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  • A Future for Ethnographic Film?
  • Jay Ruby (bio)

Ethnographic film is a contested genre, not unlike the documentary. The majority opinion is that an ethnographic film is any documentary that focuses on non-Western people (see Heider). The adjective "ethnographic" is used in a very loose manner, similar to the way psychological or historical is applied to a film. Few people expect a psychological film to be a serious rendering of the constructs of psychology or for the maker of the film to be a professionally trained psychologist. As a consequence, many films screened at places such as the American Anthropological Association or the Margaret Mead festival are documentaries made by professional filmmakers who have little or no training in anthropology.

I have argued for a more restricted approach—one that confines the genre to the work of academic anthropologists. In my book Picturing Culture, I articulated a fantasy version of this position.

To begin . . . a moral tale for anthropologists, a fantasy in which an anthropological cinema exists—not documentaries about "anthropological" subjects, but films designed by anthropologists to communicate anthropological insights. It is a well-articulated genre distinct from the conceptual limitations of realist documentary and broadcast journalism. It borrows conventions and techniques from the whole of cinema—fiction, documentary, animation and experimental. A multitude of film styles vie for prominence—equal to the number of theoretical positions found in the field. There are general audience films produced for television as well as highly sophisticated works designed for professionals. While some films intended for a general audience are collaboratively made with professional filmmakers, solely professional anthropologists, who use the medium to convey the results of their ethnographic studies and ethnological knowledge, produce most. University departments regularly teach the theory, history, practice and criticism of anthropological communications—verbal, written and pictorial—enabling scholars from senior professors to graduate students to select the most appropriate mode in which to publish their work. There are a variety of venues where these works are displayed regularly and serve as the basis for scholarly discussion. Canons of criticism exist that allow for a critical discourse about the ways in which anthropology is realized pictorially. A low-cost distribution system for all these anthropological products is firmly established. Videotapes/CD-ROMs/DVDs are as common as books in the libraries of anthropologists, and the internet and world wide web occupy a place of some prominence as an anthropological resource.

Needless to say, the fantasy has remained just that. I see no reason to assume things will change much, although with the advent of "prosumer" three-chip digital cameras and the ease of computer editing, more anthropologists are delving into video production. Having [End Page 5] lived through a number of major technological changes, beginning with cable television and sync-sound Super 8mm cameras, which both promised radical departures from the norm, I am not one to put much faith in what might be called techno-salvation. A change in technology will not bring about the kind of changes I am interested in because the problems are not technical. They are conceptual. To accomplish the task I have proposed, anthropologists will have to divorce themselves from the economic realities of the commercial documentary world. Anthropological filmmaking would have to become a scholarly activity with no commercial potential, similar to the way scholars write books published by scholarly publishers. Academics never assume that their publishing efforts will produce a living wage. It is now possible for scholars to experiment without obtaining large grants that require the production of materials designed either for the classroom or for public television, nor are they forced to hire professional crews whose goals are often at odds with those of a scholar. So far, too few have availed themselves of the opportunity.

Although commercial documentary filmmakers will, I am certain, continue to make films they call "ethnographic," these works are not of interest to me, nor do I consider them to be an asset to the development of a visual anthropology. They are useful merely in the classroom as audiovisual aids. Although the discussion is outside of the purpose of this article, I would add that the conventions of documentary realism may...


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