Documentary And Ethnographic Film Research Paper

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The term documentary came into usage in the nineteenth century as an adjective referring to documentation, hence with connotations of evidence (Rosen 1993, p. 6). With reference to film, it was first employed by John Grierson (in his 1926 review of Robert Flaherty’s film Moana) to indicate a body of work which documented reality, involving ‘a creative treatment of actuality’ (Grierson, cited in Barnouw 1974, p. 287). The twin roles of the documentary filmmaker, as a creator with an agenda and as a purveyor of ‘actuality,’ have been at the root of several debates concerning the truth claims of the documentary. In many accounts, documentary film was regarded as indexically representing a real world, mimetically reproducing pictures of reality with a view to providing knowledge about it, as is the case in any scientific endeavor.

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On the one hand, developments in motion picture technology have perfected hardware enabling the unobtrusive documentation of reality; on the other, the very notions of ‘documentary’ and ‘reality’ have undergone radical reformulation. In theory and practice, the truth claims of documentary and its status as ‘evidence’ of a given historical world have increasingly been problematized. Over time, documentary film has come to embody diverse modes of negotiating the complex set of relationships between the author, the film text, and the world.

Ethnographic film comes under the rubric of anthropology, which traditionally involved scientific observation and recording of the lives and cultures of other races, usually ‘primitive’ indigenous communities in distant lands. Jean Rouch terms anthropology as ‘the eldest daughter of colonialism’ (cited in Winston 1993, p. 51), thus foregrounding the inherent relationship of power that underpins any encounter between the anthropologist and the other. The premise that ethnographic film is a value-free, indexical scientific record has been subjected to critical interrogation and revision, leading to dramatic changes in its theory and practice.

1. Demarcating The Terrain Of Documentary Film

1.1 Documentary vs. Other Nonfiction

Documentary film has been regarded as a specific body of work under the broader rubric of ‘nonfiction’ film. The latter includes genres such as the first ‘actuality’ films of the Lumiere Brothers, the newsreel, the travelogue, and the educational film. These genres, while sharing in common with documentary the use of actuality footage, have been seen as distinct because of the differing context of their production and use (Barsam 1992). Though documentary and ethnographic films occupy distinct terrains within nonfiction film, the issues confronting both share a great degree of commonality.

1.2 Documentary vs. Fiction

The fiction film, to which the documentary and other nonfictional genres were opposed, involved an obvious process of construction to offer an illusion of reality. The documentary filmmaker, however, bore the onus of providing a window to the world. The twin positions eschewed by the documentary filmmaker were that of the ‘manipulative’ creator of fiction, on the one hand, and the didactic educator on the other. The control and omnipotence represented by both these positions, which ‘told’ audiences about an external reality, was rejected in favor of a position that purported to ‘show’ its viewers the world.

2. Towards A Taxonomy

The wide array of themes, styles, formats, and modes of address employed by documentary filmmakers make it difficult to construct an inclusive typology that accounts for this variety. Barnouw (1974), for instance, chooses to classify documentaries on the basis of the role of the maker (explorer, reporter, advocate, poet, observer, guerilla, and so on), while emphasizing that these roles are not mutually exclusive. However, certain roles have been privileged at certain historical moments, making it possible to construct a typology on this basis. Barsam (1992) follows a classification employing time and space (American British European and Asian, at various periods of time).

Nichols (1991) identifies four modes of representation. The expository mode, used by many of the early filmmakers, such as Grierson and Flaherty, as also in current television network news, tends to use ‘voice-of-God’ commentary or poetic narration to inform or enlighten the viewer about the world outside. The argument of the commentary is what propels the text, the visuals serving more as illustration or counterpoint. The expectation of the viewer is generally to obtain certain, authoritative knowledge about reality, to understand cause and effect, problems and solutions.

The observational mode (also referred to as Direct Cinema) was facilitated by the invention of lightweight equipment with synchronous sound recording capability. It rejects the relatively didactic stance of the expository mode, in order to bring to viewers, life as it unfolds. The filmmaker aspires to the role of a detached observer. The expectation of the viewer is to gain access in an unmediated external world.

The interactive mode (represented by the work of Jean Rouch, Emile de Antonio, Michael Rubbo, among others) also draws on the availability of mobile equipment, but rejects this detachment in favor of a more interventionist role. The filmmaker’s relationship with the subjects of the film comes to the fore and is not invisible, as in the observational mode. The focus is on local knowledge; the filmmaker is not confined to creating continuities in time and space, but could employ unusual juxtaposition, archival material, and other devices in constructing the narrative. The viewer’s expectations are situated in the realm of the interpretative, since the mode makes no claim to absolute truth and neutral knowledge.

