The Impossibility of Anthropological Cinema

A collective reflection project on how to think audiovisual anthropology from its limits, problems and current possibilities.

Contradictory fragments collected in the ruins of visual anthropology. Gonçalo Mota.
Octuber 2018.

On the Historical and the Ghostly in Visual Anthropology. Javier Fernández.
January 2018.

The Impossibility of Anthropological Cinema. Andy Davies.
May 2017.


Contradictory fragments collected in the ruins of visual anthropology. Gonçalo Mota.
Oct 2018

Over the strong nudity of truth
the diaphanous veil of fantasy
Eça de Queiróz

The phrase “anthropological cinema” is both tautology and oxymoron. Confusion persists, semantic incongruity makes it credible. Cinema is as anthropological as a footprint in clay earth. Traces of humans do not assure a greater knowledge of them. However, in a post-truth world, cinema’s sole opportunity is to be anthropological as a manner of guaranteeing the reality of imagination. A stronghold of the resistance of humans in the world(s) in the interior, exterior, vegetable, animal, mineral, sidereal universe(s) etc., the anthropological is the human but is also everything that coexists with the human: the wind, the rain, the rocks, large vertebrates, fungi, bacteria, phantasmagoria, etc.

We live in imagined (but not imaginary) worlds, we use our personal imagination, as well as collective imaginaries, to represent our worlds and attribute meanings to them.
Noel Salazar.

What characterizes anthropological cinema? Why should “Nanook” be more anthropological than “Dr. Mabuse”? Why should the images of a female Wolof potter chronophotographed by Felix-Louis Regnault be considered ethnographic and not the moving images, their contemporaries, of a train’s arrival at the station presented by Lumière? Why is someone who is born in the Amazon jungle more ethnographic than someone born in Madrid? The idea of ​​the relation of ethnography to what is non-familiar runs counter to the aim of anthropology to consider the senses of human experience, whether on board a space station, in the Amazon jungle or in a suburban cafe.

Friction: A young Guarani woman posts on Facebook a cover of a Beyoncé song; an ageing New Ager, Swedish perhaps, shares on YouTube a tutorial on the procedure for carrying out a shamanic ceremony.

Why do we still insist on sterile categories that lack meaning? Not only that, we blithely exchange categories by terming certain filmic objects ethnographic or anthropological, as if such definitions were synonymous. On the one hand, we want to free ourselves from the ghosts of colonialism but we resort to the same concepts, practices and worldviews that created them. What distinguishes ghosts from the living is precisely the fact that the former are now dead, hence the difficulty of making them disappear; we have to learn to live with their presence and take them seriously but this should not lead us to imitate them.

Does the specificity of anthropological cinema lie in its collaborative dimension? In its reflexivity? In a relationship committed to reality? In the representation of human cultural diversity? In prolonged immersion within the filmed community? In the ethical and responsible transparency of the ethnographic encounter?

The journey as domination 

One of the specificities of a cinema termed ethnographic or anthropological may lie in the extreme mobility of those who claim to practice it in the face of the precarious (im)mobility of “their” filmic subjects. The union between cinematographic, touristic and ethnographic practices is not an innocent one. Cosmopolitan mobility has transcended these three practices, ever since its origins and up to our time. Anyone who intends to make a film with an ethnographic tradition, however thoughtful and critical it might be, will in most cases travel and gain access to realities that are distant to them, with the financial support of civilized institutions. Such access is rarely granted by a reciprocity agreement: negotiation and intrusion in certain worlds is anchored in economic and political processes always involving power relationships and dynamics between centres and peripheries that are overshadowed by colonialism.

