Sunday, January 1, 2012

A Cinema of Culture

For me, as an ethnographer and filmmaker, there is almost
no boundary between documentary film and films of fiction.
--Jean Rouch (in Fulchignoni 1989) 

The renowned French ethnographer and filmmaker Jean Rouch once observed in his groundbreaking article, The Camera and Man (2003), that there has always been an intimate connection between anthropology and film. Today, contemporary anthropologists not only engage in participant observation amongst their communities, but also increasingly incorporate photography and video as central research methods into the process of ethnographic inquiry. It seems that anthropology is, less and less, a “discipline of words” (Mead 2003). But the idea of a close relationship between anthropology and film has often been seen as problematic, for numerous reasons. Jay Ruby, for one, has recently suggested that “anthropologists tend not to be very knowledgeable about film… [while] film critics’ and theorists’ understanding of anthropology is equally limited” (2000: 3-4). So, how can we better understand the intricate connection between film and anthropology?

In 1955, Rouch screened his controversial film, Les Maîtres Fous, to a small selection of French anthropologists and African intellectuals in Paris. The film documented an elaborate possession ritual practiced by the Hauka movement in colonial West Africa, during which members assume the roles of their colonial administrators. Participants are shown in trance-like states, dancing and mimicking French military ceremonies. “What a set up!” exclaimed the New Wave filmmaker, Claude Chabrol, who was present at the screening. “How can he direct actors like that?” (quoted in Feld 2003) But Les Maîtres Fous was an ethnographic film, not a film of fiction. Rouch followed the controversial Les Maîtres Fous with several more films - Jaguar, Moi, un noir and La Pyramide humaine – that frequently blurred the boundaries between ethnography and fiction, subject and object. Critics would later term this new genre, “ethno-fiction.”

A few, short years later, Rouch found himself on the streets of his own country, shooting his most well known work, Chronique d’un été, with sociologist Edgar Morin. Through a series of short, poetic vignettes, the film follows Rouch and Morin as they inquire into the everyday lives of Parisians during the summer of 1960, combining what Steven Feld calls the techniques of “drama, fiction, provocation and reflexive critique” (Feld 2003: 16). Set against the disquieting political backdrop of the Algerian War and impending 1960s riots, Rouch and Morin directed interviews with working class urbanites, including a factory worker, a student, a holocaust survivor and an Italian immigrant. On one hand, Chronique d’un été was an important technical accomplishment, made possible only by innovations of its time: portable, handheld cameras and synchronous sound. But, on the other, the film is hailed as an important aesthetic experiment in Cinéma Vérité: a critical, conceptual exploration of the camera’s unique relationship to truth and reality. Indeed, Rouch had attempted to “create reality starting from fiction” (quoted in Bruni 2002).

Rouch’s Chronique d’un été (1961)
Of course, Rouch’s films occupy an important position in the complex, intimate and enduring relationship between cinema and anthropology (and embody many ongoing debates within these two areas). But ethnographic film has always intermingled with fiction: scripted, ethnographic films have existed since the early days of cinema itself, whilst fictional films have often included ethnographic material. The great Soviet filmmaker, Sergei Eisenstein, once commented that his Battleship Potemkin (1925) “looks like a newsreel of an event,” (quoted in Barnouw 1983: 61) and even Robert Flaherty’s celebrated documentary, Nanook of the North (1922), contained many fictional elements, while Fatimah Tobing Rony (1996) has been particularly outspoken about how, historically, cinema is inextricably linked to issues of race and, by extension, ethnographic concerns, citing D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915) as an early example. But perhaps the ethnographic filmmaker David MacDougall puts it most succinctly: “all films are cultural artifacts” (1978: 405), he writes, “dramatic films often verge, or seem to verge, on the ethnographic, either because of their subject matter or the circumstances of their production and viewing” (1969: 18).

