Do we even need to define ethnographic film?

Before this year I never felt the need to come up with a clear definition for what counts as an “ethnographic film.” Constructing better pigeonholes only seems to be of use to the gatekeepers who get to decide which films count and which do not. I still think that’s true, but this year I became one of those gatekeepers! As programmer for the 2017 Taiwan International Ethnographic Film Festival I suddenly found myself needing to articulate some kind of working definition that could be communicated to filmmakers, distributors, festival judges, etc. so that everyone understood what did or did not count as an “ethnographic film” for the purpose of this festival. I failed.

The best I could offer was “I know one when I see one” but this definition cost me dearly. We had over 1,500 entries for the festival, and it took a lot of work to weed out which of those films would go on to the judges and which would not. In the end about two thirds of the films were rejected in the first round. In many cases we only needed to read the film description or watch a few minutes to know that it wasn’t right for the festival. In other cases I ended up watching the whole film before deciding. It was a lot of work.

To be honest, I don’t know if a better definition would really have helped. Festival submissions are free1 and a lot of filmmakers don’t bother to read the rules before submitting. Many of the rejected films didn’t even meet the most basic entry requirements listed on the submissions page, and hundreds of them were clearly scripted dramas with no claims to being the slightest bit anthropological or ethnographic. Still, the whole process got me thinking about how I would go about trying to define ethnographic film. Here’s what I came up with. I’m posting this in two parts. Today I’ll set out my goals for such a definition, including my overall approach. In a later post I plan to actually sketch out what such a definition might look like.

Previous definitions of ethnographic film seem to fall into two camps: On the one hand there are “open” definitions that tautologically define anything anthropologists like to watch or talk about as an ethnographic film. On the other hand, there are “closed” definitions that try to very narrowly define ethnographic film in terms of some kind of ideal which would effectively exclude most films shown at ethnographic film festivals. (For a good overview, see Matthew Durington’s Oxford Bibliography entry for “Ethnographic Film.” It’s paywalled, but the relevant section is right there in the preview.) Neither of these are very useful for actually running an ethnographic film festival. Too open a definition and we run the risk of becoming just another documentary film festival, one of dozens held in Taiwan each year. Too narrow a definition and we end up with a bunch of boring films by anthropologists that nobody (not even most anthropologists) wants to see. So what to do?

I think it is useful to start by grouping films into three categories. At one end are films like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom which everyone agrees is most certainly not an ethnographic documentary. Which isn’t to say that Indian Jones couldn’t be used by anthropologists in the classroom, or as a tool to study American popular culture in the 1980s, but that doesn’t make it an “ethnographic film.” At the other end of the spectrum are films that nobody doubts are ethnographic. These are the films that we now consider to be part of the ethnographic film canon. Films like Trobriand Cricket, or Dead Birds that have been seen by generations of students taking anthropology 101. But while these films may be uncontroversially ethnographic, a film made in 2017 that was just like Trobriand Cricket or Dead Birds might not be accepted into an ethnographic film festival. Changes in the discipline as well as in the medium have changed our expectations of what ethnographic films can and should look like. But this means that there is an increasingly large grey zone between those films we know to be ethnographic and those we know are not. A good definition will never eliminate this grey zone, but it should give us some signposts so that we can better navigate our way through it.

To do this I find it helpful to draw on the model Umberto Eco used to articulate his famous definition of “fascism” (which Matt blogged about in 2013). This approach was itself drawn from Wittgenstein’s “notion of a game.” Rather than listing a set of proscriptive features, such definitions rely instead upon a “family of resemblances.” One unique feature of this approach is that while an item might be excluded from a strict definition for lacking even a single required feature Wittgenstein allows two items to be included in the group even if they share no features in common — as long as they share features with other intermediate elements in the series. Confused? Eco describes it better than I can. He asks us to “consider the following sequence”:

[a b c], [b c d], [c d e], [d e f]

Suppose there is a series of political groups in which group one is characterized by the features [a b c], group two by the features [b c d], and so on. Group two is similar to group one since they have two features in common; for the same reasons three is similar to two and four is similar to three. Notice that three is also similar to one (they have in common the feature c). The most curious case is presented by four, obviously similar to three and two, but with no feature in common with one. However, owing to the uninterrupted series of decreasing similarities between one and four, there remains, by a sort of illusory transitivity, a family resemblance between four and one.

This is perfect for “ethnographic film” which includes wildly disparate types of works: films by anthropologists, films made in collaboration with anthropologists, films by indigenous filmmakers, films made in collaboration with indigenous filmmakers, films about subjects traditionally considered the domain of anthropology, films made by non-specialists that have an anthropological sensitivity, etc. Not to mention films made in very different styles: reflexive, observational, experimental, sensory, ethno-fiction, etc. We need a way to include all of these films together while simultaneously excluding the vast majority of documentary and fiction films which are not ethnographic. And we need to do it in a way which isn’t overly restrictive so that we can actually have a film festival and not just restrict ourselves to watching The Wedding Camels over and over again. It would certainly be impossible if we tried to adopt a closed or proscriptive approach, but I feel confident that something along the lines of a “family of resemblances” might actually work. Later on I hope to finish working out a draft of what such a definition might look like and share it in a follow-up post. In the meantime, feel free to leave your suggestions in the comments!

  1. Yes, charging an entry fee would limit the number of entries, but we get a lot of great entries from all over the world and don’t want to discourage filmmakers who don’t have a valid credit card or who can’t afford the entry fee. 

One thought on “Do we even need to define ethnographic film?

  1. As someone with a B.A. in Cultural Anthropology but then decided get an M.F.A. in film, in part because I wanted to write fewer papers and learn some (hands on) technical approaches that were monetizable…, I still grapple with what separates documentaries from ethnographic films. One thing immediately comes to mind – the amount of detail required (expected) of the ethnographer. The amount of detail in ethnographies is harder (impossible?) to convey on film. Perhaps some of the missing verbal detail is compensated for visually, but then you’re relying on the viewer to be mindful of things that are often subtle.

    Documentary filmmaking tends to be influenced (more and more) by narrative filmmaking: shot selections, continuity, storyline, writing (through editing) something coherent, the art of “arriving late and leaving early” in a scene (which creates drama and mystery, drawing in the viewer) – but great documentary work also shares the longitudinal arc in ethnographic works of seeing, filming and understanding a subject over time and giving the viewer a sense of the rhythm of the subjects’ lives, but as mentioned, it is practically impossible to fulfill the coverage within ethnographic work in the medium of film, but there are other questions worth asking: what are the acceptable limits of filming (versus writing) about a group when it coms to expectations of what is covered? And should ethnographic films expected to be seen in the context of supplemental readings (or the reverse – how does ethnographic literatures benefit from moving images)?

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