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  • "You See the World of the Other and You Look at Your Own":The Evolution of the Video in the Villages Project
  • Pat Aufderheide (bio)

What purpose does ethnographic film serve?1 Whom is it for? Is it for scientists, television audiences, its subjects? Can there be overlaps or common goals? This is the prickly question underlying much ethnographic film production. It is routinely addressed in practice more than in theory, in part because of the economics of filmmaking. Anthropologists have not found funding either to build filmmaking into fieldwork or to establish a rigorous set of professional standards, although anthropologists such as Jay Ruby have sturdily maintained that they should. At the same time, documentary practice has evolved, divorced from theoretical concerns about scientific accuracy, although documentarians have often capitalized on claims to science (Winston).

Ethnographic film and visual anthropology have areas of overlap but also occupy different domains. Visual anthropologists, concerned with the politics of representation as well as the challenge of communicating the lived experience of distinct cultures, have struggled from the first generation of anthropology to define an arena within anthropological practice. They have asked questions about the ethics and implications of formal choices in photography, film, and video. They have grappled with the nature of social scientific claims made for their observations and their moral obligations to their subjects. Some of those people have also been filmmakers. Meanwhile, many filmmakers with no formal training whatsoever claim the mantle of the term "ethnographic film," so long as there is a cross-cultural aspect to the subject matter. Some of those people are thoughtful and reflective about their formal choices, relationships with subjects, and role in public. Many of them work without much reflection on the nature of the relationships they will establish between filmmaker and subject and filmmaker and audience. Even when traditional subjects turn into makers, as in the University of Washington's Native Voices program, it is not necessarily integrated with anthropology; Native Voices is a communications department project.

Most filmmakers producing outside a purely academic environment are typically chained to production modes that respond to television markets; this ensures that they will adopt formal strategies that stay within the accept-able range for broadcast. Much work produced for the educational marketplace observes the same conventions. Teachers regularly use work that was designed considering the imperatives of commercial or quasi-commercial television markets. Inevitably, both anthropologists (including those trained in visual anthropology and those not) and professional filmmakers have used the term "ethnographic film" to describe their work. The line between the work of social scientists and the work of professional filmmakers is blurry in the eyes of the viewing public. An example is the film The Story of the Weeping Camel (2003). Set in Mongolia, the [End Page 26] film was crafted from a fictional script devised by Mongolian and Italian coproducers, starring non-actors who were nonetheless cast in their roles and representing the nomadic community as far more isolated than the salt trade it participates in permits it to be, but it was widely reported as an authentic rendering of Mongolian daily life.

Any documentary form grapples with the core problem of truthfulness—not only whether any particular fact is correct, not only whether a portrayal is a fair one and set properly in context, but also to whom and why it is relevant. Ethnographic film raises this question acutely because the term itself implies otherness—that ethnographic film is a look from outside a culture, giving the audience a glimpse inside it. This claim to provide a privileged gaze heightens the usual ethical questions of documentary. Making the ethical and epistemological questions even more pointed is the common situation in which the subjects of an ethnographic film are members of cultural groups with less power in society and media than the filmmaker.

The question of the function of ethnographic film—to whom it tells its truths, within what context, for what purpose—is boldly showcased when film projects directly engage the subjects of a film as coproducers and co-filmmakers. This was vividly raised in a familiar story that anthropologist-filmmaker Sol Worth often told about Sam Yazzie. Worth, along...


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pp. 26-34
Launched on MUSE
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