Ethnographic film


Prospector, explorer, and eventual filmmaker Robert J. Flaherty is considered to be the forefather of ethnographic film. He is most famous for his 1922 film Nanook of the North. Flaherty's attempts to realistically portray Inuit people were valuable pictures of a little-known way of life. Flaherty was not trained in anthropology, but he did have good relationships with his subjects.[1]

The contribution of Felix-Louis Regnault may have started the movement. He was filming a Wolof woman making pottery without the aid of a wheel at the Exposition Ethnographique de l'Afrique Occidentale. He published his findings in 1895. His later films followed the same subject, described to capture the "cross cultural study of movement." He later proposed the creation of an archive of anthropological research footage.

The Cambridge Anthropological Expedition to the Torres Straits, initiated by Alfred Cort Haddon in 1898, covered all aspects of Torres Straits life. Haddon wrote to his friend Baldwin Spencer recommending he use film for recording evidence. Spencer then recorded the Australian Aborigines, a project that consisted of 7,000 feet of film, later housed in the National Museum at Victoria.[2]

In the 1930s, Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead discovered that using film frame-by-frame was an essential component of documenting complex rituals in Bali and New Guinea. John Marshall made what is likely the most-viewed ethnographic film in American colleges (The Hunters),[3] his filming of the Ju/'hoansi of the Kalahari (the !Kung-San) that spans from 1951 to 2000. His ethnographic film N!ai, the Story of a !Kung Woman is not only ethnography but also a biography of the central character, N!ai, incorporating footage from her childhood through adulthood. Marshall ended his career with a five-part series, A Kalahari Family (2004), that critically examined his fifty-year involvement with the Ju/'hoansi. Napoleon Chagnon and Tim Asch's two famous films, The Ax Fight and The Feast (both filmed in the 1960s), are intimately documented ethnographic accounts of an Amazonian rainforest people, the Yanomamo.

The genre flourished in France in the fifties due to the role of ethnographers as Marcel Griaule, Germaine Dieterlen, and Jean Rouch. Light 16 mm cameras synchronized with light tape-recorders would re-evolutionise the methods of both cinema and anthropology.

Rouch, who has developed the concept in theory and practice, went against the dogma that in research the camera person must stay out of the event or distance him/herself as an observer. He decided to make the camera interfere and became an actor, developing and popularizing Cinéma vérité. This was of course earlier deemed the "observer effect" by Gregory Bateson, who was perhaps unaware of the dogma Rouch was attempting to violate. Bateson, as one of the earliest to write about using cameras in the studies of humans, was not only aware of the observer effect, but both he and his partner, Margaret Mead, wrote about many ways of dealing theoretically and practically with that effect.[4]

Robert Gardner, a film artist, collaborated with several anthropologists (Karl Heider among them) to produce Dead Birds (1964), a study of ritual warfare among the Dani of New Guinea ). David Maybury-Lewis was among the first to receive enough funding to send many video cameras into the field in a single field setting to gain multiple simultaneous points of view. In the 1970s, Judith and David MacDougall introduced subtitling their subjects' speech and went on to make films that involved more collaborative relationships with their subjects.[5]


Although ethnographic film can be seen as a way of presenting and understanding different cultures that is not normally seen, there are some issues in the case of portrayal. As of late, ethnographic film has been influenced by ideas of observational cinema similar to the British Free Cinema movement. The arrival of lightweight sound cameras and their accessories opened up possibilities of being able to film almost everywhere. This led to revealing private and informal behaviours to already discreet film-makers. The issue of presentation was noted by Flaherty, when he realized that when the audience is shown individuals dealing with problems, it helps them affirm the rationality of their own choices. Despite new lightweight camera equipment, the status of the camera was still seen as an invisible presence. This only led to undermine the idea of film being a disembodied observer. It was later realized that the procedure of filming could carry false interpretations of the behaviour recorded. Film-makers then had new intentions for their films to be self-revelatory, making sure to film the primary encounter as evidence of their production. An example of this would be Chronique d'un éte, a film by Rouch and Morin where it touched on questions about how film deals with reality and changed the course of ethnographic film-making. Due to the difficulty of film being a direct representation of the subject, film-makers then perceived their work as a venture of the complexities of the presented cultural, or their work as a continuing inquiry. However, the camera continues to see selectively. This means leaving the film-maker with the precaution of interpretation during the process of recording. While observing informal events, a technique of filming from different angles or shooting the scene more than once has been developed.[6]

Many ethnographic films include recorded speech by people in the community being filmed. When this speech is in a language unfamiliar to the intended audience of the ethnographic film, the producers generally use voice over translation or subtitles. However, it has been shown that these translations of the film's subjects to the film's audience have not always been accurate. In the film Spirits of Defiance: The Mangbetu People of Zaire about the Mangbetu people of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Robert McKee has shown that the subtitles can not only leave out part of what is said, but at times even change what is said to support the point of view of the film's producers.[7] Timothy Asch has set out ethical principles for producers of ethnographic films to ensure that communities being filmed have input into how they are portrayed.[8]

See also



  1. Flaherty, Richard. "How I filmed Nanook of the North,"
  2. university catalog counts
  3. Bateson, Gregory. Naven, Cambridge, 1936. Mead, Margaret. "Letters from the Field." 1971
  4. "David MacDougall". Berkeley Media. Archived from the original on 10 July 2012. Retrieved 15 March 2013.
  5. McKee, Robert Guy. 2017. Film-maker ventriloquism in ethnographic film: Where subtitles don’t let subjects “speak for themselves”. GIALens Volume 11, No. 1: 1–27. Online access
  6. Asch, Timothy. 1992. The ethics of ethnographic film-making. In Peter Ian Crawford & David Turton (eds.), Film as ethnography 196–204. New York: Manchester University Press.


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