Tag Archives: Film

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).

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On Profiling in India and the US

In describing the subject of our film, Please Don’t Beat Me, Sir! we often tell people that the situation of India’s Denotified Tribes (DNTs) is very similar to the kind of profiling that happens against African Americans or Muslim Americans. Recent examples from the states include Oscar-winning actor Forest Whitaker getting stopped and frisked leaving a Morningside Heights deli, and the “Stop and Frisk” program of the NY City Police Department (NYPD) which was recently ruled unconstitutional, as well as the news that the NYPD was “engaged in a massive surveillance operation on the city’s Muslim community.”

In fact, it turns out it is exactly the same. Indian papers recently broke the story that police officers in Ahmedabad have “prepared a dossier on 207 men and women” in the Chhara community – the very community where we shot our film.

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Moral affect, ‘the war on terror,’ and the posthuman symbolism of Zero Dark Thirty

Zero Dark Thirty begins with a statement that it is “Based on Firsthand Accounts of Actual Events.” And then the screen goes black; you hear voices from the World Trade Center only.  The theatre is pitch black for minutes.  There is no vision.

I went to see Zero Dark Thirty on Saturday. I’ve tried to avoid reading any of the controversy until having an opportunity to see the film (it opened later in Ireland than in the States), though it’s hard when my favorite critic of US power (Greenwald) has made what I am sure are compelling arguments against the film; and my favorite drama queen (Andrew Sullivan) has also been writing about it a lot; I have tried to avoid them both on ‘ZDT’, and so now I have to go back and read a month’s worth of material. Anyway, the film absolutely does position torture as effective in gaining intelligence that led to Osama Bin Laden, which is not a truthful claim despite the film’s opening sentence, and therefore it appears to carry forward the ideology of the ‘war on terror’ as promulgated by Cheney and Co.  So the central historical claim of the film appears to be false.  Still, according to Andrew O’Hehir at Salon, “Hina Shamsi, the director of the ACLU’s National Security Project, who does not think ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ is pro-torture, has made the especially apt observation that it’s a story about war crimes told from the perspective of the criminals.”

The question that hovers over the film is:  what does the ‘perspective’ of the war criminals look like?  What does it see?  Being a film, what does ZDT show about the war on terror as a ‘way of seeing’?  I don’t think the film is triumphalist or a representation of the heroic (pace Naomi Wolf’s over the top take down of the director). While not being an ideological condemnation of the prosecution of the ‘war on terror,’ it seems to me that it does portray the inhumanity, and figuratively the non-humanity, of those prosecuting it through the symbolism of affect (or its absence) it deploys.  The symbol is ultimately a kind of killer (affectless) insect.  This is what US ‘national security’ has become.

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2012, the movie we love to hate

The second in a guest series about the “Mayan Apocalypse” predicted for Dec. 21, 2012.  The first post is here.

Last summer, I traveled to Philadelphia to visit the Penn Museum exhibit “Maya: the Lords of Time.” It was, as one might expect given the museum collection and the scholars involved, fantastic.  I want to comment on just the beginning of the exhibit, however. On entering, one is immediately greeted by a wall crowded with TV screens, all showing different clips of predicted disasters and people talking fearfully about the end of the world. The destruction, paranoia, and cacophony create a ambiance of chaos and uncertainty. Turning the corner, these images are replaced by widely spaced Mayan artifacts and stela. The effect is striking.  One moves from media-induced insanity to serenity, from endless disturbing jump-cuts to the well-lit, quiet contemplation of beautiful art. Continue reading

5 Documentary Films from Taiwan

Someone asked me for a list of five documentary films for an online anthropology publication, but the piece never got published so I’m sharing it here. I decided to choose is a list of five films from Taiwan which I think would be particularly interesting for anthropologists. I’ve tried to select a variety of film styles: one fiction film by an indigenous Taiwanese filmmaker (Finding Sayon), two ethnographic films made by Taiwanese anthropologists (Returning Souls and Amis Hip-hop), a documentary by an indigenous activist (What’s Your Family Name, Please?), and an observational documentary (Yellow Box).

Yellow Box looks at the world of “Betel nut beauties” (scantily clad women who sell betel nuts to passing drivers) but manages to avoid being exploitative by pointing the camera so the gaze is primarily on the customers.

Finding Sayon is fictional account of a film crew visiting the village where a famous Japanese-era story, The Bell of Sayon (about an Aborigine girl who sacrificed her life for her Japanese teacher) took place. [Yes, I know this means it isn’t really a list of 5 documentaries – but this film is definitely of interest. We even had a review of it here on Savage Minds.]