In the reflexive mode, the act of representing the world itself becomes central to the film’s narrative. The premises from which the narrative is constructed and the process of construction are available to the viewer. While it bears some resemblance to the interactive mode, the reflexive mode, in addition to problematizing the relationship between the filmmaker and the subjects, also problematizes the relationship between the narrative filmmaker and the viewer. The camera is not an evidence gathering apparatus. The conventions of realism, when used, are interrupted and put to question. Broadly speaking, the reflexive mode draws on the poststructuralist critique of the indexical and instrumental view of language and the speaking subject.

3. A Brief History Of Documentary And Ethnographic Film

The theoretical positions and the narrative strategies within the discourse of the documentary film have undergone fundamental changes, making it impossible to establish continuity across them. In spite of this apparent diversity, they could perhaps be classified in terms of the notions of authorship and viewership that they are, implicitly or explicitly, putting forth or negating. A useful device in establishing intelligibility across the vast corpus of documentary and ethnographic film practice is, therefore, to look at the various authorial stances that inform it. This, by no means exhaustive, historical account explores the work of major figures and movements, which contributed to the development of new conventions, styles, and norms within documentary film.

3.1 The Author As Reconstructing The Authentic Other—Robert Flaherty

Flaherty’s Nanook of the North (1922), which celebrates the heroic struggle for survival of its Inuit protagonist, could perhaps be regarded as the first ethnographic film. Flaherty manipulated reality in order to reveal what he regarded as the ‘true spirit’ of the culture; at times, this recreation involved danger and discomfort to the subjects of his films. In hindsight, his work has been critiqued for its mythologizing of the ‘noble savage’ and its elision of the ‘real’ social and political circumstances of his subjects’ lives. Flaherty’s work poses questions about the nature of ‘truth,’ the relation of the documentarist to the ‘reality’ s/he creatively appropriates, and the politics of representing the other.

3.2 The Author As Social Educator—Grierson

Grierson’s extensive writings on the place, function, and codes of the documentary regard it as performing the function of educating and involving citizens in democratic civil society. In 1930, Grierson established the EMB (Empire Marketing Board) Film Unit, later to become the GPO (General Post Office) Film Unit. This was a nucleus for the work of documentary filmmakers such as Basil Wright (The Song of Ceylon, 1934, Night Mail, 1936, co-directed with Watt), Harry Watt (North Sea, 1938), Alberto Cavalcanti (Pett and Pott, 1934, Coalface, 1935) and Humphrey Jennings (A Diary for Timothy, 1944). The themes handled included the lives of working people, social problems related to health, housing and unemployment, and wartime propaganda.

3.3 The Author As Reflexive Roving Eye—Dziga Verto

Denis Arkadievitch Kaufman called himself Dziga Vertov, meaning ‘spinning top.’ His writings and films were produced in the context of the post-Revolution ferment in the Soviet Union. His work, influenced by Futurism, represents a seminal contribution to film theory and practice, repudiating all pre-existing forms of cinema. Vertov regarded the cinematic way of seeing, the ‘Kino-Eye’ as establishing a radically different relationship with reality, making the ‘invisible visible,’ turning ‘lies into truth,’ propagating ‘the communist decoding of reality.’ His work on the Kino Pravda series, among others, and his film The Man with the Movie Camera (1929) created much debate and controversy for its formal illusionism, its subjectivism, its radical play with elements of picture and sound so that a sense of dislocation from reality is achieved. Its reinvention of cinematic language in a mode which reflexively foregrounds the act of construction and directly interpellates the viewer with revolutionary fervor stands as unique and perhaps far ahead of its time.

3.4 The Author As Propagandist—Leni Riefenstahl

Leni Riefenstahl is known for her documentaries that mythologized the politics of German National Socialism. While her work is noteworthy for its aesthetic virtuosity, it raises questions of the politics of aesthetics. The Triumph of Will (1935) documents the 1934 National Socialist rally in Nuremberg, a spectacular celebration of the myth of fascism. Sontag (1982) discusses how the actuality of a film like The Triumph of Will was constructed through carefully choreographed rituals of domination and enslavement, that contrast the hypnotic presence of the omnipotent leader with the faceless regimentation of large masses of ordinary people.

