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.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in