Fly in the Soup

Paul Henley

  • Anthropologie et cinéma: Passage à l'image, passage par l'image by Marc Henri Piault
    Nathan, frs 139.00, April 2000, ISBN 2 09 190790 1
  • Transcultural Cinema by David MacDougall
    Princeton, 328 pp, £11.95, December 1998, ISBN 0 691 01234 2

Ever since the invention of the first moving-image camera, there has been a feeling among anthropologists that film-making should form part of their ethnographic work. But exactly what this should entail has remained strangely uncertain, and concern has been expressed that it’s simply not possible to identify a form of film practice peculiar to anthropologists.

There was a time when a number of series on British television depended directly on anthropological expertise. But all that was swept away as audience figures became more important and television became less internationalist in its interests. Even before it was axed last year, the only remaining anthropological series on British terrestrial television, Under the Sun, had long since abandoned any extensive dependence on anthropologists’ research. Marc Piault reminds us that the British case is unusual in its almost exclusive dependence on the patronage of television. In contrast, in the other major centres of production – France, the United States and Australia – anthropological film-making has been primarily supported by academic institutions or government agencies.

By a provocative coincidence, both the origins of modern anthropology and the birth of cinema can be traced to the last decade of the 19th century. The 1898 Cambridge Expedition to the Torres Straits, off the coast of Queensland, is generally regarded as marking the break between the fieldwork-based discipline of anthropology and the armchair-bound speculations of the generation of Sir James Frazer, author of The Golden Bough. Alfred Haddon, leader of the expedition, bought a kinematograph, as ciné cameras were then called, barely two years after the Lumière brothers had unveiled their new device in December 1895. The film-stock was misdirected to Sarawak but arrived in time for Haddon to shoot four minutes of aboriginal dances and fire-making, which at the time was considered a significant amount. This first generation saw the new device as anthropology’s equivalent of the microscope or telescope, allowing exotic ways of life to be documented in a scientifically objective manner and one that would preserve them for posterity.

At this time, anthropology was concerned with working out a definitive classification of human types, in the same way that biologists had categorised the natural world. Particularly important were visible expressions of human diversity: physical racial characteristics, styles of dress and architecture, dance and other forms of display, artefacts and technical processes. Images had an important role to play in this with the result that anthropologists were enthusiastic users of the new kinematographs, and, compared to later generations, illustrated their books with generous quantities of photographs.

The conventional view is that as anthropology became more sociological from the 1920s onwards, and more concerned with language and forms of cognition, or with abstractions such as structures and functions, so anthropologists became correspondingly less interested in material expressions of culture and pictorial representations of them. Piault disagrees, however, pointing out that Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson used both film and photography in their research into mother-child relations in New Guinea and Indonesia in the 1930s. Why didn’t others do the same? He suggests that it was because of the elitist, literary ideology which dominated anthropology at the time, coupled with an unwillingness to counter the Eurocentric and often racist images of the Other that were then common currency in the cinema.

Whatever the reasons, anthropology became progressively less iconographic after the 1920s. Even as a means of documentation, film came to be seen as being of limited value in an academic discipline which aspired to become an objective science on a par with physics and biology. The use of the kinematograph by the pioneers had certainly been very naive. Some of the dancers in the Haddon footage were wearing cardboard masks because they had given up the cannibalistic cult with which they were associated a generation before. Haddon himself had found the cardboard to make them. As late as 1930, Franz Boas used film to document Kwakiutl dancers from British Columbia performing in front of a white sheet to hide the fact that they were in the yard of a non-Indian house. To anthropologists who believed not merely in the need for objectivity, but that social context was everything in understanding another way of life, this visual documentation was almost useless.

Although documentation and documentary share an etymological root, they are very different activities. If documentary does indeed involve ‘the creative treatment of actuality’, as the foundational definition from the 1920s would have it, how much creativity is allowable before the ‘actuality’ becomes a fiction? For anthropologists concerned with the authenticity of the visual record, this is a particularly significant question.