3.5 The Author As A Fly On The Wall—Direct Cinema

Direct Cinema represents a significant departure in the American documentary of the 1960s. The term Direct Cinema is sometimes used interchangeably with cinema verite (from which, however, it is distinct). It positions the author as an unobtrusive observer, thereby attempting to reclaim the scientific project of documentary film. The camera as well as the filmmaker occupy neutral positions, endeavoring, ‘to convey [to the viewer] the feeling of being there’ (Leacock, cited in Winston 1993, p. 43). The invention of lightweight equipment with synchronized sound was first utilized by Drew Associates to produce Primary (1960) in the election campaigns of John F. Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey. Drew collaborated with Richard Leacock, Pennebaker, and Albert Maysles in the making of this film. The filmmakers had themselves perfected the technology and the now legendary shot of the camera following Kennedy through the crowds on to the podium, shot by Maysles, demonstrated the versatility of the new technology.

The then prevailing dominant empirical traditions of the scientific method, which took sides with the ‘body,’ in an age old debate on its antithetical position to the ‘mind,’ was at heart of the positioning that the proponents of Direct Cinema aspired to. The dichotomies of mind body, subject object held center stage, not only in the debates on documentary cinema, but also in the discourses of the social sciences and linguistics.

The truth claims of the proponents of the American Direct Cinema did not pass uncontested. In response to its critics, the movement of Direct Cinema had to allow for subjectivity, while retaining its claim to authenticity. Frederick Wiseman, who terms his work ‘totally subjective,’ represents a new denouement in the Direct Cinema debates. While the work of Leacock and Pennebaker focused on portraiture and recording of events, Wiseman’s work investigates various institutions such as hospitals, high schools, and prisons, revealing patterns of behavior, which raise disturbing questions about institutional morality and social values. His first film The Titicut Follies (1969) was an indictment of an institution for the criminally insane and saw him embroiled in legal controversy. Wiseman does a tightrope walk between the subjectivity of the film-maker and the imperative to provide the viewer with fair evidence so that she he can make up his her own mind on the reality that is represented.

3.6 The Author As A ‘Fly In The Soup’—Cinema Verite

Henry Breitrose (cited in Winston 1993, p. 53) uses the interesting analogy of a ‘fly in the soup’ to describe cinema verite (a term borrowed from Dziga Vertov). In contradistinction to Direct Cinema, cinema verite resolves the question of objectivity by situating the film-maker as an agent pro ocateur. The work of Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin typifies this stance. Rouch’s Moi, un Noir (1959) represents a turning point in ethnographic film; in this film, the role of the camera shifts from a recording device to a precipitator of action. The film presents the inhabitants of Treichville, playing out scenes of their choice for the camera. After viewing themselves on screen, they reflect on the recorded events, reinterpreting them. This complex and novel process of representation explored a new relationship between the film-maker, his subjects, and the narrative. Rouch’s project was rooted in an attempt to redefine the relationships of power in ethnographic film-making which had hitherto been a colonial gaze at the other. Chronique d’une Ete (1961), in a reversal of ethnographic roles, turns the camera on ‘the strange tribe that lives in Paris’ (Morin cited in Winston 1993, p. 51). With all its reflexivity and radical revision of the project of ethnographic film, Rouch and Morin are unable to escape the hegemony of science and the promise of the image as evidence, if not of an objective world, then of the documentarist making a documentary (Winston 1993).

3.7 The Postcolonial ‘Other’ As Author

Indigenous documentary film production in the postcolonial context was sometimes state-sponsored (as in Cuba and India) and often projected the dominant agenda of modernity. Over time, the rise of independent documentary production gave voice to marginal groups and looked critically at larger political questions. The work of Fernando Solanas and Octavio Gettino in Argentina (Hour of the Furnaces, 1968), Patricio Guzman (The Battle of Chile, 1974–9), Santiago Alvares in Cuba (Now, 1965), Nana Mahomo in South Africa (Last Grave at Dimbaza, 1975), and Anand Patwardhan (Father, Son and Holy War, 1998) in India are but a few examples of a vibrant tradition of political engagement. The technology of video and the possibility of broadcast by international television networks have created a market for stories from the South. Many ‘independent’ documentary film-makers in the South are dependent on these markets for support. The market demand is for images that present the other as exotic, oppressed, or disaster ridden. Raul Ruiz’s Of Great Events and Ordinary People (1979) ironically comments on this endless dividing practice that sustains international documentary production and consumption.

