experimental ethnography

Anthropology: Experimental Ethnography and Avant-garde Voices

“Once ethnography is understood as a discursive structure, its affinities with filmic ontologies of memorialization, redemption, and loss can become a rich source of allegorical possibility. If the cinema itself has taken on some of the aura of a ‘vanishing culture’ as it gradually evolves into the multiple forms of digital and electronic media, experimental ethnography refers to a mode of representation that understands itself as a practice that is historical, that takes place in a moment, or across several moments in time.”

Catherine Russell

Whose world, whose view, whose film, whose culture, whose gaze? Who is beyond the camera looking at the other?  Very different from traditional ethnographic film concepts, experimental ethnography adopts the techniques of experimental filmmaking like montage, surrealism, and voice-over commentary to offer a new way to see the exterior world. Unlike the traditional ethnographic film which excludes the “I” of the director and ethnographer, experimental ethnography involves the interference of the “I” behind the camera. This experimental version comes as a more interactive and inclusive practise. To put it differently, the distinction between the subject and the object of the camera gets blurry in experimental ethnographic filmmaking.

Starting from the 1950s through the 1980s, ethnographic filmmaking has changed. Jean Rouch, Robert Gardner, and David MacDougall became the forerunners of this change. Iconoclastic directors like Luis Bunuel and avant-garde artists such as Chantal Akerman and Maya Deren also proposed different studies on experimental ethnography.

In the first part, this article offers a brief introduction to ethnographic films. The second part, concentrates on the experimental film directors individually and explores some of their techniques.

Ethnographic film and its promises

Since the birth of cinema, ethnographic films have been part of the cinematic world. They are shot on the premise of documenting cultures and the patterns of people’s behaviours in social contexts by aiming at realistic representations. For the forerunners of this sort of filmmaking, the camera plays the role of a data collector. While this gathered data is the footage itself, an ethnographic film is made out of this footage to speak to a certain audience (McDoughall 407).

Ethnographic film shootings could be done for scientific purposes to collect data and have visual records of cultures at the edge of extinction. More, some were argued to be shot to serve the colonial and imperial forces. It also established authorship for the directors and ethnographers. Among the major ethnographic filmmakers, we could count Louis Regnault and Robert Flaherty.

1960s and afterwards for ethnographic film

To start with, the nature of ethnographic films has begun to change under the influence of 1960s cinema-verité and the British Free Cinema Movement. The directors were also influenced by “the ideas and technologies of observational cinema” (MacDougall 414). Additionally, “Lightweight synchronous sound cameras and film stocks of increased sensitivity” (MacDougall 414) endowed directors with freedom to film anywhere they want. In return, this lightweight equipment, such as handheld cameras,  began to change the concept of distance and space between the director and the actors. Consequently, some directors’ (such as Jean Rouch’s) cameras started to move in harmony with the actors.

ethnographic film

Experimental ethnography

According to MacDougall, “How films deal with reality” has been one of the main questions for experimental filmmakers. This experimental practise adds another dimension to ethnographic film by putting it into a dialogue with other art forms such as theatre, performance, dance and image. With innovative approaches, the scope of the experimental ethnographic film extends and brings new visions to anthropology.  In the following, I will try to show the contributions of the experimental directors from all around the world.

ethnograhic filmmaker
Chantal Akerman
image source:https://www.global-geneva.com/chantal-akerman-in-search-of-lost-culture/

Experimental ethnography and Chantal Akerman

Belgium-born director, Chantal Akerman is an avant-garde voice of the 1950s cinema. News from Home (1997) and From the East (1993) are considered her anthropology experiments. From the East represents the changing face of Europe and its socio-political contexts while employing the montage technique and jump cuts heavily as we travel to Poland, Germany and Russia.

experimental ethnographic filn
News from Home
image source: https://bombmagazine.org/articles/chantal-akermans-news-from-home/

Auto- Ethnographic Film News from Home (1977):

News From Home is about a girl who moved to New York without her parents’ permission. She gets letters from her parents, which are mostly about their health, financial worries and how much they miss their daughter. We never get to see the girl and her parents, but only hear Akerman’s voice, reading the parents’ letters. More importantly, we can only deduct information about what the girl has been going through only through these letters.

As a visual text, the film provides us with images of subways, busy and empty hours of the New York streets. Along with that, we have a glimpse of New Yorkers, walking and waiting, still or on the move. In short, the letters are inscribed on the cityscape of New York.

News from Home doesn’t participate in the tradition of ethnographic films. First of all, the director doesn’t give any  data that can be analysed scientifically. Secondly, there is a decentralized subject. Thirdly, voice and image never meet each other.  Russell states that “the autoethnographic subject blurs the distinction between ethnographer and Other… becoming a stranger in a strange land” (280). In other words, Akerman’s News from Home is more about the politics of identity. The camera points not at the other but at the floating sense of self. It is self-reflexive thinking in the socio-cultural structure of society.