The creators of these films are beings in movement, privileged social actors (cosmopolitan connoisseurs), who gravitate from “their” shoot locations towards festivals around the world, between their visits to universities, art galleries, and their return to homes in gentrified neighbourhoods in the capital. The nature of their movements is physical, but also social, insofar as they cross social hierarchies by ignoring the contradictions they help to perpetuate. These contradictions are often legitimized by the imperative of “publicising”, of “translating”, certain situations for a “Western” audience, or by the way in which their creative and critical individuality can convert the world’s complexity into filmic products. Dennis O’Rourke rejects the role that establishes the filmmaker as a cultural hero, someone who aims to be a traveller, but who is hardly more than an informed tourist, one who demonstrates scant aesthetic and moral sense. We cannot continue to deny that tourism is a central element of contemporary cinematographic practices. This we can verify in the resurgence of the essayistic travelogue in photochemical format. The illusory Abyssinian ethno-ambitions of the Rimbauds of the 21st century are manifestations of the same circumstances that originated geographic exploitation and imperialism. The film director who is “inspired ethnographically”, just like the tourist or the anthropologist, is a marginal creature who temporarily inhabits another culture and who portrays it for domestic, academic or artistic consumption. Cinema, tourism and ethnography are more related to what we imagine that the other is than what he or she really is. For Edward Bruner, tourism is just a further form of representation, whose privileged sensory medium for the perception of the “native” is through the viewfinder.

Cinema will always be a form of anthropological expression

The uncertainty principle: What we know of the world depends on how we interact with it. Our methods and personalities alter and partially constitute the nature of what we observe.”
Werner Heisenberg

Lucien Taylor considers opacity and resistance to semiotic explanation and decoding as a singularity of anthropological cinema. This view is shared by David MacDougall, who trusts in the possibilities of cinema as a sort of commensal relationship with the world and not so much as a unilateral act of communication that places explanation above experience. Cinema is a medium that favours subjectivity and human experience. Ethnography is born out of the positivist aspiration of making scientific the gathering of data related to human activity.

The use of cinema as a positivist data-gathering instrument is to ethnography what the use of cinema as a means of expression is to anthropology. For Margaret Mead, the camera should be used to collect ethnographic data. She believes that the resulting audiovisual sequences should have an exclusively scientific purpose. Her panoptic utopia aimed to nullify the selective, the subjective and the impressionistic for the sake of guaranteeing the accuracy of the “ethnographic reality” for later analysis (we can picture Margaret Mead, with access to 360 degree cameras, drones, photogrammetry, etc., reproducing Balinese hamlets in virtual reality environments). For Bateson, cinema and photography are forms of artistic expression and not exclusively scientific instruments for data collection. In the famous debate between Mead and Bateson about the use of the camera in anthropology, we get a sense of the difference between ethnography and anthropology recently raised by Tim Ingold.

Ingold tries to clarify two practices that, while complementary, are not sides of the same coin and whose aims are clearly different. Ethnography attempts to describe life as it is lived and experienced by people at a certain time and place. Anthropology, on the other hand, is a questioning of the conditions and possibilities of human life in the world. Ethnography seeks, above all, to collect information in a contextualized manner with a maximum attention to detail, through writing, images and sounds. It is always conditioned by descriptive accuracy: it must reflect the other in the most analytical and objective way possible. Anthropology, meanwhile, must always be critical and speculative, born out of each person’s critical reflections, and it does not seek to be authoritarian. This difference and distinction between ethnography and anthropology frees anthropology for other forms of research through various artistic practices, cinema, drawing, theatre, dance, music etc. For this thinker, the attempt to combine ethnography with artistic practices always leads to bad results because they invariably compromise both the ethnographic aim of reliable description and the interventional and experimental interrogation processes that characterize the artistic process. However, an anthropology that is experimental and interrogative can produce extremely productive results when combined with artistic practices.