The ‘linguistic turn’ within postcolonial ethnography, which regards the ethnographer as an author constructing narratives, has led to a rethinking of the relationship between the ethnographer and his her informants. Since this perspective attempts to render apparent the process by which the narrative is produced, the informants in a sense become co-authors. Given the unequal power flows between the ethnographer and his her informants, various modes of integrating the voices of the other in ethnographic texts have been explored. Some of these have involved the informants taking control of the medium to construct representations of themselves. The Navajo project, initiated in 1966 by Sol Worth and John Adair, was an experiment in teaching the Navajos, in Pine Springs, Arizona, to use the technology of filmmaking. The attempt was to understand the modes of representation that were at work in the narratives produced by the Navajos (Worth and Adair 1970). The extent to which such projects can redefine power flows is debatable, for the other continues to be the destination of a scientific experiment, by the ethnographer.

Eric Michaels (1994) explores the space of alternative production and distribution by the Warlpiris. The project, initiated in 1985, involved local production and illegal transmission by the Warlpiri Media Association, at Yuendemu, in Central Australia. Michaels identifies significant differences between aboriginal and European creative practices. These pertain to ‘ideological sources and access to inspiration, cultural constraints on invention and imagination, epistemological bases for representation and actuality, indistinctness of boundaries between authorship and oeuvre and restrictions on who makes or views expressive acts’ (Michaels 1994, p. 105).

3.8 The Reflexive Author

The reflexive mode, already discussed earlier, gained prominence in the 1970s and 1980s. On the one hand, it was a response to the current debates on language and signification, subjectivity and ideology, involving formal strategies that question the ‘materiality of the cinematic signifier’ (Wollen, cited in Nichols 1991, p. 65). On the other hand, it arose in the context of movements (feminist, civil liberties, gay and lesbian, revolutionary struggles in the Third World and so on) that questioned the ‘materiality of social practice’ (Wollen, cited in Nichols 1991, p. 65). The films of Chris Marker (Sans Soleil, 1982), Errol Morris (The Thin Blue Line, 1987), Michael Moore (Roger and Me, 1989), and Jill Godmilow (Far from Poland, 1984) are few examples of emerging trends. Nichols (1991, p. 65) points out that reflexivity is not merely a matter of formal narrative strategies, but an engagement with the marginal and alternative ways of seeing and acting in the world. Examples of such politically reflexive films are Georges Franju’s Blood of the Beasts (1949), Emile de Antonio’s In the Year of the Pig (1969), Wiseman’s High School (1968), and Joris Ivens’ The Spanish Earth (1937).

The early independent women’s films (Union Maids, 1976, Joyce at 34, 1972, and Janie’s Janie, 1971) were situated within the realist tradition, and made as tools for consciousness raising and mobilization (Kaplan 1982–3). Semiological film theory tends to dismiss the radical potential of these films, a view which is contested by Kaplan, who argues that ‘the same realist signifying practices can indeed be used to different ends’ (Kaplan, cited in Nichols 1991, p. 68) and that a consideration of the strategies of reception is also important. Feminist films such as Mitchell Block’s No Lies (1973) and Michelle Citron’s Daughter-Rite (1978) problematize cinema verite techniques by drawing the viewer into an illusion of reality, only to reveal at the end that the narrative was scripted and the protagonists are actors.

Postfeminist work attempts to rewrite feminist themes to break away from the white middle-class heterosexual character of the women’s movement in the West. Trinh T. Minh-Ha’s Surname Viet Given Name Nam (1989), for instance, contests the systems of representation at work in a patriarchal ethnography, rejecting an essentializing of the heroic, suffering Vietnamese woman.

4. Current Issues

Debates regarding documentary and ethnographic film have revolved around various sets of relationships: between the author and the narrative (the question of realism), between the author and the subjects filmed (the question of the ethics and politics of representation), and between the narrative and audiences (the question of effects and audience reception). An issue that has received relatively less attention is the question of how mass media institutional dynamics, the economics of documentary production, and the structures of distribution have influenced the politics and aesthetics of documentary production. For instance, the fact that television constitutes a major market for documentaries today sets the agenda for documentary film production and its reception.

With new technologies such as digital image manipulation and inexpensive portable video camcorders that are redefining the realm of the real, the project of recording reality has never been more problematic. A variety of other genres, ranging from reality programming on television to fiction films, have begun to appropriate the idiom of the ‘real,’ blurring the divide between fictional and nonfictional narratives. When the technology for appropriating actuality in the Direct Cinema dream has become a reality, it is this very actuality that has become elusive, thus making imperative for the documentary and ethnographic film ‘to negotiate an escape from the embrace of science’ (Winston 1993, p. 57).


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