Finally, at the end of the movie, the camera moves away from the city on a foggy day. The sea lies between the spectator and the skyscrapers of New York. The city speaks to us through decentralized subjectivity.

surreal ethnography
ımage source: https://www.leffest.com/en/films/2020/land-without-bread

Las Hurdes/ Land Without Bread: Ethnographic surrealist movie

Ethno-fiction? Surrealist documentary? Social-commentary- documentary? Black Comedy? There are so many interpretations of the movie Las Hurdes. Though, one thing is clear. Bunuel makes his own interpretation of ethnographic film with his surreal and iconoclastic touch.

When we hear or see the name Luis Bunuel, the first image that pops into our minds is probably from Un Chien Andalou. With his deep interest in the psychology of the image itself, Bunuel embraces surrealism to subvert the extant social order.

Bunuel shoots Land Without Bread after reading the ethnographic study Las Jurdes: étude de géographie humaine (1927) by Maurice Legendre. Bunuel’s version goes between being a moral satire and parody or becomes both.

Jean rouch ethnographic
Jean Rouch

Ethnographic filmmaker Jean Rouch

“For ethnographers, I am a filmmaker, and for filmmakers, I am an ethnographer.”
Jean Rouch

Ethnographer and filmmaker Jean Rouch is well known for his stunning studies as a French experimental documentary cinematographer of the 1960s. Some of his films studies are Jaguar, The Lion Hunters and Chronicle of a Summer. In these movies, he exercises experimental techniques. Though most of his movies take place in Africa(like the first two), he also documents Parisian life in Chronicle of a Summer.

What Rouch does differently from his predecessors in ethnographic filmmaking is to interfere with the actors through the use of handheld cameras. In his films, the distinction between the research field and the director is not clear anymore. He is especially known for his concept of “shared anthropology”.

Rouch’s “shared anthropology”:

This concept suggests collaborative work between the director and the subjects of the film. Rouch included the actors in every part of the film-making.  They would discuss and come up with ideas for their future projects, and edit the footage together. The actors could improvise during the voice-over commentary. Finally, Rouch clarifies that “his type of participatory research, as idealistic as it may seem, appears to him to be the only morally and scientifically feasible anthropological attitude today.”

ethnographic film
Chronicle of a Summer
image source: http://doubleexposurejournal.com/streaming-pick-chronicle-of-a-summer/

Parisian ethnography Chronicle of a Summer (1961)

This film is a collaboration between filmmaker Jean Rouch and sociologist Edgard Morin. Morin tells how they began their project: ‘I suggested this simple theme: “How do you live?” a question that should encompass not only the way of life (housing, work) but also “How do you manage in life?” and “What do you do with your life? Rouch accepted’.

Chronicle of a Summer is built on interviews with Parisians, answering these questions and trying to understand the socio-political situation of Paris through real people and real experiences. Commenting on the Algerian War, racism, decolonization and identity, the film doesn’t explore these terms in Africa but rather at their hometown.

What is more, another innovation he brings is that in the first scenes of the movie, we see Rouch himself, discussing how he should film and including the preparation part of filming. With regard to that, he posits a debate about the relationship between director and subject, subject and audience, camera and director, and finally, camera and subject.

ethnographic queer film
Friedrich’s Hide and Seek
image source: https://outcast-films.com/hide-and-seek/

Experimental ethnography: Su Friedrich’s Hide and Seek (1996)

As an example of queer cinema, Hide and Seek explores the representation of self.  Friedrich’s experimental documentary juxtaposes different elements. First, there are some excerpts from sex-education films and photographs. Secondly, there are interviews with adult lesbians. Lastly, it shares a narrative about a girl named Lu who discovers her sexuality in 1960s America.

Ethnographic film’s purpose can be analysed through the gaze it proposes. Catherine Russell writes, “In Hide and Seek, she [Friedrich] appropriates the disciplinary gaze for her own purposes to explore the various ways of seeing lesbians and to represent ways of seeing as a lesbian” (149). I think this is an important point. Unlike the first-generation ethnographic films, which document the other from the ethnographer’s view, Friedrich gives voice to the “other”.

Additionally, Friedrich uses footage from another ethnographic movie, Simba. Russell interprets this as an adaptation of a “series of different gazes to evoke the experience of an ethnographic subject” (149). To put it differently, Friedrich tries to give an insight into the subject’s experience rather than seeing it as scientific or cultural data.

experimental film
Funeral Parade of Roses (1961)
image source: https://www.cinerituel.com/bara-no-soretsu-1969-toshio-matsumoto/

Experimental documentary: Toshio Matsumoto’s Funeral Parade of Roses (1961)

One of the most experimental voices of Japanese post-war cinema, Toshio Matsumoto, is well known for his short video essays. Also, he is a visual theorist. In his manifesto, Matsumoto emphasizes the representation of society’s external and internal dynamics in a film. So, the director should keep in mind that first, self is embedded in society, and secondly, exterior social norms surround the individual.

