… from inside their experience as we feel rocked to and fro …
This is from American Ethnographic Film and Personal Documentary by Scott MacDonald (2013):
… If, at first, intelligent people could imagine that, when representing Other cultures, a picture is worth a thousand words, it was not long before those with a serious interest in anthropology and ethnographic filmmaking saw that, whereas written ethnography generally condensed months or years of study into a more or less accessible verbal form, whatever film imagery of preindustrial cultures was recorded and then edited into “complete” films — men and women finding their way not merely into anthropology, but filmmaking — was little to be trusted.
[line break added] If even a written text compiled on the basis of long periods of research was limited in what it could reveal about Others, film, often recorded on the fly and/or quickly dramatized, tended to be not just limited, but superficial and prone to obvious distortions. This problem was quickly evident in the films of Lorna and John Marshall, Robert Gardner, and Timothy Asch, even to the filmmakers themselves: John Marshall was increasingly embarrassed by The Hunters, Bitter Melons, and his other early films about San peoples, and Asch’s The Ax Fight directly addresses dimensions of this issue.
The problem, of course, was that from the beginning too much was expected of cinema. The fact that film could combine image, sound, and even visual and spoken text suggested to some that film could tell us more about the world than could just the written word or the written word plus still photography. A generation of filmmaking and anthropological critique was necessary before it became clear that what cinema can do is reveal something different from what gets revealed in even the most intelligent and engaging prose.
[line break added] A written text on a culture or cultural practice can tell us what the writer has come to understand about that group or activity, can even help us imagine what it might be like to be in a certain place and live a certain way, but a carefully made film can offer its audience a sensory experience that reflects and reflects on the actual experiences of others (including the filmmakers themselves) as they occurred in a specific place during a specific time.
MacDonald discusses several examples; I’m giving just snippets from one such:
… In Leviathan, as in most of the films to come out of the Sensory Ethnography Lab, sound comes before image and has sensory impact at least as powerful and complex as the imagery. In this case, the near-deafening noise of the fishing boat and of the processing of the fish and shellfish creates an aural “nest” within which human speech can rarely be made out.
… Throughout Leviathan we are experiencing not only the labor of the fishermen, but the labor of the filmmakers themselves, from inside their experience as we feel rocked to and fro, continually astonished that the theatrical experience of the documentary cinema, even after more than a century, can still powerfully reinvigorate our awareness of the sensory world.
[ … ]
… even if we were to agree that Marshall, Gardner, and Asch often didn’t “get it right” in anthropological terms, that they sometimes substituted their own romantic assumptions for what now seems reality, there seems little question that their initial motivations, at least those they were conscious of, were decent and humane, and that their willingness to devote themselves to observing and recording ways of life distant from their own, even if this meant putting themselves in harm’s way, and to make these ways of life familiar to others, is evidence of a deep commitment both to a broader understanding of human experience and to an expanded vision of what is possible for cinema.
[line break added] Further, their very failures to recognize that their envisioning of others was largely a projection of themselves allows their films to function for us in a new way — as emblems not of the Truth of other cultures, but of the complex realities of limited, fallible human beings working to understand each other. If ethnographic film has often been more about the filmmakers than their subjects, then ethnographic film becomes, if not another form of personal documentary, at least another form of personal expression. And the experiences of these films, like the experiences of any other form of personal expression, can continue to be fascinating and valuable — just in different ways within a new context.
The Sensory Ethnography Lab and the films coming out of it have built on the experiences of an earlier generation. Do the SEL filmmakers “get it right”? Inevitably, as time passes, we will learn more about the realities surrounding the experiences they document, realities that may, probably will, throw the apparent assumptions and implicit conclusions of their films into question. But this is inevitable for anyone searching for Truth or even just truth. The alternative, to not care about reality, is hardly to be preferred, and in any case, modern film history is deluged with big-budget fictional fantasies … feeding viewers the most obvious and dangerous clichés about “us” and “them.”