What is crucial about both anthropology and art practice, and what distinguishes both from ethnography and art history, is that they are not about understanding actions and works by embedding them in context—not about accounting for them, ticking them off, and laying them to rest—but about bringing them into presence so that we can address them, and answer to them, directly.
Tim Ingold

(im) possibilities

A visual anthropology – audiovisual, sensory – is much more than an ethnographic film but it appears that the latter continues to dominate common understanding of this subdiscipline. Anthropologists such as Anna Grimshaw, Amanda Ravetz and Sarah Pink have attempted through their texts and practices to demonstrate the potential of the use of audiovisual technologies in anthropological research far beyond the mere making of ethnographic films. Ironically, the ethnographic film appears to resurface in the artistic and cinematographic media, largely due to the Sensory Ethnographic Lab but also to a need to legitimize artistic practices theoretically. Increasingly, adorned with academic jargon and imbued with a near encyclopaedic imperative of documentation, we hear about visual artists who have explored a certain topic ethnographically, or who have used an archaeological method in their creative processes. An artist no longer creates but researches, which appears a more serious activity. At the same time, increasingly more anthropologists, disillusioned with the corporatist and economicist dynamics of academia, attempt to move closer to artistic practices.

It may be only a matter of categorization, of binary oppositions that we still cannot transcend: art/science, we/others, fiction/reality, indigenous/foreign, pure/hybrid. While we may not know how to deal with these new ways of being in the world, we continue rescuing nomenclatures or suggesting hybrids, contaminations, etc. In the end, all of us need to be paid and almost all audiovisual projects, whether they be academic or artistic, require the written word in order to be accepted, in order to demonstrate what images are to be used for.


After the death of a member of the Warlpiri, women from his family group go through the camp with eucalyptus branches to sweep the tracks of the deceased, erasing any trace of his presence. Thus, the deceased loses his unique identity and enters ancestral time as a spirit. We prefer to delay the destruction of our traces with images, thereby negating the possibility of transcendence.

Errare cinetographicum est…


Gonçalo Mota studied anthropology and cinema. As a researcher, he works with audiovisual archives related to touristic practices and representations and on the use of drones and virtual reality in the touristic promotion of the landscape of the Douro Valley. He formed part of the organization of Anamnesis: Encuentro de Cine, Sonido y Tradición Oral de Trás-os-Montes (Anamnesis: Meeting of the Film, Sound and Oral Tradition of Trás-os-Montes) (2007/12) and Encuentros de Primavera en Miranda do Douro – Antropología, Cine y Sentidos) (Spring Encounters in Miranda do Douro – Anthropology, Cinema and Senses) (2005/18). He was responsible for the sound of the films Revolution Industrial (2014) by Tiago Hespanha and Frederico Lobo and Anteu (2018) by João Vladimiro. He collaborates regularly by integrating video into the works of the theatre and dance company Circolando (http://circolando.com/) and the project LOA by Lucifer’s Ensemble (http://www.lucifersensemble.org/).

 


On the Historical and the Ghostly in Visual Anthropology. Javier Fernández.

January 2018

“When the Baal Schem had a difficult task before him he would go to a certain place in the woods, light a fire and recite a prayer. And in this way the task was completed.

When a generation later, his son was faced with the same task, he said: ‘We can no longer light a fire, but we can pray’. And everything happened according to his will.

When the time came for the son of his son to resolve the same task, he said: “We can no longer light a fire, nor do we remember the prayers, but we know the place in the woods, and that is sufficient.” And sufficient it was.

When finally the son of the son of the son was called upon to perform the task, he sat down in his golden chair, in his castle, and said: ‘We cannot light the fire, we cannot recite the prayers, we do not know the place, but we can tell the story of all this’. And, once again this had the same effect as the actions of his forefathers”.


Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism. Gershom G Scholem. Translation based on the original compiled by Scholem and Jean-Luc Godard’s adaptation at the beginning of his film Hélas pour moi.

 

In the Sixties, at the highpoint of the decolonisation process, the accusations that identified anthropology as a necessary collaborator of colonial expansion and questioned it’s validity as an academic discipline intensified. These critical voices, that frequently came from within anthropology, were directed, amongst other things at the tendency in ethnographic monographs to situate the societies being studied in a kind of unchanging limbo outside of time. In short that this was a rhetorical device that refused the possibility of change and at the same time neutralised the importance of the devastating effects of colonialism.

