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  • Ethnographic Film and the Popular Imagination
  • Brenda Jo Bright (bio)
The Third Eye: Race, Cinema and Ethnographic Spectacle. By Fatimah Tobing Rony. Durham and London: Duke University Press. 1996. 328 pages. $49.95 (cloth). $17.95 (paper).

What is it to see oneself as one is seen—as a landscape, a museum display, or ethnographic spectacle? The experience of being the subject of the ethnographic gaze and seeing oneself through first world eyes is what Fatimah Tobing Rony calls the third eye. This gaze, the experience of being its subject, and the “third eye” critique such subjectivity engenders, are all under analysis in The Third Eye: Race, Cinema, and Ethnographic Spectacle. Rony argues that in the popular imagination, “ethnographic film is still by and large racially defined” (7). To trace how this has come to be, Rony brilliantly weaves together case studies in early cinema and ethnography. Her analysis of such seemingly disparate sources such as Félix-Louis Regnault’s photographic movement studies of West Africans in a 1895 Paris ethnographic exposition, Robert Flaherty’s much acclaimed Nanook of the North (1922), and the 1933 ethnographic expedition/monster thriller, King Kong reveals the central ideological themes and modes of looking at “others” at the core of early ethnographic films and ethnographic themes in popular films. Through historical contextualizations as well as close readings, Rony examines how the mutually inflected discourses and visualizations of early cinema and ethnography have so embedded the “ethnographic” in the popular imagination in the form of racialized images of natives. [End Page 183]

The project of The Third Eye is to provide a critical vision of ethnographic spectacles. The book bears witness to the processes by which people were taught to see native peoples, processes that were fully institutionalized in museums and in cinema in the early part of this century. The Third Eye elegantly moves between ethnographic representations of native peoples, native peoples’ responses to the experience of seeing themselves being seen, and their self-representations. The third eye takes DuBois’s idea of “double consciousness” one step further. For subordinated populations, the sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others can induce one to see “the very process which creates the internal splitting, to witness the conditions which give rise to double consciousness” (4).

Rony argues that ethnographic cinema has historically situated indigenous peoples in a displaced temporal realm in which they are observed as objects on display for their comparative “otherness.” As she shows, non-natives have looked at natives to “see” a separate world. Yet, the fiction of the “separate world” is based upon erasing, effacing, or mythologizing the power imperial nations exert on the conditions of indigenous lives. The displacing descriptions of conquered indigenous peoples were, and continue to be, highly racialized. However informative they might be, they are ultimately presented in narratives of the “not us” to non-natives.

Subject position is central to the book. Witness Rony’s introduction, which begins with the personalized subheading, “How I became a Savage: Seeing Anthropology,” where she links seeing herself as savage with an emergent critical vision of anthropological seeing. In a subtle confirmation of the importance of popular culture, how she became a “savage,” how she came to see herself being seen, did not begin with an ethnographic film. It began with seeing King Kong, the central plot of which unfolds on an island off the coast of Sumatra. Rony was born of Sumatran parents. Because the islanders, the “Savages,” were speaking her language, because the native “bride” of King Kong was someone she might have been, Rony could not enter the film’s illusion of entering another time, another space, another experience. That experience belonged to those for whom the Savages were “other.” In order to work against the silences imposed upon ethnographic objects, Rony structures The Third Eye so that all considerations of ethnographic film foreground the “chain of looks” involved in making ethnographic film.

The Third Eye provides both institutional and experiential analyses of cinematic cultural representation. Recent anthropological critiques of [End Page 184] ethnographic representation have sought to challenge the eurocentric and displacing narratives of turn of the century anthropology, and...

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pp. 183-191
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