations. hardbound - $42.50. paper $15.95.
[Published in Man in complete form and section on Loizos in Visual Anthropology Review]
The literature about ethnographic film has been hampered by a lack of a conceptual structure sufficient to the task of allowing anthropologists to theorize about how film can be used to communicate knowledge. It is a failure that burdens all discourse about non-fiction film. As a result, authors have concentrated on making proscriptions, programmatic admonitions, and telling "war stories" about how a film was made . Theoretical explorations are consequently limited to arguing about whether or not a particular film is objective, accurate, "complete" or even ethnographic. With the erosion of the positivist underpinnings of anthropology and documentary film comes the possibility of an new examination of the politics and ideology of filmed ethnography. Like the documentary, ethnographic film seems on the verge of some serious theoretical debates. Perhaps as result of the criticisms from outsiders like Bill Nichols and Trinh T. Minh-ha, visual anthropologists have become increasingly aware of the need for a more secure conceptual basis. The two publications reviewed here provide an opportunity to see how some British and other European visual anthropologists approach the problem.
During the 1970s, British ethnographic film was transformed by two events - the advent of Granada Television's Disappearing World series and Colin Young's assumption of the directorship of the National Film school. Young was the co-founder of UCLA's ethnographic film program. With Young came two of his former students, Herb Di Gioia who taught documentary at the school and David MacDougall whose approach to film assumed a dominant position with producers like Brian Moser and Andre Singer. When Manchester's Centre for Visual Anthropology was created, in the 1980s, through the generous support of Granada television, David Henley, himself a product of a Young-Di Gioia film education, was selected as director.
From a strictly parochial perspective, British visual anthropology and indeed much of the British anthropological community seems at variance with some contemporary U.S. thinking. The official publication of the Royal Anthropological Institute is patriarchically titled Man. The most enduring television series about anthropology invokes salvage ethnography in its title, "Disappearing World." And visual anthropologist Marcus Banks still suggests that "...the normative subjects of anthropological inquiry..." are "...non-western people doing non-western things" [Crawford and Turton p. 120]. I therefore felt a bit like an ethnographer rather than a native in reading these two books.
Film as Ethnography is a group of essays selected from the proceedings of the 1990 Royal Anthropological Institute's IInd International Festival of Ethnographic Film. While a wide range of topics is discussed from hypermedia (Gary Seaman and Homer Williams) and indigenous media (Richard Chalfen, James Faris and Felicia Hughes-Freeland) to ethics and politics (Kathleen Kuchnast, Tim Asch, and Keyan Tomaselli), I will concentrate on three dominant themes: 1. the differences between written and visual ethnography, 2. the possibility of a preferred ethnographic film style, and 3. the relationship between televised anthropology and ethnographic film.
What can pictorial images convey that words cannot? How do film images mean? This is a question fundamental to all visual/pictorial studies and at the very heart of a visual anthropology. Hastrup, Pinney, Loizos, and Crawford all try their hand at exploring this complex query. Hastrup, in an essay considered by the editors central to the purpose of the book, attempts to compare words and pictures. Unfortunately she fails to make a convincing case that visual and textual representations are comparable. Hastrup ignores the fundamental importance of context and the social complexity of a film event. In an effort to find the visual equivalent to the word, Hastrup wants to discuss the "purely visual and purely textual" [p. 21]. What exactly is meant by these terms is never adequately articulated. The problem is conceptualized in a way that lends itself to mere assertions and not researchable inquiries.
While these four essays [Hastrup, Pinney, Loizos, and Crawford] sometimes contain stimulating speculations (like Pinney's notion that visual anthropologists' neglect of photography is because photos contain too many potential meanings), they suffer from a lack of reference to the literature in film, visual, communication, and cultural studies that has explored the nature of film for the past half century. For example, there are no references to Sol Worth's attempts to discern the basic units of meaning in a film. I am not suggesting that others have solved any fundamental problems. The truth is that we still don't know how to talk about film in a sufficiently clear way as to compare it to written and spoken language or any other mode of communication. However, writers about ethnographic film should become conversant with film literature if for no other reason than to profit from the mistakes of others. Some of what is explored here is old and discarded ideas.
Martinez, a scholar from the U.S., approaches the question of meaning in film from a different perspective - the reception of ethnographic film by college students. In a seminal essay, he attempts to employ models of reader/response, reception and other literary and mass communication paradigms to the way students understand ethnographic film in the classroom. He argues that films designed to enlighten and erase ethnocentricism are, in fact, reinforcing stereotypes. His conclusions are thoroughly subversive to mainstream ethnographic film practice and should cause ethnofilmmakers to pause and think before beginning their next production. Martinez's essay will undoubtedly be the most enduring part of this book.