Despite ethnographic film’s relatively marginal status in the wider culture, I would argue that anthropological insight – or, broadly, the depiction of social or political realities - exists in even the most recent Hollywood films. This premise was first offered by Siegfried Kracauer, in his seminal work From Caligari to Hitler (1947), in which he argued that films tend to reflect the political situation and social milieu in which they are made. When anthropologist Gregory Bateson analyzed the Nazi propaganda film Hitlerjunge Quex (1933) he made a similar assumption (Bateson 2000). Dominic Alessio, took this further, when he suggested that Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) “highlights ethnic concerns in 1980s America” (Alessio 2005). Even more recently, District 9 (2009), produced by Peter Jackson, forms a clever critique of the colonial history and the apartheid regime of South Africa, through a story of alien invasion. Avatar (2009), the 3D epic by James Cameron, gives us a distinct, allegorical account of the anthropological encounter itself, whilst drawing critical attention to the perils of corporate power and politics. Not only had Cameron consulted linguist Paul Frommer to create an entirely new language for the film, but anthropologist Nancy Lutkehaus was asked for choreographic advice on how Cameron’s blue humanoids should move (Lutkehaus 2009).

Meanwhile, the recent YouTube-based documentary, Life in a Day (2011), asked citizens across the world to film a few minutes of one day in their lives. Incorporating techniques of collaborative ethnography, similar to those employed by anthropologists like Malinowski or Boas over 70 years ago, the film was cut together from a total of 4,500 hours of footage submitted by users online. We are offered a glimpse into the everyday lives of a Japanese father and son, a British university student, an American sky-diver, concert-goers in Germany and Brazilian street children. By dissolving the boundaries of subject and object, Life in a Day marks an important experiment in cinematic and anthropological convergence. At times, the film even echoes scenes of Rouch’s Chronique d’un été. Above all, perhaps we have reached a point where we can, technically and conceptually, ”see the world through the eyes of the native” (Ruby 2000: 32), as Malinowski once envisaged.

Life in a Day (2011): a modern Chronique d’un Et
But still, Rouch concluded The Camera and Man by observing that, “ethnographic film has not yet passed its experimental stage” (2003: 45). In many ways, this is still true today, because the question still remains of how film can be used to its fullest potential in effectively, even authentically, inquiring into complex social realities and cultural conditions. I believe that the continual evolution of ethnographic practice, with an increased dialogue between anthropology and film studies, is one way we can help achieve this. Using ideas from films of all genres and making use of the vast diversity of multimedia tools now available, visual anthropologists can document, interpret and present their studies, both collaboratively, reflexively and publicly, in new and effective ways. Then, as Anna Grimshaw writes, we must ultimately reach “a way of seeing cinema, anthropologically, and a way of seeing anthropology, cinematically” (2001: 9).

Reuben Ross recently completed his Masters Degree in Visual Anthropology at the University of Kent in Canterbury, UK. With an undergraduate background in Film Studies, he is particularly interested in the conjuncture of cinema and anthropology, exploring the many ways this can be theorized and put into practice. Reuben can be contacted by email at


Alessio, D. 2005. “Redemption, ‘Race,’ Religion, Reality and the Far-Right: Science Fiction Film Adaptations of Philip K. Dick” in W. Brooker (ed), The Blade Runner Experience: The Legacy of a Science Fiction Classic. London: Wallflower Press.

Barnouw, E. 1983. Documentary: a History of the Non-Fiction Film. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Bateson, G. 2000. “An analysis of the Nazi Film Hitlerjunge Quex” in M. Mead & R. Metraux (eds). The Study of Culture at a Distance. New York: Berghan Books.

Bruni, B. 2002. “Jean Rouch: Cinéma-vérité, Chronicle of a Summer and The Human Pyramid” in Senses of Cinema Issue 19.

Feld, S. 2003. Ciné-Ethnography. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Fulchignoni, E. 1989. “Conversation between Jean Rouch and Professor Enrico Fulchignoni” in Visual Anthropology Volume 2, Issue 3-4.

Grimshaw, A. 2001. The ethnographer’s eye: ways of seeing in anthropology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kracauer, S. 1947. From Caligari to Hitler: a psychological history of the German film. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Lutkehaus, N. 2009. “A World All Their Own.” Accessed here on 29 December 2011.

MacDougall, D. 1969. “Prospects of the Ethnographic Film” in Film Quarterly Volume 23, Issue 2.

MacDougall, D. 1978. “Ethnographic Film: Failure and Promise” in Annual Review of Anthropology Volume 7.

Mead, M. 2003. Visual anthropology in a discipline of words. In P. Hockings (ed) Principles of visual anthropology. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter.

Rouch, J. 2003. ‘The Camera and Man’, in S. Feld (ed), Ciné-Ethnography. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Ruby, J. 2000. Picturing culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Tobing Rony, F. 1996. The third eye: race, cinema, and ethnographic spectacle. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

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