Ethnographic Films: A Family of Resemblances

This is the third post in my series on the definition of “ethnographic film.” In the first post I laid out the basic approach I am using: one based on Umberto Eco’s model of listing a “family of resemblances” rather than offering a strict test of a film’s “ethnographicness.” In the second post I showed how this would work in practice, based on a rough sketch of the “family of resemblances” I will be outlining in more detail here.

Before I do that, however, I’d like to take a moment to point readers to Carole McGranahan’s 2012 post “What Makes Something Ethnographic?” There she provides a list of nine features generated by her class. One of the points of she makes is that these features are constantly changing and evolving. This is why, in defining ethnographic film, I chose to dodge the bullet by avoiding the question altogether! Letting others deal with that problem is the easy way out, I don’t deny it; but it also allows me to articulate a definition that can change along with the discipline. Looking back at previous attempts to define ethnographic film, many of them strike me as having been dated before the ink even dried on the paper. Hopefully this more flexible approach can avoid that fate.

And now on to the list! If you feel I missed an important feature, or overlooked something, please let me know in the comments.

1st Dimension: Discipline

This dimension includes features that connect ethnographic films to the discipline of anthropology.

Films made by anthropologists.

  • Obviously, not all films made by anthropologists are ethnographic films. Home movies, or even research footage are not inherently ethnographic just because they were made by an anthropologist. But (as explained in the last two posts) when combined with the other features listed here, this feature gains newfound importance.

Films made in collaboration with an anthropologist.

  • The nature of this collaboration matters a lot. Some anthropologists work closely with a filmmaker, while others are just “consulted” to bolster a film’s credentials. But anthropologists need not be behind the camera to help ensure that a film is ethnographic.

Films based on or inspired by anthropological research.

  • To the extent that anthropologists write for a wider public, we should also hope and expect for this wider public to read and understand our work. Thus, it makes sense to place films inspired by such an engagement on the same level as those made by the so-called experts. (And similar to such works, they need to be evaluated by the full list of features associated with each film.)

2nd Dimension: Norms

This dimension includes features related to the norms and practices of ethnographic research.

Films made with an “ethnographic intent.”

  • When anthropologists or their collaborators are working with the intension of making an ethnographic film, it is very likely that they will succeed – at least to the extent that they have the necessary skills and training to follow up on their intentions.

Films made in accordance with visual research ethics.

  • I think a lot of anthropologists would agree that films made with the consultation and cooperation of the film’s subjects often are able to provide much more complex and nuanced ethnographic insight. The norms of research ethics are one area where ethnographic films have changed a lot in the past few decades, but it is also precisely because of these changes that classic works like Robert Flaherty’s “Nanook of the North” have been given newfound attention by visual anthropologists.

Films made following ethnographic methods.

  • Intending to make an ethnography, and doing so ethically, doesn’t really count for much if you don’t know what you are doing. Some understanding of the tools of the trade is necessary, but still may not be essential if the film is not made by a professional anthropologist. But it is perfectly possible for amateur ethnographers to exceed the professionals in their grasp of these skills.

3rd Dimension: Subject

This dimension includes features related to the topics and peoples discussed in the anthropological literature.

Films about topics anthropologists study.

  • This is a tough one, because today there is virtually no subject outside of the realm of anthropology. Still, there are definitely some subjects, such as kinship or magic, which anthropologists have claimed as their own. These include both classic subjects taught in intro courses, as well as hot new topics like the “Anthropocene” which are featured at recent anthropology conferences.

Films made in collaboration with people from groups that have historical been the subjects of anthropological research .

  • Precisely because of the colonial history of anthropology, films about indigenous or nomadic peoples have long been a staple of the discipline. For this very reason, films made in collaboration with such subjects serves as an important commentary and perhaps even a critique of previous ethnographic films.

Films made by people from groups that have been subjects of anthropological research.

  • While films made by indigenous or nomadic peoples are no more necessarily ethnographic than films made by anthropologists, the same thing said about anthropologists holds for them as well: when combined with other features on the list the fact that the films were made by members of such groups can become an important consideration. In my last post I brought up the case of Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner, which is a narrative feature film made by indigenous filmmakers. I would argue that despite being a narrative feature film, it shares many of the features listed here, including collaborating with the community, following the practices of ethnographic research, and abiding by the ethical norms of the discipline, etc. For this reason I don’t have much difficulty listing it as an ethnographic film.

4th Dimension: Genre

This dimension includes features related to the various styles associated with the genre of ethnographic film.

Films made in an established ethnographic style.

  • There are a wide variety of styles that mark the genre of ethnographic film: observational, reflexive, sensory, etc. Not all of these styles are exclusive to ethnographic film, but some films are clearly marked as ethnographic by their stylistic choices.

Films made using multiple ethnographic styles.

  • A film needn’t be restricted to one particular style, and some directors combine multiple styles or approaches into a single film.

Films that seek to comment on or subvert the genre.

  • Films that are in dialog with the genre are ethnographic even if they deliberately avoid replicating aspects of ethnographic style. A great example of such a film is Trinh T. Minh-Ha’s Reassemblage which seeks to comment upon and undermine the norms of ethnographic cinema.

2 thoughts on “Ethnographic Films: A Family of Resemblances

  1. I like who you highlight upon the fact that films made by indigenous or nomadic peoples are not necessarily more ethnographic than films made by anthropologists. I’m going to have to mention this to my anthropology teacher in college and see what he thinks. I believe this could be a great conversation to have with him. Thanks for such a great, unbiased look at this detail of films.

  2. Atanarjuat is an interesting example. I show the film in some of my classes here in Barrow, AK. It resonates a great deal with my inupiat students. They will often talk about aspects of the film as though it were a direct expression of their own community. They know it’s a different time and a different place, and even an epic narrative, but still there is a definite sense of connection,

    …which brings to mind a related consideration; the likely reception by a given audience. This isn’t entirely a function of the film itself, or even a feature of its production. In certain contexts a feature film meeting few of the criteria listed above may provide a better jumping off point for ethnographic discussion than a film squarely fitting into the category.

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