The problem of locating a filmic means to convey ethnography has perplexed scholars and filmmakers for decades. Several authors [Loizos, Banks, and Crawford] feel that an observational approach, as exemplified in the work of the MacDougalls, Gary Kildea and Robert Gardner, is "the preferred style of ethnographic filmmaking..." because it is "...mimetic of anthropological practice" [Banks, p. 122]. Exactly what constitutes an observational film is discussed at length by Banks. Among other attributes he suggests that observational "film-makers should follow action, rather than provoking it..." [p. 123]. Given the frequency of interviews, an event created for the camera and completely unnatural to the flow of cultural events, in the films of MacDougall and Kildea and in the standard practice of most ethnographers, this statement seems altogether odd. Anthropologists never only observe. Why should their films follow an observational style?
It is premature to suggest that one cinematic style will suffice for the whole of film ethnography and indeed MacDougall argues that film style should fit the style of the culture portrayed. At this point we need more experiments in communicating ethnography filmicly not proscriptions. The apparent naturalism and realism of observational cinema are merely the result of agreed upon social conventions of representation. They are so conventionalized as to be easily mimicked in such "fake" documentaries as David Holzman's Diary, No Lies, and Eat The Sun. Arguments about the anthropological validity of observational style seem naive and based upon a positivist fantasy that some recording device can transcend ideology.
Dai Vaughan in an article written in the late seventies but remarkable current, takes exception to the assumption that any form of cinema can be "objective, neutral, and transparent" [Banks, p. 124]. Given feminist, Marxist, and postmodern critiques, I would have thought these concepts to be less than desirable if not totally discredited. The attraction of observational style for some is its apparent openness. That is, the lack of a voice of God narrator telling viewers what to think, the tendency for long takes with the temporality of the event preserved apparently allow viewers to interpret the culture themselves. I dispute the notion that any film can be sufficiently unstructured as to give viewers this assumed freedom. But even if that were possible, Martinez's research suggests that viewers of ethnographic classroom films construct meanings antithetical to any anthropological intention. Vaughan is confused by some anthropologist's enthusiasm for observational film and suggests that they should "prefer the traditional patterns whose tight organization of proto-fictional materials promises to raise the general principle above the vagaries of the particular instance." (Vaughan, p. 101). The implication of Vaughan's query has not been fully explored by him or anyone else. It seems to me that the limits of documentary realism and naturalism for filmed ethnography are sufficient to make an exploration of other forms of cinema - fiction, experimental ,etc. - a necessity.
Ethnographic film took a very particular turn in the early 1970s when Granada initiated the Disappearing World Series. No country in the world, with the possible exception of Japan, has produced more anthropologically related television shows than Great Britain. Some of their programs were reversioned for PBS' series, Odyssey and the Discovery Channel shows them on a regular basis. Andre Singer and David Turton, anthropologists with a long history of involvement, ponder the problems and promises that television has for anthropology. Singer begins with a rather discouraging note -"...a high proportion of what broadcasters categorize as anthropology...presents ethnography from an academically ill-informed or ill-targeted perspective." [Singer, p. 265]. However, both Singer and Turton believe in the necessity of popularizing anthropology. They express reservations about television producers' tendency to over narrate, to force the ambiguities of anthropological knowledge into predictable story lines that give audiences the feeling that knowledge is unproblematic, but ultimately both conclude that something is better than nothing. While the people who control television production may have outmoded notions of what anthropology is, e.g. employing the name Disappearing World for a series on ethnography is clearly not in keeping with contemporary thinking, British anthropology would suffer from a lack of public attention provided by these programs. Visual anthropologists in the U.S. do not have the luxury of debating about whether or not popularized anthropology on television is a good thing. Odyssey, the only U.S. attempt at an anthropological television series, was dropped after two seasons. Either British audiences are more interested in anthropology than U.S. audiences or British producers are more competent in popularizing than their U.S. counterparts.
Innovation in Ethnographic Film is the work of a British anthropologist with more than thirty years of looking at, writing about, and making films. Loizos sums up what he thinks is important about certain films in a book designed "...for anthropologists who wish to pay more systematic attention to films for research or teaching, and for filmmakers wishing to make their films more serviceable to Anthropology" (p. 1). Since no single example of an anthropological study of any of the films discussed is provided, one must assume the book is really a survey of films the author thinks worthwhile for teaching.
In order to elevate a survey of teaching films from a mere filmography to a book with some coherence, a conceptual framework needs to be articulated that will justify the author's selection of films and give the reader a clear understanding of their importance. Logically one would except the author to provide a theory of ethnography/anthropology and a theory of film as communication which when combined would provide the necessary structure. It is at this level of conception that the book fails and, because it does, we are left with a series of "film reviews" strung together with an inadequately constructed schema. Loizos could have gotten out of this dilemma by avoiding the term ethnographic altogether and simply discussing films that he, as a teacher of anthropology, felt were useful in the classroom regardless of their intended purpose, as Heider has done in his filmography, Films For Anthropological Teaching.