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Attention Deficit Ethnography

[The post below was contributed by guest blogger Lane DeNicola, and is part of a series on the relationship between academic precarity and the production of ethnography, introduced here. Read Lane’s previous posts: post 1 — post 2 — post 3]

Our final prompt in this series asks about the possible virtues that emerge from the necessities of marginality or academic precarity, the effects on ethnography of such “new intellectual possibilities.”  On the whole I’ve so far stuck with the trajectory I laid out for these posts, engaging with precarity and ethnography first via my experience of living in a London suburb in over the last several years and then on the subway I used to get aroundwhile living there.  In both cases I focused on my own ethnographic practice and experience and particularly on observational practice.  For this final post though I want to shift the focus to the effects on ethnography not “as practiced” but “as taught or learned,” not as observational technique but as representational technique.  The post-millennial relevance of this seems clear, with a number of the conversational threads on SM proceeding from the observation that information technology and digital media are having an expanding range of effects not just in the field of anthropology but in education (that other domain inhabited by so many practicing anthropologists).

My earlier posts also (I note in looking back over them) relied pretty heavily on metaphor and pop culture/sci-fi references, but I can’t think of a good reason to change that now, so: for better and for worse, one of my last opportunities to be social before leaving the UK last month was spent in front of the IMAX screen at the British Film Institute (“the largest film screen in the UK”).  The BFI’s performative apparatus is matched only by the fantastic quality and diversity of films routinely screened there, but this particular outing (with several participating students and other friends) was centered around a pop-culture event with a dash of speculative pseudo-archaeology: Prometheus, Ridley Scott’s prequel to the 1979 film Alien.  Overall the film is pretty awful in largely predictable ways (did I mention this was a 3D screening?), but it serves to illustrate my point here, particularly in a fleeting reference the film makes to Lawrence of Arabia (a quite different film about a quite different type of alien). Continue reading


I’ve never been one for visual anthropology, and I’m totally uninterested in pushing the boundaries of what constitutes ‘ethnography’. As a fieldworker, I’m fascinated by the micro-dynamics of human behavior and how we create roles for each other to inhabit in everyday life. When I watch documentaries, then, I’m usually trying to imagine the human situations involved in production and let me tell you, there is a whole lot of that stuff in Captains, William Shattner’s documentary on the different actors who have portrayed captains in the sprawling Star Trek franchise.

Things get interesting quickly because it becomes obvious that the subject of the documentary is not the interviewees but the interviewer: Shattner’s real intention is clearly to make a documentary about himself and the long road he’s trod in life, and particularly to let the entire world know that he was once a classical thespian in the mould of Olivier and Gieldgud. The other major theme is how ennobled and wise he has become being forced to carry the entire weight of the Star Trek franchise on his back across the course of his career.

As a result the show focuses prominently on the fact that the other captains also started out in theater, mostly so Shattner can ask tell them about his time treading the boards. He asks them how Star Trek has changed them, so he can tell them how it has changed him. He asks them their views on life after death and the nature of infinity so that he can brood over his inevitable mortality. It is, in short, a clinic on how not to interview people, with special focus on the preoccupied and narcissistic interviewer. Absolutely fascinating to watch. Continue reading

Protecting Informants in a Time of Digital Thievery

The NY Times has an article about how corporate executives and government officials leave their laptops behind when they go to China or Russia, for fear that corporate or government secrets might be compromised by advanced spyware.

it has become easier to steal information remotely because of the Internet, the proliferation of smartphones and the inclination of employees to plug their personal devices into workplace networks and cart proprietary information around. Hackers’ preferred modus operandi, security experts say, is to break into employees’ portable devices and leapfrog into employers’ networks — stealing secrets while leaving nary a trace.

I mention this because it is also a serious concern for anthropologists I know who do research in China. We here on Savage Minds have written a lot about using digital tools for research, but it is also worth thinking about the vulnerabilities such tools create for one’s informants. There are a lot of tools one can use to encrypt data, but they are useless if some Lisbeth Salander has already hacked into your computer and stolen the password. How paranoid should we be? What steps can we take to protect our digital data? Please use this as an open thread to discuss these issues.

Digital Money, Mobile Media, and the Consequences of Granularity

Nicholas Negroponte famously insisted that the dotcom boomers, “Move bits, not atoms.” Ignorant of the atom heavy human bodies, neuron dense brains, and physical hardware needed to make and move those little bits, Negroponte’s ideal did become real in the industrial sectors dependent upon communication and economic transaction. In the communication sector, atomic newspapers have been replaced by bitly news stories. In the transactional sector, coins are a nuisance, few carry dollars, and I just paid for a haircut with a credit card adaptor on the scissor-wielder’s Droid phone.

The human consequences of the bitification of atoms go far beyond my bourgeois consumption. This shift, or what is could simply be called digitalization, when paired with their very material transportation systems or networked communication technologies, combines to form a powerful force that impacts local and global democracies and economies.

What are the local and political economics of granularity in the space shared between the fiduciary and the communicative? To understand the emergent political economy of the practices and discourses unifying around mobile media and digital money we need a shared language around the issue of granularity. Continue reading

Subjective, objective and indigenous history: Seediq Bale’s take on the Wushe Incident

A favorite topic on the blogosphere is whether or not Seediq Bale is an historically accurate take on the Wushe Incident. Some details, at least, are inaccurate, and people have some questions for the director Wei Te-sheng. For instance: Why is Mona Rudao at events in the early 1900s he didn’t attend (人止關 in 1902 and 姊妹原 in 1903)? Why does Mona Rudao shoot at Seediq women when there’s no historical evidence for it and when it goes against gaya – tribal tradition or teaching? Where does the child warrior Pawan Nawi come from? And so forth.