Many anthropologists would admit that documentary has a pedagogical role if the significance of the images is tightly controlled by a voice-over commentary. This is quite different, however, from the documentary form originated by Robert Flaherty in the 1920s and which is still employed in a large proportion of the films labelled as ‘ethnographic’. In these, a group of characters are followed through a series of activities arranged according to the dramaturgical requirements of a narrative. In the ur-documentary of this kind, Flaherty’s Nanook of the North, both the authenticity of the shots and the order in which they are presented have been hugely compromised for narrative effect, or simply for the sake of entertainment. Many anthropologists suspect that this is always going to be a temptation to documentarists.

Despite all the scepticism, over the last thirty years a renewed interest in film has been gradually developing within anthropology. Partly, the reasons are technological. Since the 1950s, film-making equipment has become progressively less complicated, less bulky and much cheaper. As a result, not only is it logistically easier to make films, but there is less need to manipulate what has become known as the ‘profilmic’ – what happens in front of the lens – simply in order to achieve a documentary.

Perhaps even more important is the changed view that anthropology now takes of itself. Although there are still those who believe it should model itself on the natural sciences, the orthodoxy now is that anthropology is more akin to history than physics. Issues of accuracy and authenticity are still important, but interpretation takes precedence over the accumulation of objective facts, or the elaboration of generalisable laws. As part of the general Post-Modern reaction against abstract theoretical systems there has been a return to the interests of early anthropology: the way in which culture is inscribed on bodies, artefacts, goods and landscapes. And this is now coupled with an interest in representation, particularly visual representation.

Piault argues that post-colonial anthropology must reject the ‘entomologist’ approach – he is presumably referring to the Senegalese author Ousmane Sembène’s celebrated remark that Africanists ‘observe us like insects’. Instead, anthropology should be based on a métissage des regards, an investigation which is never complete and in which the Western I is involved in a continuous discovery of the Self in the Other.

As a concrete example of this, Piault points to the work of Jean Rouch, his own mentor. For many, the octogenarian Rouch is the most accomplished ethnographic film-maker of his generation. He is certainly among the most prolific, having made more than a hundred films over the last fifty years. The great majority of them were shot in West Africa, mostly by Rouch himself, and deal with conventional ethnographic topics: dance, trance, religious ritual.

One of the most distinctive characteristics of Rouch’s work is what he has called l’anthropologie partagée. It has always been a point of honour with him to screen his films in the communities in which they were made and then invite the protagonists to help him devise further films. As a result, a close group of these West African collaborators have played a very active role in his work. The films they have helped him to make have included not merely pieces set in rural locations, but also films about their migrations to the cities, and even, with Rouch’s assistance, their visits to France to engage in reciprocal study of the ‘Parisian tribe’. These urban films have often escaped the confines of the documentary category. Some are semi-fictionalised accounts of the protagonists’ fantasy life, as they seek to fulfil their dreams in the popular quartiers of Kumasi or Abidjan. Others are unabashed fictions, such as the 1969 feature Petit à petit, in which three of Rouch’s friends from the small village of Ayorou on the Niger river travel to Paris and then Italy to discover the strange customs of the natives and in particular how it is they manage to live in multi-storey buildings.

Rather than denouncing racism or the social and economic conditions that sustain West Africa’s dependency even in the post-colonial world, Rouch prefers to celebrate the experiences common to all human beings. Some might find the studied ingenuousness of his films irksome, but there is no doubting the seriousness of his intentions.

Rouch, however, has not cut much ice in academic anthropology, particularly in the anglophone world. His American biographer, Paul Stoller, reports that only five of his films are distributed in the States and the situation here is not very different. Indeed, even in France his influence has probably been greater among cinéastes than anthropologists. His early forays into fiction, particularly Moi, un noir (1957), about the life of young migrants from Niger in Abidjan, had a formative influence on the leading figures of the Nouvelle Vague such as Truffaut and Godard.

