Ethnographic film

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An ethnographic film is a documentary film related to the methods of ethnology. It emerged in the 1960s as an important tool for research in the domain of visual anthropology, when filming human groups in society.


The actual medium of "film" is strongly associated with early ethnographic studies. The medium of film was initially used by ethnographers in the course of their professional work to document subjects in the field. Today ethnographic films are made in video and digital media and may contain elements of text and animation. Other video and digital media focus on the study of culture in Hollywood movies, documentaries by non-anthropologists, home movies and even YouTube.


Prospector, explorer and eventual filmmaker, Robert J. Flaherty, is considered to be the forefather of ethnographic film. His film Nanook of the North falls into the second category, combining home movie, documentary and stagecraft. Flaherty's attempts to realistically portray Inuit people (although he actually used actors and staged a good deal of the production) were nevertheless valuable pictures of a little-known way of life, viewers none-the-less saw his films as "real". Flaherty had no method of study nor training in anthropology, but he did have good relationships with his subjects.[1]

The contribution of Felix-Louis Regnault should be noted as his project may have started the movement. He was filming a Wolof woman making pottery without the aid of a wheel at the Exposition Ethnographique de l'Afrique Occidentale. He published his findings in 1895. His later films followed the same subject, described to capture the "cross cultural study of movement". He then proposed there to be an archive of anthropological film after becoming more experienced with motion pictures.

The [Cambridge Anthropological Expedition] to the Torres Straits, initiated by Alfred Cort Haddon in 1898, covered all aspects of the Torres Straits life. Haddon wrote to his friend Baldwin Spencer recommending he use film for recording evidence. Spencer then recorded the Australian Aborigines, a project that consisted of 7,000 feet of film, later housed in the National Museum at Victoria. [1]

In the 1930s, Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead discovered that using film frame-by-frame was an essential component of documenting complex rituals in New Guinea; John Marshall made what is likely the most-viewed ethnographic film in American colleges (The Hunters),[2] his filming of the Ju/'hoansi of the Kalahari (the !Kung-San) spans from 1951 to 2000. His ethnographic film N!ai, the Story of a !Kung Woman is not only ethnography but also a biography of the central character, N!ai, incorporating footage from her childhood through adulthood. Napoleon Chagnon and Tim Asch's two famous films, The Ax Fight and The Feast (filmed in the 1960s), are intimately documented ethnographic accounts of an Amazonian rainforest people, the Yanomamo.

The genre flourished in France in the sixties due to the role of ethnographers as Marcel Griaule, Germaine Dieterlen and Jean Rouch. Light 16 mm cameras synchronized with light tape-recorders would re-evolutionise the methods of both cinema and anthropology, founding a new discipline, visual anthropology.

Rouch, who has developed the concept in theory and practice, went against the dogma that in research the camera person must stay out of the event or distance himself as an observer. He decided to make the camera interfere and became an actor, developing and popularizing Cinéma vérité and becoming a pioneer of docufiction. This was of course earlier deemed the "observer effect" by Gregory Bateson,[citation needed] who was perhaps unaware of the dogma Rouch was attempting to violate. Bateson, as one of the earliest to write about using cameras in the studies of humans, was not only aware of the observer effect, but both he and his partner, Margaret Mead, wrote about many ways of dealing theoretically and practically of that effect.[3]

Robert Gardner and Karl Heider were among the first to carefully plan the use of filming and editing as crucial research techniques. This resulted in the classic multi-point of view Dead Birds (1964). David Maybury-Lewis was among the first to receive enough funding to send many video cameras into the field in a single field setting to gain multiple simultaneous points of view. In the 1970s, Judith and David MacDougall introduced subtitling their subjects' speech and went on to make films that involved more collaborative relationships with their subjects.[4] In the 1980s, Trinh T. Minh-ha fostered a movement in ethnographic filmmaking that questions ideas of objectivity in film by using experimental montage and reflexive production techniques.[5]


Within the genre of Ethnographic Film exist different categories, each having different purposes of their film. These categories can be identified in the areas they tend to focus or the process they go through when analyzing film.

Objective recording[edit]

"Objective recording is characterized by a structure which is imposed by an actions". Within this type of recording exists two subcategories: Descriptive and Analytical. Descriptive film began in 1898 as a form of still photography. It consisted of various photos being taken of the same subject in a sequence. Only a few were edited in the 1900 to the 1940s. With later descriptive films, attempts were made to record behavioral processes by recording from a remote view. (Example?) Analytical film involves the film being inspected frame by frame to look out for certain patterns that cannot be seen unless the action was repeated continuously. This was done for communication process such as parent-child interaction. After a complete analysis the film was cut and reassembled to show the newly found evidence.

