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Reviewed by:
  • Afflictions: Steps towards a Visual Psychological Anthropology by Robert Lemelson and Annie Tucker
  • Erminia Colucci
Robert Lemelson and Annie Tucker, Afflictions: Steps towards a Visual Psychological Anthropology. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017. 306 pp.

This carefully crafted book by Lemelson and Tucker provides theoretical and practical reflections on the Afflictions: Culture and Mental Illness in Indonesia film series (Lemelson 2010–2011), produced by the first author's company Elemental Productions. These six longitudinal ethnographic films explore a range of neuropsychiatric (Part 1) and psychotic (Part 2) conditions in various cultural settings in Indonesia. However, the book is more ambitious than this and attempts to address important questions, in particular: What can ethnographic film offer to Psychological Anthropology and, conversely, what can the theories and methods of Psychological Anthropology offer to ethnographic filmmaking? In doing so, the authors bring together two streams that "only occasionally flowed together" (25).

In this book review, I will provide a brief description of the three sections in which this book is divided highlighting what, in my opinion, are the key strengths and contributions of this book and the (very few) limitations.

The book opens (Chapter 1) with defining Psychological Anthropology as "the subfield of anthropology concerned with the intersection of the psychological and the cultural" (6) and (Chapter 2) presenting some films which could be identified as early examples of psychologically-engaged anthropological films. Very early in the book the authors also describe, methodologically and theoretically, a key technique of Psychological Anthropology that was applied in the Affliction series, i.e., person-centred ethnography (PCE). Rather than providing an overview of a cultural group or community, PCE aims to "know what it feels like to live as an individual in a particular cultural setting" (11) and strives to be "experience near," placing the participants' emotions at the center of the story. In addition [End Page 943] to exploring participants' (culturally-situated) phenomenological and experiential meanings, this technique focuses also on psycho-analytically based concepts including defence mechanisms, transference, and countertransference. Chapter 3 then offers a brief review of ethnography and mental illness, citing works by key scholars in this field such as Kirmayer, Marsella, and Good, followed by more specific reviews on mental illness and recovery in Indonesia (and particularly Java and Bali, where the Afflictions series is based) as well as an overview of the history of mental health care in these locations. These reviews are then connected to the Afflictions series, highlighting some of the themes and concepts that are observed across and represented in these films.

After this first section, the book presents a section comprised of six chapters, one for each of the films in the Afflictions film series. The reading of this section would be made easier and more fruitful if the readers watch the films beforehand (which are available at a discount to those who have purchased the book [xiv]). Nevertheless each of the chapters does start with a description of the history/story of the main character in the film, such as, in Chapter 4, a young woman called Gusti who was diagnosed with Tourette Syndrome in The Bird Dancer (Lemelson 2010a). In addition, the authors provide an ethnographic analysis of the key issues highlighted in the film and address the interplay of the film-making process within the theoretical framework of Psychological Anthropology. Throughout the six chapters, each film is also situated within the Indonesian socio-cultural and political settings. For instance, Chapter 5 focuses on the story of trauma, fear, and social withdrawal as well as social support experienced by Kereta, the key protagonist of the 35-minutes long ethnographic documentary Shadows and Illuminations (Lemelson 2010b). A detailed story summary commences this chapter, where we learn about Kereta's early family history and trauma as well as his psychiatric history, including his and his family's search for a cure through traditional healing. Very skillfully and powerfully, the chapter then presents the multiple ways in which Kereta's "psychotic symptoms" can be framed and interpreted within the Balinese cultural contexts (including an elaborate belief system about spirit possession) and the effects of the 1965 mass killing on the Indonesians who survived or witnessed that violence...


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