In 1960, he himself conducted Chronicle of a Summer, an investigation into the ‘Parisian tribe’, along with the sociologist Edgar Morin. In one of the opening sequences Rouch on camera describes the film as an exercise in cinéma vérité. This was a direct translation of the Bolshevik film-maker Dziga Vertov’s notion of kinopravda, meaning a form of truth which he considered to be particular to the cinema. The term, in its French form, has been widely adopted, but almost equally widely misconstrued as denoting a cinema of some sort of absolute truth, which is why Rouch himself later abandoned it.

David MacDougall is one of the leading anthropological film-makers of the generation following Rouch’s. Although never formally trained as an anthropologist, he has carried out more research in non-Western cultural contexts than most academic anthropologists and, as this book attests, is well-read in the literature. He has not been quite so prolific as Rouch, but the twenty or so films that he has both shot and directed have been highly influential in establishing a model of good practice in ethnographic film-making. MacDougall also has the ability to write elegantly and reflectively about what he does. The essays in Transcultural Cinema were originally published over a twenty-year period, beginning in 1978, and cover a wide range of topics from the role of film in developing an ‘anthropology of consciousness’ to the practical business of subtitling.

Working with his wife Judith, who generally acted as sound-recordist, he shot his first films among pastoralist peoples in East Africa in the late 1960s and early 1970s. He then moved to Australia to direct the film unit of the Institute of Aboriginal Studies. During his time there the agenda of the Institute changed from a concern to preserve a record of a disappearing world to an involvement with political resistance and Aboriginal cultural regeneration. The MacDougalls produced a dozen films that reflected this change. By the mid-1980s, it was no longer appropriate for a non-Aboriginal to head the unit. MacDougall resigned and with Judith set up an independent production company, Fieldwork Films. Since then, while remaining based in Australia, he has made two films in India (one on photography in a Himalayan town, the other on an elite boys’ school) and another in Sardinia (on three generations of shepherds struggling against current economic realities to keep their way of life going).

The MacDougalls have come to be regarded as among the most distinguished exponents of ‘observational cinema’, a sort of anthropological derivative of the North American documentary movement, known as ‘direct cinema’, which was developed at UCLA in the mid-1960s with the active support of the then Dean of Arts, Colin Young, who was one of the first to formulate its general principles. In the early 1970s, Young returned to Britain to become the first director of the National Film and Television School at Beaconsfield. Under his influence, film-making in the observational/direct cinema manner became the house style of the documentary department there and has had a profound influence on the many British documentarists who passed through the School, including such well-known figures as Nick Broomfield and Molly Dineen. I also trained there, as did my principal colleague at the Granada Centre, Anna Grimshaw, and we continue to pass on its precepts to our own students, even if in a somewhat modified form.

Like cinéma vérité, direct cinema developed on the back of the new lightweight 16 mm synchronous sound technology that became available in the late 1950s. But in its purest form, it was significantly different since it avoided the self-conscious authorship that is a feature of so many Rouch films. Instead, the aesthetic was not only highly naturalistic but also artistically self-denying – ‘Calvinistic’ to use MacDougall’s term. It was to be a cinema of duration, with long takes, from a single camera position, intended to reproduce the point of view of a normal human observer rather than the privileged, omniscient perspective of classical cinema composed from a series of different camera angles. There was to be no ambushing of protagonists as they came through a door; rather, the camera should go through the door with them. Direction was to be minimal: the camera should primarily follow the actions initiated by the protagonists. There would be no detailed script, no asking protagonists to do anything for the camera, not even to repeat something that it had missed. In its most stringent formulation, the film-maker was not even supposed to speak to the protagonists unless spoken to. Formulaic narrative structures were to be avoided. Instead, dramatic interest would be achieved, as it had been in Neo-Realist cinema – the ‘godfather’ of observational cinema, as Young put it – by attention to detail and nuanced characterisation.

