British Universities Film & Video Council

moving image and sound, knowledge and access

Memories of the Origins of Ethnographic Film

Memories of the Origins of Ethnographic Film edited by Beate Engelbrecht (Peter Lang,  Frankfurt, 2007), 504 pages, ISBN: 978-3631507353, £35.80.

About the Author: Susanne Hammacher is the Film Officer of the Royal Anthropological Institute. and coordinator of the RAI International Festival of Ethnographic Film since 2002. She read anthropology, economics and history of art at the University of Basel, Switzerland. She worked for over ten years as head of education and public programmes at the Museum der Kulturen in Basel, and as exhibition officer at the Museum of Childhood, V&A, London. She has been conducting fieldwork in Mexico since 1982 on aspects of trading and market systems, gender and migration, textiles (silk production, platting, weaving), community museums and audio-visual indigenous media. She is curating and facilitating various screening and outreach projects in London as well as working on the digitisation of the RAI collection.

The memories of an ‘unforgettable event’ have finally been published in this reader: in 2001 the German Institute of Scientific Film (IWF) in Göttingen, arranged a conference on the ‘Origins of Visual Anthropology – Putting the Past Together’. The founders of Visual Anthropology and other experts were invited to discuss the history of the subject, and the impact of its main protagonists – these included Richard Leacock reflecting on the collaboration with Robert Flaherty; Brian Winston exploring the position of British documentary filmmaker John Gierson, who created a type of non-fiction movie which he defined as ‘the creative treatment of actuality’; the work of Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson, the first to extensively use film and photography as a research tool. Most influential was the work by John Marshall, who was engaged for half a century with the !Kung San Bushmen. His oeuvre on one people, the Ju’hoaisi, in one place, Nyae Nyae, reflects many of the concerns of ethnographic film. A similarly extensive educational visual fieldwork record has only been produced by Timothy Asch, whose film work includes more than sixty ethnographic films, although always made in collaboration with others. As Director of the Center for Visual Anthropology in USC’s anthropology department, Asch promoted a distinct methodology of collaboration between anthropologists and media makers.

There has long been a fertile connection between ethnographic filmmaking and new directions in fictional and documentary cinema. This was particularly true in the 1960s with the emergence of cinéma vérité, ‘direct cinema’ and the French Nouvelle Vague. Under Colin Young, who established a Film and Anthropology Programme at the University of California at Los Angeles, these strands were brought together for a generation of film students, giving an important impetus to the development of visual anthropology. Many of the early exponents of observational cinema trained on this programme, including David and Judith MacDougall, Paul Hockings and Mark McCarty, David Hancock and Herb di Gioia. Later, when he moved back to Britain to become the Director of the newly created National Film and Television School, Young would once again create links between film and anthropology. Many of his students are today the main protagonists of observational and participatory approaches, of cross-cultural film-making or transnational cinema.

The strength of Memories of the Origins of Ethnographic Film is that it discusses several film-based research projects, trying to position them within their national academic fields: the German ‘Encyclopaedia Cinematographica’ project; Edmund Carpenters Cross-Cultural Media Experiment in New Guinea (1969-70); the Worth/Adair Navajo Filmmaking Experiment; Asen Balikci’s MACOS (Man, A Course of Study) project; an educational tool on the life Cycle of the Canadian Inuit. The ‘Australian Way’ provides a portrait of the work made by anthropologists at the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders (AIATSIS) and Howard Morphy analyses the changing aesthetics in Ian Dunlop’s films, which reflect on the changing understanding of Aboriginal societies.  Marc Henry Piault’s ‘The ‘cine-transe’ and the Reign of the Subject’ profiles the most outstanding European ethnographic filmmaker is Jean Rouch while Joëlle Kühne looks at the work of Luc de Heusch, who although less known outside the French speaking countries has been heavily involved in ethnographic filmmaking in Africa and Belgium. Colette Piault resumes the impact of the networks in visual anthropology in Europe, positioning the different festivals, conferences and seminars. In a final statement Fadwa El Guindi looks into the future of visual anthropology and how new technologies and globalization bring new forms of analysing and publishing moving images.

The 32 lively contributions are also enriched with interviews and personal memories, biographies of the authors and protagonists, a filmography and a carefully drawn index of films and persons and make this reader a very useful resource to explore the origins of visual anthropology and ethnographic filmmaking.

Susanne Hammacher

Delicious Save this on Delicious |