This was a critical thinking that attacked the heart of the discipline and had something in common with those who questioned the idealistic intentions of the “fly on the wall” documentary technique in it’s attempts to register reality. Both positions seemed to ignore the limitations of the observer, whose point of view is always conditioned by their subjectivity (and technical skill) as well as the explicit and implicit relationships of power established between the subject and the object.

How then to interpret history? Certainly interpreting (or making) images, a dialogue or a situation recorded in the present that references historical events, suggests the possibility of new perspectives. Points of view and proposals that demand aesthetic forms capable of approaching the historical -in truth, the past- in audiovisual works that are unquestionably a register of the here and now.

You could say that working with archival images escapes these limitations. But all historical archives are by definition incomplete, and audiovisual archives even more so as they are limited to the relatively recent past and were only created by the very few with access to the economic resources and technical expertise to make recordings. And even then archive images are by no means an inmutable storehouse of the past of and by themselves, they also demand, or require, a historical activation in the present.

In fact we came back to something cinema has always longed for: to film the past with all that this task implies of both the magical and the intangible. A variety of procedures that might begin with the earliest historical reconstructions of the silent newsreels and take us to the work of John Gianvito in Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind. This film tells the story of the violent past of the United States through the traces and inscriptions left on commemorative monuments, and I could also mention Claude Lanzmann or Eduardo Coutinho with their use of oral history, the word and the testimony of the witness.

The Jewish story that introduces this article is inspiring in the sense that, metaphorically, it could be understood as referring to distinct audiovisual strategies that at different times address a historical or mythical event that was never recorded and yet obstinately continues to influence the present. It’s a text I regularly come back to when confronted with my current project that attempts, in the present, to approach the maleable and elusive layers of a history that sometimes overlap, sometimes contradict and frequently dissolve in recounting and interpreting past events.

The episode I am concerned with is the death of Sas Ebuera, the last leader of the Bubi people who resisted the Spanish colonial occupation of Fernando Poo (actually Bioko). In 1903 Sas Ebuera died in captivity after being taken from his home by mercenaries working for the Civil Guard. According to the authors Dolores García Cantús or José Fernando Siale this incident triggered a series of violent conflicts between the local resistance and the Spanish authorities that, in the end, decimated the Bubi population.
There are no photographs or portraits of Sas Ebuera. Only a handful of documents, often contradictory, prepared by the colonial civil service. Texts written by and for the colonial administration in which the veracity of that which is recounted is absolutely irrelevant. They are physical, legible and palpable documents that can be filmed. They are also partial, biased and open to interpretation. The next question that emerges is logical: What about the versions of this event that circulate amongst the Bubis?
Aware that I am arriving more than 110 years late I cross the south of the island looking for people who can tell me what happened between the 26th and the 30th of June 1903. The stories aren’t clear either: there are doubts, contradictions, things forgotten and erroneous data. There is even a woman who claims to have reliable information -with the unquestionable authority of the written word- that sends me back to one of the most popular Spanish versions, an extract from a monograph about the Bubi people.

I am left with the option of returning to the “neck of the woods”. In this case literally (Photo 1). But no luck here either. You can more or less get to the place, but the village where Sas Ebuera lived and was arrested disappeared a long time ago -probably as a result of the policy, imposed from the capital, of grouping small villages together- Where should I place the tripod? In which direction frame the image? What size should it be?


Foto 1

I go back to the oral histories but from another perspective. In the end it isn’t about making a forensic reconstruction of events. Barthes writes: “The closer a document is to a voice the less distanced it is from the warmth that produced it and the greater are the grounds of it’s historical credibility. This is why the oral document is superior to the written document. And the legend to texts“.

