Sunday, January 1, 2012


Linear Story
Every film has a beginning, a development and an end, one of my anthropology colleagues here in Portugal once explained me. (For the sake of the storytelling and to respect his intimacy, I will call him Franz.) A film without a beginning, a development and an end is not a film, and that applies to any type of film including ethnographic film, Franz further stressed. Franz works in the Amazon in Brazil where he does video films involving the participation of communities. Some time after our initial conversation, I saw one of his productions during a workshop at one of the Lisbon universities. There were wide shots of beaches and tourist infrastructures. The voice was given mainly to young people dressed up in American-Indian costumes who interviewed tourists about their ideas about American Indians. It was a funny, at times polemic film about the naivety of tourists and also about the transformations American Indians underwent in the eye of tourists and tourism. In these processes, these American Indians, hitherto socially marginalised in the context of Brazilian nation building, seemed to become beautiful, socially valorised and proud to be so. After the film screening, I asked whether the montage of the film, eventually done by Franz on his own, and the story it told was not reinforcing the symbolic fabrication of American-Indians as radically different. In a way, I questioned, whether through this film and other media, American-Indians became elevated as a symbolic hinterland of the Brazilian nation allowing to tell and authenticate a national story rooted in the realms of an Amazonian ancestral society, that can still be visited (and that therefore needs to be kept alive).

Community Participation
My question which aimed to generate debate was taken badly, as a critique of the movie whose dialogically framed plot the mainly-student audience seemed to like and thus defended against my comments. Participant ethnographic video and filmmaking usually claim to empower local communities to tell their own stories and thus to emancipate and valorise new forms of identity. Such filmmaking has become very fashionable in recent years, witnessed by the springing up of ethnographic film festivals, and visual anthropology and ethnographic filmmaking courses in universities worldwide. Yet, these films are rarely edited by community members and where they are, their authors, trained in universities or field film workshops usually adapt plots, narrative frameworks and characters that configure “community” in a way that conforms to outside conceptions. They all have a beginning, a development and an end. And they usually formulate local community in terms of an ontologically separate realm placed in a distinguished locale that, like the Hollywood hero, has to overcome obstacles to eventually achieve a specific aim (or to fail). This would be called the plot. And this precisely was what I was taking issue with. If we approach subjects not as humans, but as members of a specific group, which is made a specific group by the very plots associated with it – say Amazonian Indians struggle for land – we discursively reaffirm social patterns that express a certain order of the world, and that give these subjects little leverage to construe alternative realities. This still unresolved ethical issue about the specific value of being human that we implicitly defend with regard to, or through, our work has been pinpointed in earlier comments, maybe most famously by Marcus and Clifford in their Writing Culture.

Indigenous as Modern Plot
In our initial conversation, Franz had told me that he was teaching community members to film, and that his students usually adopted his storytelling and editing style. Through their productions, one could see that they were his students, he explained. In most community-participative films I have seen, community is represented as intrinsically bound through historical filiations to ancestors and land (and nature). At the same time, in the wider social contact zones of, for example, tourism, it is extrinsically idealised as a model to think about time and the human community at large. The act of telling the story of indigenous and autochthon communities and engaging them through tourism, journalism, ethnographic film, political rhetoric, world art or corporate social responsibility programmes seems to become a fundamental element of global modernity, a consensual trope allowing moderns of all sorts to reaffirm a story of universal history and humanity. From this perspective, these intimately strange communities are within modernity, and not outside; they evoke a somehow mythical reality and thus supply a means to think about forms of the human and how these evolve in time.

Aesthetic Transfigurations in the Global Modern World
Most anthropologists would agree that community is nothing authentic in itself (in the sense as to relate to an original condition or ur-humanity whatever that would be), but an outcome of historical fabrication and formation. It is a category to classify people and their identity that through the repetition of performances becomes reified, normalised and ‘naturalized’. As part of this ‘system’, the plots underlying much participative filmmaking seem transpired by a form of postcolonial sentimentalism, effectively empowering indigenous and autochthon populations to appropriate precisely those tropes and identities reserved for them within the wider order of global modernity. In a process of transfiguration (in the sense given by Nietzsche, but also, why not by classical Greek theatre: the actor is transfigured by the Gods they had invoked and the Gods shine through them), they become inhabited by initially external, imported notions of being beautiful, wise, in close contact with nature, family-oriented, spiritual and spirited, pacific. They shine as indigenous as a form of  modern. Modernity is the God that provides power, pride and identity as indigenous.

Militant Filmmaking
It may well be that within the wider world system and similar to other noble savage projections before, the thus elevated Amazonian Indians are to compensate for the discontents of the modernist project, which did not fulfil its promises of progress, enlightenment, and happiness (but which led us being governed by banks and rating agencies, instead of politicians we elected). It is part of the plot of this global Ethno-Hollywood societal theatre play, that they, and their authentic way of life, must therefore be defended against the aggressions by the anthropologist’s current favourite anti-hero, global neo-liberalism. This leads me to a second reflection. I understand the dilemmas many anthropologists face when in the field. Over the past 10 years, many of us have observed forms of massive land grab, land privatisation and the political and economic disempowerment of populations we work and empathize with. Many of us observe a feeling of powerlessness and hopelessness, when our informants ask us for help. Often scientific articles in academic journals and postings to anthropology forums – so basically communication to and among ourselves – are the “best” we do. Filmmaking represents here a more powerful tool and medium able to reach a far wider audience and have more concrete impact. As we talk, the Mursi of South Ethiopia and fishing populations in South Western Madagascar are expropriated and progressively excluded from the land that represents their resource base and social centres of society. Most of us know that, but there is no movement. Could filmmaking change this? Or would we only get yet another salvage paradigm plot, the “poor being excluded from their land by the rich”, say, collectively, “how terrible”, and then move on with our lives? I watched Inside Story and Tous au Larzak, and both films had an effect, though in different arenas. Maybe because we feel more affected by the bank-credit-euro crisis, or the rural-nostalgia-crisis than with the story of people whose destiny, according to the modernist plot, is “doomed” anyway. We could push this further and say that these people eventually fulfil expectations within a narrative framework we have difficulties to liberate ourselves of.

The people in Madagascar I work with do, for various reasons, not wish to work with a lawyer and go to court or involve public security agencies such as the police, but wish to solve the problems “peacefully”. Pragmatically this has meant so far to accept relatively small sums gained in exchange for signatures on documents they could not read, but that stipulated the large-scale sale of communal land (which is an all important category at the local scale, but not recognized in the national land law system). Most wish their kids went to school and found work in town. Of all the kids interviewed in various schools, not one wants to become a fisher. So there is change to happen here in the next 10 year that goes beyond, or against the romantic modernist plot of the poor, but happy fisher by the sea. But we already have a plot to think about this new situation prepared. The poor economize and send one of their children to town to get educated and an office job. Another adventure story. I feel a bit lost. Any suggestions on how we could effectively help the Gasy fishers or the Mursi in Ethiopia? And if there is no one asking for help, should we help anyway? Is help yet another plot we inhabit?

David Picard

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