Child warrior Pawan Nawi and Chief Mona Rudao

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Mona Rudao’s scars: epic identity in “Seediq Bale”

Commentary on the film Seediq Bale often relates it to Taiwan identity. Leaping the fifty years from the Wushe Incident (1930) to Taiwan nationalism (1980s) might seem like a non sequitur or anachronistic, but many have made the leap. According to The Economist, “its message of a unique, empowering Taiwanese identity is unmistakable.” I found this statement very irritating when I read it. What business does anyone have relating a Seediq resistance against the Japanese to Taiwan identity? I’ll address the issue of the supposed connection between Seediq Bale and Taiwan identity in a roundabout way, by exploring Seediq Bale as an epic film. It seems to me that the film’s message is of an epic identity, not necessarily an empowering one.

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Nativization and Foreignization in the Translation of “Seediq Bale”

The epic film Seediq Bale: Warriors of the Rainbow Bridge is of particular interest to translators because it’s in the Taiwanese aboriginal language Seediq. As a Chinese-English literary translator I’m naturally interested in problems of translation in the film. Unfortunately, I don’t know the Seediq language. Translators know they should comment on languages they know well; but I’m going to go out on a limb here and comment on one issue of translation in Seediq Bale: the title of the film. Then I’ll use the nativization-foreignization continuum from translation theory to comment on different translations of the title.

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“Seediq Bale” as a primitivist film

Seediq Bale is the biggest Taiwan film ever and the story of an indigenous resistance (against the Japanese in central Taiwan in 1930). As such, it reminds one of Avatar. Having spent many childhood nights reading Call of the Wild to the light of the moon, and many days in early adulthood reading Joseph Campbell – the great Primitivist and Orientalist – I’m embarrassed to admit that I came out of Avatar starry-eyed; Avatar is calculated to appeal to people like me with a “primitivist” tendency. It speaks, in a highly commercialized, packaged, unthreatening and, on second and third viewings, irritating way to longings in the wayward heart of modern man. Seediq Bale, for everything else that one might say about it, speaks to those same longings.

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The Chinese connection in Taiwan’s first indigenous film

In Taiwan’s first indigenous filmFinding Sayun, there are two casting assistant/cameraman characters from Beijing, as well as a director from Beijing. The director from Beijing never appears on screen. We only hear his voice as he watches the footage recorded by his Taiwanese casting director. What are these mainlanders doing in a Taiwan indigenous film? One reviewer complains the Chinese connection is irrelevant and was probably included to attract Chinese investment. Another possibility is that the director Laha Mebow wanted to attract Chinese tourists to the village. B&B tourism is part of the marketing of the film. I don’t know if Chinese tourists stay in B&Bs, but there are now a lot of Chinese tourists visiting Taiwan. What if the investor put pressure on the director to change the film in accordance to mainland audience expectations? What if the director put on rose-colored glasses to make her village attractive to the mainlanders? These are delicate questions. I was too afraid to ask them. So, I asked the director via e-mail what the mainlanders are doing in her film. Suffice it to say, the director encouraged me to find the meaning of the Chinese connection in the film itself rather than the film’s investment structure or marketing strategy.

It seems to me that rather than declare the mainland Chinese presence in Finding Sayun irrelevant we should try and make sense of it.

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Taiwan’s first indigenous film? Continuum and either/or definitions of “indigenous film”

In an article on the recent Orchid Island film Waiting for the Flying Fish, which is about but not by Taiwan’s indigenous peoples, Prof. Anita Wen-hsin Chang called for funding for local films by indigenous directors. Finding Sayun, directed by the indigenous woman Laha Mebow, claims (on the film poster) to be the kind of film Prof. Chang has been waiting for: a local film with an indigenous director. Therehas been significant indigenous involvement in other films, including this year’s “epic” about the Wushe uprising in 1930, Seediq Bale. A better example is The Sage Hunter, starring the Taiwan indigenous writer Sakinu and based on his writings.










If Finding Sayun is Taiwan’s first indigenous film, it is Taiwan’s first contribution to the growing corpus of global indigenous film. According to Houston Wood, the author of Native Features: Indigenous Film from Around the World, the first indigenous film was Richardson Morse’s 1972 adaptation M. Scott Momaday’s novel House Made of Dawn. The first feature by an indigenous woman was the Australian Tracey Moffat’s beDevil in 1993. A Chinese/Atayal language indigenous film with limited distribution (even in Taiwan) like Finding Sayun is not likely to make it onto the radar of a scholar like Wood. This is not a criticism of Wood, who had his work cut out for him trying to cover indigenous films in English speaking countries.

But what does it mean to claim that a film is indigenous?

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