Even though none of the Bubi stories agree on the precise details of Sas Ebuera’s death many of them do agree about a curious epilogue: the body of Sas was buried next to a natural spring on the outskirts of Santa Isabel (now Malabo). “It is said that”, contrary to common sense, the spring flows during the dry season and runs dry during the wet season.

I found the spring. It is a physical place, unarguable, that I would have passed by without noticing if it hadn’t been for the “marker” that activated it historically in front of me and my camera (Photo 2). It could be described as “secret”, it is a place of mourning. This is the first real place that is unequivocally historically significant. And yet it’s attraction derives from a legend rather than facts and irrefutable documents. From a story that tells of a phantasmal presence that apparently reveals itself through a seasonal peculiarity.


Foto 2

But it’s not about thinking of the commemorative potential of the place. Referring to places of conflict, Louise Purbrick writes that this operation implies “underestimating the way in which the past is continuously inserted into the present. Places of conflict become powerful representations in their own materiality. They contain the footprints of the dead and show signs of violence. They are contaminated in the anthropological sense of the word“.

Invoking these kinds of places obliges us to enter the unsettling liminal world of ghosts. “A kind of residual insistence, almost material, that interrupts and resists all attempts at negation. This is a ghost, after all: something that has gone, something dead, but that refuses absence: something neither here nor now, but that continues to stain and contaminate the here and now“, as understood by Steve Shaviro, returning again to the idea of pollution. The ghosts resist negation, being sacrificed to the pure historical narrative or deactivated in the simple interaction of facts and dates.

At this point, whilst going over recent recordings, I realise that I didn’t record direct sound and that I need to return to the spring. The silent image is lacking depth, an inseparable part of its “materiality” and, paradoxically, my instinct tells me that to recover this recording in the most literal way -that is mostly the sounds of traffic and street vendors- I get closer to this spectral territory.
In their installation Spirits Still Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Veréna Paravel isolate 686 frames from amongst the 130,000 that constitute the raw material they worked on in the film Leviathan. These images correspond to ghostly apparitions, invisible when played back at normal speed. The capricious play of the sky and the sea, light and shadows that draw faces; vulnerable, fleeting presences that might suggest the bodies of those lost at sea.
Neither their work (I believe) nor my own are talking literally of paranormal phenomena, ghosts don’t manipulate zeros and ones to appear by chance in digital images and sounds registered in Malabo are not psychic sounds. Rather the material properties of audiovisual media, specifically anthropological documentation, activate perceptual responses that allow us to recover fragments of the past -history and inevitably the presence of the dead- in a lived, palpable, thoughtful and moving way.

To summarise, it is oral history, the legend freed of the pretence of factual historical reconstruction, that becomes, finally, my starting point. That allows me to build a model in which the traumatic past is activated through the spectral qualities of visual and acoustic registers that maintain their power even in the digital era.

And it is thanks to this shift in perspective or attitude towards oral history -to continue the Jewish legend we started with: that the history being told produces the same effect as the fire, the prayer or the place- that we can open up our work to other narratives and footnotes. Material that is, in the end, vital in helping us to understand the extent of the impact of decades of colonialism, even now, on those societies that have been subjected to it.
I go over the testimony of the woman mentioned earlier. After browsing through the first pages of the monograph on the Bubis and the text on Sas Ebuera based on Spanish sources the woman continues to turn the pages. She stops at one that has a photograph, the footnote indicates only “a fortune-teller”. The woman points to the photo, pronounces the name of the subject photographed and explains the distant family ties that link her to him, “he died a long time ago”, she signals (Photo 3).


Foto 3

That which in anthropology is a category, cold and interchangeable, in her voice becomes an individual, a name and a unique, untransferable existence. An individual, even if no longer living. A personal history fleetingly elicited that challenges the historical model associated with official, allegedly scientific, documents. This act that provokes, momentarily, a distinctive perspective, almost ghostly, of a past ripped apart by years of colonial administration.

