Tag Archives: documentary film

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. Continue reading

The Four Dimensions of Ethnographic Films

In my last post I argued that rather than choosing between overly narrow (“closed”) or overly broad (“open”) definitions of ethnographic film, it would be better to follow Uberto Eco’s model of listing a “family of resemblances.” This would consist of a list of features that make a film “ethnographic” but without any two ethnographic films necessarily sharing the exact same list of features. When I wrote that I had a draft list of about sixteen features I had been working on. I had planned to prune it down a bit and sharing it with you today; however, upon further reflection it occurred to me that the longer list could be grouped into four broad categories, or “dimensions,” as follows:

  • Discipline: features related to the discipline of anthropology (e.g. films made by anthropologists)
  • Norms: features related to the norms and practices of ethnographic research (e.g. research ethics)
  • Subject: features related to the topics and peoples discussed in the anthropological literature (e.g. films by or about nomadic peoples)
  • Genre: features related to the various styles associated with the genre of ethnographic film (e.g. “reflexivity”) Continue reading

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. Continue reading

Filming Empathy – Part 1

In their essay “Whatever Happened to Empathy?” Hollan and Throop1 cite the ambivalence that Franz Boas felt about the usefulness of the concept for ethnography:

On the one hand, Boas seemed to champion empathy when acknowledging that the ‘‘needs of anthropological research have led many investigators to adapt themselves as thoroughly as may be to the ways of thinking of foreign tribes and peoples . . .” And yet, on the other hand, Boas remained decidedly suspicious of such empathetically based approximations of other lifeworlds, given his views on . . . the problems inherent in inferring similarities based on observed likenesses in outwardly perceptible behaviors and effects.

Another way of putting this might be to say that a little empathy aids in interpretive understanding, but too much empathy gets in the way of rational explanation. Maybe this is the case. I certainly think that studies of nonhuman animals tend to suffer from either a total lack of empathy or a surfeit of anthropologizing that refuses to recognize difference. I’m less certain how important it is to insist on recognizing difference when dealing with other humans. Talal Asad famously criticized Ernest Gellner for his insistence on difference in his article on “The Concept of Cultural Translation in British Social Anthropology” in the book Writing Culture. In that essay Asad points out that the refusal of empathy insisted upon by Gellner takes place in the context of a history of unequal power relationships between the two sides. But to the extent that we take “the culture concept” seriously, surely we must be wary of the potential of empathy to erase the differences we wish to explain?

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The Ethnographic “Shooting Ratio”

One of the questions I get asked most often by graduate students doing ethnographic research is about how much data they need to collect. I think this is especially troublesome for those who are doing fieldwork somewhere far away, where limited time and funds mean that they will unlikely be able to make a return trip after they return from the field. But even those doing research closer to home want to know “How much is enough?” In answering this question I draw on my experience as a documentary filmmaker.

A “shooting ratio” is “the ratio between the total duration of its footage created for possible use in a project and that which appears in its final cut.” For a Hollywood film, where the scenes are planned in advance, this might be four to one. That is, shooting four hours of footage for every hour of the final film. Now that films have largely gone digital, producers no longer need to worry about the cost of expensive film stock, but it still costs a lot to have actors and crew out for a day and nobody wants to waste too much time shooting the same scene over and over again.

For documentary films, however, it is different. Continue reading

Incorporate Now!

Anthropology may be “the worst major for a corporate tool” but that doesn’t mean that anti-corporate anthropologists shouldn’t consider incorporating. In this special pre-tax-day post I will take a break from my usual anti-capitalist blogging to talk about one particular instance where anthropologists might want to incorporate: if you are thinking of making a documentary film it may be just the thing for you.1

Many independent filmmakers register as either an S-Corporation2 or an LCC (a limited liability company) in order to protect themselves if they get sued3 by the subjects of their films. (Or from someone who claims to be harmed by the film or by the process of making the film.) Having a company helps protect your personal assets, such as your house or retirement savings, etc. from being seized if you were to loose the suit. Many independent filmmakers even set up separate LLCs for each film. Doing so, however, is a lot of work, and not without its downsides.

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Spoiler Alert!

Winner of the SVA’s Jean Rouch Award in 2012, Stori Tumbuna is the only ethnographic film I can think of for which one has to watch out for “spoilers.” Indeed, what starts off as a seemingly generic ethnographic film soon turns into a Blair Witch-esque horror film. Despite the title of this post, I don’t intend to write any spoilers —I really don’t want to ruin for anyone the pleasure I felt watching this film the first time — but there really is only so much I can say about the film without giving too much away… The story is so well crafted and shifts gears so subtly from ethnography to horror that the discerning and suspicious viewer will likely find themselves caught up in the excitement without even noticing the switch.

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This Indigenous School Teacher Requested the Return of an Ancestral Pillar—What Happened Next Will Astound You…

In the first of what I hope to be several reviews of ethnographic and documentary films, I want to write about Hu Tai-li’s excellent film Returning Souls. This film will be of interest to anyone teaching about museum anthropology, repatriation, and indigenous rights. Filmed over eight years, the story it covers goes back forty years to a typhoon in 1958 which destroyed an indigenous ancestral house in the Amis village of Tafalong, about forty minutes south of where I live in Taiwan.

While Amis are generally egalitarian, the owners of this house, the Kakita’an family, had a special place in the village, and their house “is the only recorded structure with carved pillars” among the Amis (from the study guide – PDF). While aristocratic families and carved pillars are common among the Paiwan, they are not otherwise known among the Amis.

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