The Digital Revolution and Anthropological Film

[The following is an invited post by Jay Ruby. Jay has been exploring the relationship between cultures and pictures for the over forty years. His research interests revolve around the application of anthropological insights to the production and comprehension of photographs, film, and television. For the past three decades, he has conducted ethnographic studies of pictorial communication among several U.S. communities.]

I first became interested in documentary and ethnographic film in the 1960s and was a witness to a profound technological change motivated by the need some filmmakers had to create a new cinematic form. It occurred in two places almost simultaneously – France and the U.S. Filmmakers wanted lightweight 16mm cameras with sync sound that needed no lighting and would need only a small crew for location shoots. In 1960, Drew Associates – Bob Drew, Albert Maysles, and D.A. Pennybaker jerry-rigged a fairly lightweight 16mm camera attached to a synced tape recorder and made the first American Direct Cinema film, Primary. (Dave Saunders, Direct Cinema: Observational Documentary and the Politics of the Sixties, London, Wallflower Press 2007) With its grainy, wobbly sometimes out of focus images and often-garbled sound, the film radically altered how some U.S documentarians made movies. While an interest in observational style films was relatively short among U.S. documentarians, some European anthrofilmmakers still consider it the best way to make films (See Anna Grinshaw and Amanda Ravetz’s 2009 Observational Cinema: Film and the Exploration of Social Film, Indiana University Press).

In France, anthropologist Jean Rouch was also experimenting with ways to make location 16mm sync sound films on location. Working with the Éclair Corporation on the development of the Éclair NPR, Rouch used a prototype synced to a Nagra 111 NP tape recorder. With sociologist, Edgar Moran, he produced the first Cinema Verité film, Chronicle of a Summer (Steve Feld and Jean Rouch’s 2003 book, Cine-Ethnography, University Of Minnesota Press). The term, Cinema Verité, was coined by Morin to describe their attempt to blend the cinema of Dziga Vertov with that of Robert Flaherty. Strangely enough this reflexive masterpiece in which one sees an early attempt at cinematic participant observation had little impact on other anthropological filmmakers. Instead Rouch is considered a premiere surrealist filmmaker because of his film, Mad Masters and Jean-Luc Godard and other French New Wave filmmakers have embraced him as one of their own.

What is important for this discussion is that these two related cinematic revolutions were the result of filmmakers helping to change a technology so that they could make a new kind of film.

We are now in the midst of another major technological change – the so-called digital revolution. Professional level digital cameras have become amazingly inexpensive as have computer editing programs. Whereas the world of 16mm film required expensive bulky equipment operated by professionally trained people who usually had a good knowledge of film history, it is now possible for almost anyone to become a filmmaker with little technical training or knowledge of the variety of cinematic styles possible. One can now see high quality iPhone videos on youtube. Corporations not filmmakers made these major changes. Unlike the direct cinema/cinema verité revolution, the innovations were not the result of filmmakers wanting a new technology in order to make a new kind of film. It was a corporate decision searching for a new market.

There appears to be two major consequences to the appearance of digital cameras for visual anthropology. One can now find video makers almost everywhere recording their lives often in ways most useful to anthropologists. Indigenous media is no longer confined to a few cultures like the Kayapo, it is everywhere. Some have argued that because videos are being made of native life by the natives, there is no longer a need for the anthropologist. I disagree with the Malinowskian notion that the goal of the anthropology is to see the world through the eyes of the native. Our goal is to provide our vision of the native. These videos should be regarded as researchable documents much like any other artifact. Properly analyzed they can produce insights into the maker’s culture as we have seen in the Worth and Adair Navaho film project (Larry Gross and Jay Ruby, Editors, The Complete Sol Worth, An Annenberg Press eBook, 2013).

Another consequence of this change is that it is now commonplace for graduate students in cultural anthropology to take a video camera with them into the field. During the time of 16mm production, the equipment was too expensive for most anthropologists to own. The complexity of the operation meant that anthropologists who wanted to make movies had to team up with a professional filmmaker. While the Granada U.K. television series, The Disappearing World, appears to have produced a number of successful collaboratively made films, this arrangement in the U.S. has been notoriously unsuccessful. The constant battles between Tim Asch and Napoleon Chagnon over the Yanomano films became so nasty that they stopped talking. Chagnon, in an attempt to erase the now deceased Asch, has recently claimed to be the sole author of these films (Noble Savages: My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes – The Yanomamo and the Anthropologists, Simon & Schuster).

On the surface the democratization of film production would appear to be a Godsend, we should be seeing exciting cutting edge films produced by young anthropologists based upon their dissertation field research. If such films exist, I have been unable to locate them. Instead what I have seen are stylistically boring, old-fashioned works that are eminently forgetful. Why hasn’t the digital revolution produced some radical revolutionary films? Why aren’t there digital equilivants to Chronicle of a Summer?

Let me suggest some possible reasons. Most of these young digital anthrofilmmakers are novices, having produced few if any films. Often they know little about the history of film. So they mistakenly assume that the conventions of traditional, if old-fashioned, documentary realism are automatically the most appropriate way to make anthropological films. That is a mistake.