Scripted filming[edit]

With Scripted Filming, the film is imposed by a filmmaker. It is a longer type of film that is used to illustrate a theme about the culture in study. Here, the filmmaker goes out into the field with an idea he wants to capture. He later scans the film in a selective manner, choses the parts of the film that best relates to his idea and disposes of the remaining footage.


Reportage is best recognized as the category most able to preserve film due to its restructuring process. The main subject recorded is an event or a complete segment of life. In this type of film, the recorder can be turned on or off at any time and the focus can be of anything as long it as it carries a significant contribution. Reportage film is built on the concept that culture of a society cannot be reported until some time is spent in that culture, building an understanding of its people as the reporter and the inhabitants understand themselves.

This leads to an implication that the anthropologist is filming blind. When familiarity is built with the studied people, units of life can be found to which observers will mostly agree with. When these units are filmed, then it finally can be classified as Reportage. [2]


Although ethnographic film can be seen as a way of presenting and understanding different cultures that is not normally seen, there are some issues in the case of portrayal. As of late, Ethnographic film has been influenced by ideas of observational cinema similar to the British Free Cinema movement. The arrival of lightweight sound cameras and their accessories opened up possibilities of being able to film almost everywhere. This led to revealing private and informal behaviours to already discreet film-makers. The issue of presentation was noted by Flaherty, when he realized that when the audience is shown individuals dealing with problems, it helps them affirm the rationality of their own choices. Despite new lightweight camera equipment the status of the camera was still seen as an invisible presences. This only led to undermine the idea of film being an disembodied observer. It was later realized that the procedure of filming could carry false interpretations of the behaviour recorded. Film-makers then had new intentions for their films to be self-revelatory, making sure to film the primary encounter as evidence of their production. An example of this would be Chronique d'un éte, a film by Rouch and Morin where it touched on questions about how film deals with reality and changed the course of ethnographic film-making. Due to the difficulty of film being a direct representation of the subject, film-makers then perceived their work as a venture of the complexities of the presented cultural, or their work as a continuing inquiry. However, the camera will always continue to see selectively. This means leaving the film-maker with the precaution of interpretation during the process of recording. While observing informal events, a technique of filming from different angles or shooting the scene more than once has been developed. [3]

Major contributions[edit]

The Academy Award-winning film Black Orpheus can be considered another milestone in the second category. Much like Flaherty's work, director and producer Marcel Camus strove to depict the mythos of a culture, in his case, a favela in Rio de Janeiro at the time of Carnaval. He managed to preserve some of the few scenes of a mid-20th century Carnaval, as most scenes were filmed without preparation. The actors were hired, but the extras were real participants.

See also[edit]



  1. ^ Flaherty, Richard. "How I filmed Nanook of the North,"
  2. ^ New York Film Library rentals and university catalog counts
  3. ^ Bateson, Gregory. Naven, Cambridge, 1936. Mead, Margaret. "Letters from the Field." 1971
  4. ^ "David MacDougall". Berkeley Media. Retrieved 15 March 2013. 
  5. ^ Petrolle, Jean (2005). Women and experimental filmmaking. Urbana: University of Illinois. ISBN 0252030060. 


  • Banks, Marcus; Morphy, Howard (ed.): Rethinking Visual Anthropology. New Haven und London: Yale University Press 1997. ISBN 0300066910
  • Barbash, Ilisa; Taylor, Lucien: Cross-Cultural Filmmaking: A Handbook for Making Documentary and Ethnographic Films and Videos, University of California Press 1997. ISBN 978-0520087606
  • Grimshaw, Anna; Ravetz, Amanda: Observational cinema. Anthropology, film, and the exploration of social life. Bloomington: Indiana University Press 2009. ISBN 978-0253221582
  • Heider, Karl G.: Ethnographic film. Austin: University of Texas Press 2007. ISBN 978-0292714588
  • Hockings, Paul (ed.): Principles of visual anthropology. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter 2003, 3. Auflage. ISBN 978-3110179309
  • Loizos, Peter: Innovation in Ethnographic Film: From Innocence to Self-Consciousness, 1955-1985, University of Chicago Press, 2nd edition 1993, ISBN 0-226-49227-3
  • MacDougall, David: Transcultural Cinema, Princeton University Press 1998, ISBN 0-691-01234-2
  • Marks, Dan: Ethnography and Ethnographic Film. From Flaherty to Asch and after. In: American Anthropologist, New Series, Vol. 97, No. 2 1995, S. 339-347.
  • Pink, Sarah: Working images. Visual research and representation in ethnography. London: Routledge 2006. ISBN 978-0415306546
  • Ruby, Jay: Picturing Culture. Explorations of Film and Anthropology. University of Chicago Press 2000, ISBN 978-0-226-73098-1

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