The Beauty of Ethnographic Films

With their accompanying ethical and technical challenges.

A. Sharma
5 min readDec 28, 2020
Black and white, old photo of a man’s side profile, writing a letter
Photo by Suzy Hazelwood via Pexels

In 1960, outside a quaint anthropological museum, Marceline Loridan pulled up her sleeve to show the numbers tattooed on her arm to her curious friends, who didn’t know about the Holocaust’s connection to the persecution of Jews. She later walked through the Place de la Concorde in Paris, talking to a camera about the anguish of living in Auschwitz, and of returning to France after the liberation.

Her fragmented monologue of memories, captured on film in Chronicle of a Summer, makes up the essence of ethnographic filmmaking. It is the process of capturing history into amber, and reliving it through various eyes — all of which have seen the world through different perspectives.

But what does that mean?

That every time you watch a documentary, or a movie (i.e. any film, they’re all part of the history-making process), you’re seeing it from your perspective; your worldview, which was created out of the politics of your time, the people and ideologies you’ve interacted with, your beliefs about the world.

In participatory documentaries, it means filmmakers are part of what’s happening in front of the camera — and raises questions on how they affect that situation. Taken this way? Tiktok, Instagram Reels, and Youtube videos can be participatory documentaries, too.

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.

The introduction of 16mm cameras, tape recorders, and synchronised sound-to-video brought the camera (and filmmaker by extension) closer to their subjects. This generation of postwar cinema moved away from the disembodied, expository mode’s seemingly-impartial “Voice of God” voiceovers, like the ones National Geographic has, to letting the subjects speak for themselves.

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

But despite this, filmmakers still faced technical and ethical dilemmas when videographing their subjects.

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.

Although there is one dominant mode that creates the overall structure of a film, documentary films can incorporate aspects of more than one mode. New modes of representation arise through a growing sense of dissatisfaction with a previous mode, but there’s no hierarchy to say that a new mode is better than an older one. For example, the participatory mode took shape with the postwar realisation that films don’t need to disguise the close relationship between filmmaker and subject, while performative documentary arose as a way to express “identity politics” in the 1980s and 1990s. They all have their pros and cons.

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.

This use of non-referential indexicals, or contextually-bound meanings, means challenging authorial assumptions and the textual independence of indigenous narratives. American-Australian filmmaker and anthropologist David MacDougall, in an interview, finds this reflexivity important to portray “people as individuals, as against portraying them simply as social actors or as types” (Grimshaw, Papastergiadis, 1995).

Take MacDougall’s films for an example. He (and his wife Judith) show a departure from then-conventional ethnographic strategies of didactic voice-overs and into a greater consciousness of the power relations that define a filmmaker-subject encounter and participatory films, such as in To Live With Herds (1982). As ethnographic filmmakers started opening up their work to the voices of their subjects, MacDougall was one of the first to include subtitles into his films for indigenous speech, keeping with the growing trend of sensitivity to representational politics.

Interestingly, when filmmakers opened their work to indigenous voices, they experienced a phenomena best described as:

[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.

Another major challenge MacDougall pointed out is that of your subjects either being over- or under-invested in a filmmaker’s process. In the former, they can test a filmmaker’s sense of control over a film by “putting themselves at the center of any enterprise”. Maybe your subject is telling you that this angle will look better, or that event is worth recording. Or they can be completely disinterested in the film due to differing cultural priorities, as Sam Yazzie is in Through Navajo Eyes (Worth and Adair, 1972).

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.

There is a lot of ambiguity around the use of visual aid in anthropology, and the overall objectivity of ethnographic filmmaking. As MacDougall says:

“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. Nichols, Bill. ‘What types of Documentary are there?’ In Introduction to Documentary. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001, pp. 99–137
  2. MacDougall, David. ‘Whose Story is it?’ in Visual Anthropology Review, Volume 7, Issue 2, September 1991, pp. 2–10
  3. Worth, Sol, and John Adair. ‘Through Navajo Eyes: An Exploration In Film Communication and Anthropology’, Indian University Press, 1972
  4. Mead, Margaret. ‘Visual Anthropology in a Discipline of Words’ in Paul Hockings (ed.), Principles of Visual Anthropology. De Gruyter, 1995, pp. 3–10
  5. 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. Sharma

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