I have the fantasy that graduate students should be the ones challenging the establishment with their work. While it may be the case in other fields, anthropology is incredibly conservative and does not welcome innovative work. Grad students in Biology or Geology regularly produce cutting edge research and are rewarded for it but not in anthropology. I was witness to the travails of Carlos Castaneda when he was first kicked out of a PhD program at UCLA only to be reinstated when the person who told him to leave was asked to write the introduction to The Teaching of Don Juan (1968 University of California Press). Perhaps as a result, new anthrofilmmakers seem uninterested in considering the question of how films communicate so that they might select the best cinematic style to convey their insights. They are afraid to take the chance of doing something stylistically different. They need a job and hopefully tenure and being risk taking is not perceived as being the way to do that. The digital revolution has not thus far produced an anthrofilm avant garde but rather an anthrofilm that is more and more retardataire.

Having suggested a rather drab and disappointing future for anthropological films, let me end on a somewhat hopeful note. I have argued the anthropologists have mistakenly assumed that their films must follow the conventions of the documentary without really questioning that assumption. The documentary is based upon realist assumptions about the ability of the camera to record actuality – a questionable assumption at best. I would argue that because anthropology is more akin to surrealism than realism, anthropologists should be free to explore the whole of cinema to find ways to communicate anthropological ideas pictorially.

Perhaps it is finally time for anthrofilmmakers to discover the potential of experimental cinema. I recently found that Aperture, an ethnographic film festival in Melbourne will feature an “Experimental Ethnographic Film Program.” At least two anthropologists Kathryn Ramey and Arnd Schneider are writing about the not well known history of experimental film and anthropology (See Ramey’s 2011 “Productive Dissonance and Sensuous Image-Making: Visual anthropology and experimental film”, In Made To Be Seen,” University of Chicago Press, Jay Ruby and Marcus Banks, eds. and Arnd Schneider and Pasqualino’s new book, Experimental Film and Anthropology, Bloomsbury). Who know the future of an anthropological cinema may not be as bleak as I thought.

10 thoughts on “The Digital Revolution and Anthropological Film

  1. I don’t share Jay’s skepticism about the state of the discipline, but I do appreciate the extent to which he exposed us (by which I mean Graduate students at Temple U) to experimental film and photography. I think that immersion in this work makes one better able to make arguments visually and makes one a better ethnographer.

  2. Reblogged this on anthropod and commented:
    I enjoyed this post by Jay Ruby. I have a somewhat more optimistic view about the future of anthropological cinema though, based in part on the films produced by our 300-level and Honours students in visual anthropology courses taught by Prof. Brigitte Bönisch-Brednich. In fact I’m going to an ethnographic film screening tonight where two of our Honours students are showing films they created as part of their coursework this year. This post has given me lots of food for thought and it will be interesting to discuss various filmmaking techniques with everyone.

  3. Jay, there is so much more bad art than good art, so much more bad research than good research, bad films than good films, and on and on. If the peaks weren’t so unsettling and treacherous they wouldn’t be peaks, and their ascents would be facile and fatuous. Take hope where you can find it. What about Joshua Oppenheimer’s experimentations?

  4. efeinblatt, you apparently did not understand what I said. Joshua Oppenheimer is not an anthropologist and while his work may be great, it is not relevant as I was talking about films made by anthropolopgists.

  5. Hi Jay, since your post is peppered with references to filmmakers who were not anthropologists but who might have/could have/should have influenced anthro/filmaking, it didn’t seem too farfetched to bring into the conversation a contemporary filmmaker who could do the same. Stretching disciplinary boundaries to capture inspiration isn’t such an awful thing, or is it?

  6. Sorry if you misunderstood my intention. The article was about anthropologists who make films. I am certain many non-anthropology filmmakers are potentially useful but that is simply not the point of the article. I was discussion the impact of the digital revolution on anthrofilmmakers nothing more.

  7. Thank you for this post, Jay. While I also do not share your negative perception of the future of the field, I would like to respond to the paragraph lamenting the fact that graduate students are not ‘experimental’ or producing a kind of avant garde. You clearly write that this is part of a kind of conservatism that induces conventional scholarship from graduate students, but we shouldn’t obscure the fact that this conservatism is generated by faculties.

    The way to change this is not to expect grad students, involved in a precarious economic situation already, to “experiment” for themselves — future be damned — but for faculty members to make room for this experimentation, understand it as a new media for scholarship, and treat it as valuable. I am, for example, in no way encouraged to pursue film, and I can’t expect any film I make to be seen as anything more than a waste of time. This attitude is not a new thing: Zora Neale Hurston’s attempts to render her fieldwork material in a more public way were largely marginalized by the academy until she wrote up and published “Mules and Men” in monograph form, iirc.

  8. Lucian Taylor’s work is very interesting and could be important to the development of an anthropological cinema but it is clear that his primary audience is not anthropologists but the fine arts world. Take a look at his bio on the Harvard web page. Sad that he more or less ignore any serious dialogue with anthropologists

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