Talk to someone about themselves and they’ll listen for hours.
- Dale Carnegie
This quote sums up ethnographic films almost as a whole. When you study an aspect of someone’s culture (in essence, a part of them) so much, they tend to be more open to talking to you — under the right social, economic and political circumstances.
But when you go to watch a film, you want to know what genre you should expect. Will it be an open-ended, poetic sort of film? Will it make you question your social privileges (or lack of) and stay with you for days after?
This is how the modes of representation were born; as “conventions [of reality] that set specific expectations viewers can anticipate having fulfilled” (Nichols, 2001).
Films are influential. They can affect the way we think, the way we interact with other people, and even form social connections and prejudices based off of them. Overall: they can either make the audience in favour or against a group/event by the way they subtly portray it.
Take a look at observational films, as an example
The observational mode stressed the capturing of events as they happen; events that would happen regardless of the presence of a camera. Though we are able to “look in on life as it is lived”, this mode throws light on ethical issues of filming, such as:
- Lack of subjects’ consent,
- Indirect intrusion into their lives, and
- Choosing subjects because of their “cinematic appeal” i.e. because they’re unique, fascinating, or your audience will find them unusual.
However, some observational films are a reverse of the basic premise that events will happen regardless of the presence of a camera — press conferences, for example, are held because of the camera, as well as Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will (1935). They demonstrate that not only does a camera capture historical events, but constructs aspects of it as well.
This mode directly addresses viewers, and receives most of its structure from what a guiding, apparently-impartial voice (or the “voice of God” commentary) says. This voice represents the viewpoint of the filmmaker, while images serve to advance and lend credibility to the overall argument; National Geographic and other documentaries do this very well.
This mode has something called “evidentiary editing” that sacrifices continuity as long as it represents the best possible visible evidence. That means that even though Event A occurred before Event C, if Event C supports the argument better by coming first, filmmakers will ignore time continuity and use it before Event A. Like expository films, the poetic mode breaks continuity to stress on ambiguity, though without the verbal commentaries.
Performative documentaries, on the other hand, draw the audience into an emotional engagement with a particular experience or community, such as Paris is Burning (1990), which beautifully, agonisingly depicted the drag queen and LGBTQ+ community of New York. It took subjective forms of representation and unconventional narrative structures to create emotional experiences. These films sometimes take on an autobiographical note.
These show us what films really are: a construct or representation, and make the audience aware of expectations and assumptions they might hold of a film, as well as issues in representation. From a political perspective, reflexive films make audiences aware of stereotypes they might hold of the world around them, like feminist documentaries in the 1970s that called assumptions surrounding women into question.
Also called cinéma vérité (film truth) by filmmaker Jean Rouch, is where the filmmaker becomes a part of what happens in front of the camera, and how their presence there affects the situation. Interviews are a staple in this mode, and take place solely because of the existence of the camera.
Combining interviews and archival footage, for example, is a dominant way of recounting history. Interestingly, the idea of cinéma vérité emphasises that what is being shown is the truth, rather than an absolute truth. This asks:
Is there one truth? Is truth relative? Is what we see on film what actually happened, without anyone’s bias or intervention?
For example, Rouch’s film Chronicle of a Summer (1961) involves scenes that are a result of collaborations between filmmakers and subjects — scenes that wouldn’t have happened if not for the camera.
While participatory film allows one to be as close to the subjects as possible, the filmmaker’s presence makes the film a representation of reality, rather a reproduction of it.
But are all films a “lie”, then?
Actually, Danish anthropologist Kirsten Hastrup disagreed with this idea of films being representational. She stated that in the post-positivist era “participation … is fieldwork itself which generates the events that are then portrayed as facts.” (Hastrup, 1993). The line between what is truth, what is fact, and what is a representation of the filmmaker’s perspective, is completely blurred.
Ethnographic authority, then, doesn’t come when you say, “oh! but I saw it happen in front of my very eyes!”. It comes through participant observation, where researchers spend time with their subjects. Basically, being recognised as “a family member is … a claim to legitimacy” (Spiegel, 1984).
The real film truth
A debate between pioneering anthropologists Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead helps explain how relative “truth” is. In the filming process, Mead says that you should get “what happens”, as it happens; Bateson counters that you should film “what’s relevant” to your study, that society, etc.
Filmmakers and anthropologists should make a decision on what they want to show their audience (unfortunately, social scientists do have to keep their audience in mind when they work, not just individual interests). They can’t capture everything, so does that dilute their film’s credibility?
As with everything else relative, this selection also depends on the nature of research, and methodology you choose.
- Hastrup, Kirsten. ‘Anthropological Visions: Some Notes on Visual and Textual Authority’. In Film as Ethnography. Peter Ian Crawford, and David Turton, eds. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1993, pp. 8–25
- Nichols, Bill. ‘What types of Documentary are there?’ In Introduction to Documentary. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001, pp. 99–137
- El Guindi, Fadwa. ‘For God’s Sake Margaret’ In Visual Anthropology: Essential Method and Theory, Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira, 2004, pp. 61–82
- Spiegel, Pauline. ‘The Case of the Well-Mannered Guest’ in The Independence Film and Video Monthly, April 1984, pp. 15–17