In Vita Nova Vincent Meessen investigates a similar situation. The Belgian artist begins with an image from 1955 in Paris Match that Barthes analysed in his Mythologies. A close-up of an African child soldier in the French army. In Ivory Coast he finds the young cadet, now elderly, and shows him a copy of the magazine. “This is your grandfather”, he tells the grandchildren who surround him. The image is no longer an act of propaganda but becomes a personal document, the history of an individual that emerges from the past to mock the imperial colonial project.

In conclusion, in these lines I have tried to describe, through my personal creative considerations, a few elements that are crucial for my work. And also I suspect necessary for a debate about contemporary visual anthropology: the almost unlimited richness of oral testimony with its words, silences, gestures (and the diversity of perspectives from which we can listen to this testimony). The individual and collective histories that radiate from the places of conflict and the material quality of the audiovisual medium with its paradoxical capacity to recover the disappeared and the extinct through the exploration of its own limits.


Javier Fernández Vázquez is a film director, audiovisual producer and founding member of Los Hijos, a collective dedicated to non-fiction, video art and experimental ethnography. Among his works are the feature films Los materiales (2010) or Árboles (2013) and the short film January 2012 or the apotheosis of Isabel la Católica, which won several prizes at international festivals (Punto de Vista, FidMarseille) and have been projected in numerous centers of contemporary art and formed part of collective artistic exhibitions. His complete filmography has been the subject of several retrospectives (Lima Independiente, Distrital, 3XDOC). Javier works as an associate professor in the Department of Audiovisual Communication of the Carlos III University (UC3M) and belongs to the research group Larga exposition, the narrations of contemporary Spanish art for the “great publics” of the Autonomous University of Madrid (UAM). Previously, he has taught visual anthropology at UNED and experimental film at Escuela SUR. He has also contributed to the programming of audiovisual cycles in CA2M and in Tabakalera Donostia.


The Impossibility of Anthropological Cinema. Andy Davies.

May 2017

In Bunuel’s Las Hurdes the voice-over is almost insulting; “here we see another kind of idiot…”. If I understand the film correctly it’s an effective technique, the audience feels complicit, the shame is shared, it’s as if he were saying anthropological film is a shameful business. In a way he’s right and it’s curious that he says it before anthropological film really exists.

Andy Warhol, talking about his films, compares them to watching people in the street. The British talk of ‘curtain twitchers’ who keep an eye on the neighbours and the neighbourhood from the anonymity of their homes. There’s something utopian in this invisible anthropological view of the world, the ‘fly on the wall’ of documentary film, but also something necessarily voyeuristic, without the desire to know it is a meaningless act. And of course it is not a neutral gaze, the neighbours are always talking.

Jean Rouch perfectly understood the deceit and his cinema recognises the importance of the presence of the camera and the film crew. He considers filmmaking an integral part of the anthropological material and yet you wouldn’t say he specifically studies himself but more precisely examines the effect his filmmaking has on those around him. If the anthropologist is part of the anthropology wouldn’t that require a second film crew to film the first and so on infinitely?

After Rouch the cinema of Trinh T Minh-ha investigates in greater depth the personal and the ethnographic. Her films are essays that connect with the tradition of Vigo and Marker. A cinema that underlines the particular and understands the ethnographic almost as if it were a way of knowing oneself, a speculative rather than spectacular cinema.