On the streets, we see political protests during the day.  The underground queer culture, transgender women and the psych-rock style of music populate Japanese nights. As part of myth-making, Matsumoto also refers to the Oedipal complex.To document 1960s Tokyo, Matsumoto brings different elements together to give a picture of what it was like living in that specific period.

ethnographic filmmaker
Maya Deren

Maya Deren and experimental ethnography

Avant-garde American filmmaker Maya Deren had a special interest in the human body, dance and ritual. She foregrounded ritualized dance as a means of communication in her films. Meshes of the Afternoon, At Land, A Study of a Choreography for Camera, Ritual in Transfigured Time are some of her works in this tradition. Deren states, “My choreographies for the camera are not dances recorded by the camera; they are dances choreographed for and performed by the camera and by human beings together”.  In other words, she doesn’t restrict art to the stage but aims to show the dancer’s body as an extension of nature.

Furthermore, Deren investigates the relationship between cinema and consciousness, individual and collective, myth and religion, reality and imagination. Through montage and editing, she manipulates the images, reflects upon multiplication of self,  and follows ritualistic performances. Specifically, she follows the body. Besides, she makes use of montages and editing to produce more mystic and surreal elements in her short-scale films.

ethnographic filmmaking
From Meditation on Violence (1948)

Maya Deren and ethnographic studies

Deren’s studies on art and performance started to integrate with anthropology and ethnography in the aftermath of meeting Haitian dance culture.  In particular, the Haitian culture provided good material for Deren to explore the body in non-western culture. The Haitian Voodoo documentary (1954) and Meditation On Violence (1948) are ethnographic studies of hers.

Unfortunately, she couldn’t finish the editing process of the Haitian documentary, whereas Meditation On Violence, where Deren combines martial arts with dance, is available.

Last but not least, according to Catherine Russell, Deren’s ethnographic method “seeks a transcendent form of experience. What distinguishes her project … is the role of the body in her texts. Her fascination with the actual movements by which Haitian dancers invite the gods to possess them is what took her to Haiti. Deren pursues the conjunction of art and anthropology much further than her contemporaries, and she articulates the fundamental attraction of the avant-garde to native cultures that have persisted since the surrealists.” (208). In short, the body became the very source of Maya Deren’s experimental ethnographic studies.

experimental ethnography book
Experimental Ethnography by Catherine Russell (1999)

Book suggestions on experimental ethnography

Catherine Russell and experimental ethnography

The full title of the book is Experimental Ethnography: The Work of Film in the Age of Video, where Catherine Russell investigates the interrelation between the avant-garde and visual anthropology.  She analyses video essays from the 1890s to the 1990s and explores a wide array of artists, ranging from Georges Melies, Maya Deren Jean Rouch, Su Friedrich, Bill Viola, Kidlat Tahimik, Margaret Mead, Tracey Moffatt, and Chantal Akerman. In this work, she brings two separate fields together: 1)ethnography, a field dedicated to truism and scientific aspects of social behaviours; 2) avant-gardism / experimental filmmaking.

Arnd Schneide & Caterian Pasqualino – Experimental film and anthropology

This book offers a collage of essays on anthropology and experimental avant-garde filmmaking. It is an intriguing source particularly for those who have an interest in anthropology, visual anthropology, film and media studies.

The anthropological significance of experimental ethnography in film

Ethnographic films have existed since the birth of the cinema. In the beginning, they were constructed on the documentation of the cultures. The camera was the mere vehicle for data-collection and data-recording. The distinction between the director and the “Other” was very clear.

After the 1960s, the nature of ethnographic film changed drastically. The innovation of technology fastened this process and gave more spatial freedom to the directors and ethnographers. Besides, the approach of the directors changed too. Ethnographic filmmaking took names like ethno-fiction, autoethnography, experimental ethnography, dependent on the directors’ stances on observing other cultures.

Consequently, experimental ethnography became a more inclusive and collaborative study. Sometimes, it focused on the exploration of self imprisoned in certain political and cultural formations of society. “I” became the “other” to transcend the definition of ethnographic filmmaking.

Works cited:

MacDougall, David. “Ethnographic Film: Failure and Promise”. Annual Review of Anthropology. Vol. 7,1978, pp. 405-425. JSTOR. Accessed 18 June 2021.

Russell, Catherine. Experimental Ethnography: The Work of Film in the Age of Video. Durham: Duke University Press, 1999.

One thought on “Anthropology: Experimental Ethnography and Avant-garde Voices

  1. Really great work! Really enjoyed it, and excited to check out some of the films mentioned here as a big fan of experimental ethnographic methods

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