Rejecting other people's models (specifically mine and Heider's), Loizos invokes personal preference. "There are no worthwhile formal properties which would have helped me isolate a set of films for analysis...I have selected them on the basis of those which have impressed me..." (p. 1). We are never informed whether the things that impress him are random or add up to some evaluative system He wishes to make "...close readings..." and to "...analyze the construction of ethnographic films..."( p. 2). No analytic framework is articulated as the basis for these "close readings." Loizos does recognize that "the problem of how adequately a film presents (and in post-modern idiom, re-presents) some state-of-the-world has been argued about since the birth of the cine-camera" (p. 5). At the same time he rejects the need to engage with this scholarly tradition. "Film studies is a highly theorized field, with its own radical agendas and special interests" (p. 193) Apparently the idea that there could be an anthropological approach to the study of film never ocurred to the author. So we are left with a book about film that is "...not intended as a contribution to film theory." (p. 1) While not all books about film have to be about film theory, in this case, a lack of an adequate intellectual construct to bind the films discussed in the book together was a serious mistake.
Lest I be accused of being overly harsh, I would point out that Loizos is not alone. No one has articulated a theory of ethnographic film adequate to the task. The dilemma manifests itself as an canonical one. If ethnographic film is supposed to have something to do with ethnography then where do films produced by non-ethnographers fit? From the beginning of the genre, if that is what ethnographic film is, the majority of the films labeled ethnographic were made by people with little or no anthropological training. Excluding Robert Flaherty, John Marshall, and Robert Gardner from a discussion of ethnographic film seems altogether absurd but then so does calling all films that deal with culture ethnographic. If non-anthropologists can produce credible ethnographic films then why should anyone interested in producing films about culture bother being training as an ethnographer? If we confine ourselves to films made only by trained ethnographers we have a tiny field. If we open it up to any film that makes a sophisticated statement about culture, we are suggesting that one need not know anything about ethnography/anthropology to produce a credible ethnographic film. Either way seems inadequate and frustrating. Unfortunately, this book offer no new way out of the conundrum.
Let me use a concrete example - Loizos' chapter on Robert Gardner. I should point out that Loizos and I fundamentally disagree about Gardner. He sees this chapter as a "oblique reply" (p. 161) to a polemic I wrote in VAR. Loizos' argument is that "Gardner was best understood not as a realist-manqué, but rather as a film-maker who resembles the Symbolist tradition in painting." (p. 166). In addition to his value as an artist, Loizos feels that "passages in some Gardner films such as the fighting sequences in Dead Birds are unique documentation..." (p. 141) I am very confused about Loizos' use of terms like "films of record" or "documentation." He devotes a chapter to "films of record" without adequately explaining the concept. This statement about the importance of the scenes of Dani warfare exemplifies the lack of clarity. The Dead Birds battle scenes are "cine-battles" that is, the battle one sees on screen was constructed from several actual battles. I am therefore uncertain what sort of documentation this represents except as an example of the editing style of the maker.
Loizos goes on to argue that some anthropologists, myself included, have a too narrow notion about art and science and "that anthropologists by virtue of their training [do not] have the right to decide what are legitimate representations of cultures." (p. 141). I would certainly agree with that statement and ask what does it have to do with ethnographic film? All kinds of people make all kinds of "legitimate representations of cultures" that are not intended to be nor are they understood as ethnography. They are all most welcome but what is gained if we critique them as ethnography?
In his defense of Forest of Bliss, Loizos suggests that "the film is not about 'ethnographic Benares' or even 'Death, in Benares.' It is an attempt to set us thinking about life, time, death, body, soul, and it is located in Benares, but Benares-as-microcosm..." (p. 162). Loizos wants us to see Gardner as a symbolist film artist who simply uses the people of Benares to make his statement about "life, death," etc. If we grant Loizos' contention, why does the film's status as Symbolist art qualify it to be considered ethnographic? Loizos never answers the question nor does he see the implication of his argument. If Gardner's artistic creations are part of the ethnographic film canon why not include the works of Nam June Paik, Jonas Mekas, indeed all film art, all representations about culture? Does Loizos really mean to be this inclusive? Would he extend it to writing? If so, the boundaries of what constitutes ethnography would be so amorphous as to render the concept useless. I see no problem with viewing and critiquing Gardner's films as art. It is when one considers them as ethnography that they become problematic. Until someone produces an adequate basis for the construction of an ethnographic film canon, we will continue to be mired in these frustrating arguments.
Theorizing about non-fiction film is a brand new venture. Anthropology is still very much a word dominated enterprise. Theory and criticism that combines the two into something that enlightens both film and anthropology has yet to emerge. We must keep trying and be severely critical when our efforts come up short. While I have found much to take exception to in these books, Film As Ethnography is important reading for anyone interested in ethnographic film.
Jay Ruby (Anthropology, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA 19122 USA) is the director of Temple's graduate program in the anthropology of visual communication. He is currently completing a study of death and photography in America.