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.