The filmmakers behind one of my favorite ethnographic films from last year, ManDove, are not professional anthropologists, but you’d never know that from watching this insightful, sensitive portrait of Indonesia’s National Perkutut Championship — a singing competition for doves. In fact, Kian Tjong, who made the film with his partner Jim de Sève, calls himself “a self-taught anthropologist and sociologist” and so it is only the lack of some institutional stamp of approval which prevents me from referring to him as a “professional” anthropologist…

The official synopsis for ManDove does a good job of setting up the story:

To be a real man, one must have a wife, a house, a horse, a dagger and a singing dove. – Javanese traditional wisdom

When General Zainuri annouunces the National Perkutut Championship, thousands of Muslim men arrive at the grounds. Seven hundred poles stand in the center. Men hoist their doves – perkutut – seven meters up and dangle them in a sea of colorful cages. A team of judges passes through the forest of tall posts straining to discern the birds’ magical coos. If the judges are impressed they score a bird’s song by tacking a small flag to the pole. After three hours a winner is declared. Winning perkutut sell for tens of millions rupiahs – tens of thousands of dollars.

The subject itself is inherently interesting and would have made for a great documentary, but what makes this film particularly enjoyable are de Sève and Tjong’s humor and cinematic eye. Apart from some engaging interviews, the film is mostly observational, but it isn’t your typical fly-on-the-wall cinema verité… One of the things I liked most about this film was how it frequently breaks the fourth wall in creative and interesting ways. In one scene we see a contestant buying a ticket but the subtitles inform us that he is saying “I’m actually not in today’s event. I just want to be in the film. Let me pretend to buy a ticket and then give me my money back.” (Or something to that effect, it has been a while since I saw the film.) In another scene a contestant gets angry with the filmmakers, blaming them for his bird’s poor performance, saying the camera (which they had hoisted in a bird cage along with the other birds) looked like a cat and scared his bird.

There are also scenes that are pure observation, but which offer up a kind of cinematic pleasure that is too often missing from observational documentaries. The filmmakers have a keen eye for capturing interesting details that lesser filmmakers would overlook. In short, not only is this a good film for anyone interested in the subject matter, it is also a good piece for teaching the craft of documentary filmmaking.