Crews should be made up of no more than two people so as to minimise the effect they had on the relationships happening in front of the camera. The director would usually also be the cameraperson, or sometimes the sound recordist. Unmediated access was the order of the day: in a word, ‘directness’. In post-production, camera wobbles, crash zooms and whip pans were all left in as a guarantee that no punches were being pulled. There was to be no intercutting of scenes taking place at different times or in different places, no sequence-suturing cutaways, no voice-over narration, no extraneous music.

This was – and is – a difficult way to make a film because it means throwing away the scaffolding (some might say, the crutches) that sustains much documentary practice. Indeed, some of its principles have been more honoured in the breach than the observance, even by its most avid proponents. But the difficulties are worth enduring, advocates claim, because of the sense of engagement the method achieves with the world of the protagonists – these are not so much fly-on-the-wall documentaries as fly-in-the-soup. Others have argued that by adopting such a highly naturalistic aesthetic, the proponents of direct cinema were claiming to provide an objective representation of the world. But although some of the more extravagant claims made by early enthusiasts might warrant this criticism, it was the subjectivity rather than the impartiality of the approach that the more reflective practitioners stressed.

This is a point that MacDougall returns to time and again in the essays in Transcultural Cinema. For him, an ethnographic film should be understood as a record not just of another culture, but of an encounter between film-maker and film-subjects who between them achieve a form of communication across the cultural divide. Far from seeking to present a disengaged account of another society, good practice should be measured by the degree to which the film-maker has been able to work through the personal relationship established with the subjects in order to provide an insight into the world in which they live.

This mix of participation and observation has certain obvious affinities with anthropological fieldwork. But, in another sense, observational cinema – at least in its most doctrinaire form – runs directly against the grain of a central axiom of anthropology: that the practices of another society can only be understood in social and cultural context. The pioneers were mostly making films about North American subjects for North American audiences, so no such contextualisation was necessary. But observational cinema has always traded in cultural difference, and, as one anthropological critic put it, you can’t learn anything about another culture simply by staring at it. If voice-over narration and formal interviews are out, it becomes particularly difficult to provide the context that most anthropologists would regard as essential.

The first response of film-makers to this problem is to point out that any attempt to provide an exhaustive context within a film is bound to fail because it usually takes very much longer to provide a verbal context for a particular action or event than for that action or event to take place. Film can only ever provide a poor version of the kind of analysis possible in a written text.

MacDougall argues that anthropological film should not be seen as a substitute for text but as an addition. It should reveal how particular individuals ‘weave meaning and a sense of self into more broadly shared characteristics of social life’. Film provides a means of restoring lived experience to anthropological accounts. A heavy-handed commentary can result in the individual subjects of a film being turned back into mere social facts, or exemplars of theoretical principles. Moreover, the voice-over occludes the protagonists’ own voices and, by presuming a greater authority, threatens to undermine them, so re-establishing the distance between viewer and protagonist. It is also, inevitably, vulnerable to the vagaries of theoretical fashion: if a commentary does not sound pretentious at the time it is written, it is almost bound to do so within a few years.

In their own films, the MacDougalls employ two relatively unobtrusive devices to provide absolutely essential information. One involves intertitle cards, reminiscent of silent films, which they use particularly at the beginning, to set the scene. The other device is to use the voices of the protagonists themselves to provide explanations. The Jie and Turkana pastoralists of East Africa, the subjects of the MacDougalls’ early films, are given to reflecting on their own customs and ready to talk about them in public. Sometimes their comments are elicited by an interview technique so informal as to be more akin to a conversation. But more usually, the MacDougalls simply listen in on the protagonists’ own discussions and debates. After they moved to Australia, where Aboriginals consider knowledge a good whose distribution is constrained in certain important ways by factors of age and gender, they found that their subjects were often much more circumspect about sharing it in public. The MacDougalls tried to circumvent this by using ‘interior commentary’: they invited leading protagonists into the edit suite and asked them to comment on what was going on in the material being edited. These comments were recorded and later used as a voice-over.

