The Beauty of Ethnographic Films

With their accompanying ethical and technical challenges.

Black and white, old photo of a man’s side profile, writing a letter
Photo by Suzy Hazelwood via Pexels

The beginnings of the fossilisation process

In the years following World War II, the field of ethnographic filmmaking (or visual anthropology) saw developments in the USA, Europe and Canada.

Source: National Geographic (YouTube) — the “Voice of God” voiceovers

Facing filmmaking dilemmas

As humans, we like our categories — filmmakers were no different. Understanding our social reality through these categories = modes of representation. These modes “set up conventions [of reality] that a given film may adopt, and they provide specific expectations viewers can anticipate having fulfilled”. Or:

Modes of representation are standards and points of view that a film can follow, and lets the viewer know what to expect when they sit down to watch them.

Language vs. Meaning vs. Intention

As anthropologists and filmmakers became more conscious that they were telling stories, they realised that how we construct the world is language-dependent, and the language of “classical” ethnographies are often inadequate to understand different cultures. For example, an anthropologist going from a patriarchal, patrilineal society to a matrilineal one wouldn’t have the right vocabulary to describe what she’s seeing.

[The] “feeling of one’s work disintegrating and being pulled back and reclaimed by the lives which generated it”.(McDougall, 2001)

This sentiment was echoed by Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin in Chronicle of a Summer where towards the end of the film they discussed the ambiguities in production, and a project they felt was getting away from what they had initially visualised. During one of our ethnographic filmmaking courses in college, my favourite professor told us that often, what you imagine your film/project will look like, and what it actually turns out as, are very different things — and we shouldn’t be afraid to let it happen.

Is it objective information if I “saw it happen with my own eyes”?

Margaret Mead, the famous cultural anthropologist, suggested that visual tools (videotapes, photographs) were reliable primary data. In Trance and Dance in Bali (1952), Mead explains that her focus is on nonverbal communication and body language, which text just doesn’t capture.

“That’s the trouble with anthropology … there’s no way of probing further material. So we gradually developed the idea of film and tapes.” (Mead, 1995)

She was surprised at anthropology’s failure to incorporate the camera into its fieldwork toolkit: “our criminal neglect of film” could be because of its demand for technical skill, expense, or ethical issues in filming, production and distribution. Once again, as a highly selective process, anthropologists may not film because they find it lacking objectivity.

“Whether a film is capable of generating more complex statements seems to depend upon the filmmaker’s ability to make the film more than merely a report on a cultural encounter and, instead, embody it.”


  1. MacDougall, David. ‘Whose Story is it?’ in Visual Anthropology Review, Volume 7, Issue 2, September 1991, pp. 2–10
  2. Worth, Sol, and John Adair. ‘Through Navajo Eyes: An Exploration In Film Communication and Anthropology’, Indian University Press, 1972
  3. Mead, Margaret. ‘Visual Anthropology in a Discipline of Words’ in Paul Hockings (ed.), Principles of Visual Anthropology. De Gruyter, 1995, pp. 3–10
  4. MacDougall, David. Interview by Anna Grimshaw and Nikos Papastergiadis, ‘Conversations with Anthropological Film-makers: David MacDougall’, Prickly Pear Press Pamphlet №9, 1995 Accessed on: April 24, 2020

A Generation Z kid studying sociology and searching for the Fortress of Solitude.

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