A generation of contemporary film essayists and artists have transformed this ethnographic essay form into a more overtly political, post-colonial cinema. It’s no longer necessary for the filmmaker to be an anthropologist because the purpose and intention of this cinema is to reveal the abuses and prejudices of the coloniser, the other of the other, that is us. There is an implicit danger in using the exotic to denounce precisely the destruction of the exotic and the easy assimilation of ethnographic images to almost any discourse, essay, documentary or fiction often feels at the very least uncomfortable.

in this context it’s interesting to think about Unsere Afrikareise by Peter Kubelka, made out of images he filmed for a group of Austrian big game hunters during their trip to Africa. The film lasts 12 minutes but Kubelka took 5 years to finish it, learning by memory every scene from the 3 hours of unedited footage and carrying small rolls of film in his pockets for years, film that he was constantly touching and running through his fingers. It’s an anti-colonial film but it was made very slowly, very manually. The result is complex, with many layers that can be connected in different ways. Kubelka doesn’t really believe in artists or professionals and is more interested in the variety and amplitude of experience. He’s a craftsman of the complex and secretive connections between the different elements that go to make up film.

At the other end of the spectrum to Rouch are the films of his contemporary Robert Gardener, an anthropologist at Harvard whose immersive films unapologetically celebrated the beauty and strangeness of ethnographic images. He was less interested in the authentic image and more concerned with the sensations his films produced in an audience. He created a spectacular cinema that was often screened in commercial venues. His work suggests perhaps that you can make films with anthropology or vice versa but not both.

Recently this question has received an interesting reconfiguration through the work of a new generation of filmmakers at the Sensory Ethnography Lab at Harvard where digital technology has facilitated a radically different approach to ethnographic film. In Leviathan small digital cameras register activity on a trawler from multiple angles that would previously have been unthinkable such as from within a net full of fish being dragged through a rough sea behind a trawler. These images have something inhuman that suggests an ethnography of things, of spaces, of machinery and of everything that surrounds us. In a world increasingly full of the most diverse objects imaginable this is perhaps inevitable, but if it is already almost impossible for us to understand another culture how much more difficult is it for us to make sense of the non-human.

It might be possible to see YouTube as a kind of invisible archive of ethnographic cinema. It has the quality of being a homemade ethnography which resolves, to a certain extent, the problems associated with the observations of the outsider. It also has the virtue of being a cinema of cinema, everyone films as they wish, or perhaps understand that they can, and each shot is a register of our own particular version of this cinematic way of seeing the world. But it is an anthropology that is invisible through excess; a traditional ritual, like a wedding, produces thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of audiovisual documents. If Google is not going to employ an army of ethnographers to make these materials more available the most likely outcome is that they will disappear without leaving a trace.

Many projects of participatory cinema, community video or self-representation also escape the traditional separation between ethnography and ethnographer. The further you get from the professionals of the film image and of editing the closer you get to a proper image of a community or a group of people. It’s a process that can produce surprising images and as mobile phones improve it is becoming easier to make these works with increasing autonomy. But the idea we have of what constitutes an interesting or valid image is still very much a construction of the media wether from film, television or newer media and it is difficult to even imagine a cinema that isn’t subject to these rules of representation or an audience that might be interested in watching it.

If a ‘real’ ethnographic film isn’t possible we can at least make a list of the things we find interesting: watching time pass in Warhol, Kubelka’s way of making films, the technically strange in the Sensory Ethnography Lab, the proximity of YouTube or the autonomy of self-representation. These details could be the starting point for something but it’s also interesting what they are not: they aren’t ideas that help us to understand, they aren’t explanations and they are rarely a spectacle. The future of this kind of cinema will more likely be in the slow films, the artesanal, the subtle connections, the impossible images, the invisible and the homemade that have little or nothing in common with anthropological cinema as we know it.


Andy Davies is a video and film curator. Between 1998 and 2000 he worked as a director for exhibitions at the CCCB in Barcelona. From 1998 to 2008 he coordinated Sonar Cinema within the Sonar festival, he co-founded the experimental film program X-Centric at the CCCB and directed the live audiovisual festival Play at La Casa Encendida in Madrid between 2006 and 2013. He has organized several cinema exhibitions such as “Common Sense, Luke Fowler” in La Casa Encendida, Madrid and “Cry when you pass, Laida Lertxundi” in Azkuna Centroa, Bilbao.