This method not only literally provided a channel for the subjects’ voices, but also in the metaphorical sense gave them some measure of control over the meaning of the events represented in the films. In this it was a logical extension of the participatory approach the MacDougalls had been advocating since the 1970s. There was only one further step that could be taken in this direction: to hand the film-making over completely to the subjects. This was in effect what MacDougall did when he resigned from the Institute of Aboriginal Studies. He had realised that his collaborations with Aboriginal communities had often glossed over differences not only between film-makers and subjects, but also between the subjects themselves. It was all very well to provide a channel for the Aboriginal voice, but which voice?

MacDougall’s most recent remarks in Transcultural Cinema suggest a disillusionment with the idea of collaboration between film-makers and subjects, on the grounds that it can lead to ‘a confusion of perspectives and a restraint on each party’s declaring its true interests’. He now prefers to think of an ethnographic documentary as a site at which different views of reality may be revealed and explored, allowing viewers to formulate their own interpretations. This idea of documentary entails the acceptance of a degree of ambiguity that is at odds with an anthropology aimed at demonstrating the coherence of other cultures through eliciting their cultural norms and social rules. In the final chapter, MacDougall returns to the capacity of film to evoke the lived experience of the individual, arguing that this ability means that film can be transcultural in a way that texts usually are not.

Whatever social theorists may like to pretend, there is no such thing as an individual who represents the statistically typical embodiment of all the cultural norms of the society in which he or she lives. If individuals are aware of their culture in a self-conscious way, MacDougall argues, they often exhibit an ironic detachment from it. This divergence between culture and the individual has often been written out of anthropological texts, but is necessarily present in an observational film in which individuals are seen to ‘refract’ the culture in which they live rather than typify it.

Film-making conceived in this way conforms to an influential trend within anthropology itself to ‘write against culture’, or against a concept of culture that involves discrete entities, separated off in space and time, enclosed within regional communities or nation states. Visual images, MacDougall suggests, have a particular capacity to represent continuities across what seem to be radically dissimilar social settings, not merely demonstrating the limitations of cultural constructions of otherness but also revealing the physical connections between worlds normally considered separate.

A perfect example of this is the figure of Lorang, a senior Turkana man who appears in a number of the MacDougalls’ East African films, and who has the central role in what is perhaps their masterwork, The Wedding Camels. In this, Lorang is marrying off his daughter and finds himself at the centre of a series of delicate negotiations concerning the redistribution among his own relatives of the animals given by the groom and his family as a marriage payment.

The film provides a scrupulously detailed account of an exotic cultural practice, with a suitably dramatic narrative (whether the wedding will take place or not hangs in the balance until the last minute). But it is the travails of the sympathetic if curmudgeonly Lorang that provide the main point of engagement with the film. This engagement is made possible by the fact that he is presented not as a guardian of unchanging custom, but rather as a man with certain frailties – and a certain scepticism towards the custom that he is obliged to follow. Early on, we learn that despite his strikingly exotic appearance, he had served for a time in the King’s African Rifles in Kenya. On the basis of this experience, he wonders aloud with his friends whether the white man’s way of marrying off his daughters is not more sensible than their own. It is ambiguities of this kind that enable us to recognise that Lorang lives in a world connected historically with our own as well as sharing experiences and feelings that we can recognise.

The Wedding Camels was first released more than twenty years ago, but films of this kind are still being made, as the example of Channel 4’s Bafta-winning Divorce Iranian Style proves. The director-camerawoman of this film, Kim Longinotto, is another graduate of the documentary department of the National Film and Television School. Although Divorce has snatches of voice-over commentary and at least one quasi-interview, it is essentially a film shot and cut in the observational manner. It follows three women of different classes and ages as they seek to secure their rights while suing for divorce in an Islamic court. Through them we learn not only how Islamic law affects women in Iran, but how they try to use it for their own ends. Like Lorang, these women ‘refract’ rather than typify their culture.

Ethnographical film-making based on a belief in the objectivity of the filmic record is certainly dead, and so, too it seems is the generous patronage once offered by British television. The advent of relatively cheap digital technology, however, means that there’s no reason why anthropologists themselves shouldn’t learn to make films of this kind on their own.