Essay: Ethnographic Films Capturing Their Souls When Polaroid

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Ethnographic Films

Capturing Their Souls

When Polaroid discontinued its instant film in 2008, one of the most disappointed constituencies was police agencies. Crime scene investigators had for years depended on Polaroids to document what had happened for court cases because Polaroids could not be manipulated. In an age of Photoshop, in which everything in every other kinds of photographs had to be considered to be fungible, Polaroids provided a picture of what was true. Just the (visual) facts, as it were.

This forensic fondness for Polaroids is understandable, and if any of us were the victim of a crime we would probably be pleased if the police had access to an accurate and reliable method for collecting and preserving evidence. But the argument about why Polaroids are quintessentially truthful falls apart with a deeper level of examination. For while it is certainly true that Polaroids cannot be as easily manipulated as can a digital image, it is just as certainly true that they do not tell just the facts. For any visual image has a creator, who serves as an editor, telling us in the audience what it is important for us (the viewers and auditors) to focus on.

A skillful filmmaker or photographer can give us the impression that she or he has created a version of the world that is both objectively accurate and subjectively authentic. A skillful filmmaker can forget that we are watching an edited version of the world and make us believe that what we are seeing on the screen is exactly what we ourselves would focus on if we had been wherever the filmmaker was. (Setting aside for the moment the question of how accurate any individual's perception of the world can be considered to be even when that person is actually present.)

A highly skilled filmmaker can also clue the audience into the fact they are watching an edited version of the world, one that can certainly considered to be truthful, albeit in the way that a novel can reveal the truth through the creation of a certain narrative. Indeed, one of the most important decisions that a filmmaker must make is whether she or he will remain invisible to the audience or become fully visible. Does the filmmaker remain the figure behind the curtain, pulling the strings of the puppets, or does she step out in front of the footlights, even while he continues to pull the strings?

Each subset of filmmakers makes different calculations in determining how transparent the process of the creation of a visual narrative should be to the viewer -- and, of course, each filmmaker within each of these media communities must refine the conventions of their genre to meet their own needs and those of their audiences. This paper examines how one particular group of filmmakers makes decisions about the production of a particular type of film, that of the popular ethnographic film.

Defining a New Medium

This last term -- "popular ethnographic film" -- might seem to be something of an oxymoron given that ethnographic films are hardly the stuff of shoot-'em-up blockbusters that bring in the big bucks for the major film studios. But there is a genre of ethnographic film that is created for a lay audience that is created (as well as distributed and produced) in a different manner than is true of ethnographic films (or perhaps more actually ethnographic footage) that is created for use by scholars in the pursuit of understanding a culture or community. This paper focuses on the popular ethnographic film, the kind of visual ethnography that Todd Holland created in the 1998 Krippendorf's Tribe or that was featured in Granada Television's Disappearing World Series and the BBC Television's Worlds Apart and Under the Sun series.

Film that is created for anthropologists or other scholars should never be anything other than explicit about the fact that it is an edited version of the world with a certain epistemological (and often explicitly political) perspective. A scholar looks at an ethnographic film in the same way that a scholar reads a written ethnography: Both are products made by a person or a team from one culture investigating a community most often other than their own for particular reasons.

An ethnographic film made for a lay audience, however, has much more latitude in terms of how much the director lets the audience in on how much editing -- or manipulation, if one wishes to reframe the same process -- has actually occurred. Both of these types of ethnographic films can be analyzed in terms of the way in which films establish a dynamic between Us and Them, the Native and the Expert, the Seer and the Seen.

Not Just Whose Story, but Whose Definition of a Story?

Another way of distinguishing between a scholarly ethnographic film and a popular one is that the director of a popular ethnographic film has to be much more aware of the fact that the film must tell a story. A popular ethnographic film has to be sold to an audience. Filmmakers creating a popular film have to be aware of budgetary restraints: They will be unable to continue to work in their profession if they consistently lose money.

Popular ethnographic films must -- precisely to appeal to an audience that is greater than the scholarly community -- follow a narrative that appeals to a fairly wide audience. Unless the culture that is being depicted in an ethnography is very similar to the culture that the filmmakers are from, it is very likely that there will be very different narrative forms that are accepted by these two different groups. The filmmakers will pick a narrative that appeals to their audience. This may or may not be a narrative style or form that resonates with the subjects of the ethnography.

This is not to criticize the popular ethnographic filmmaker. Making a film that will be well received by an audience in London or New York or Milan is precisely what he or she should be doing. This is precisely the same thing as acknowledging that a company is run to make money: Ethnographic filmmakers are sometimes supported by non-profit organizations, but even non-profits cannot afford to lose money consistently on their projects. Thus makers of popular ethnographic films must always be conscious of the costs and potential profits of their work.

Anthropologists and other scholars, on the other hand, must be attentive to the narrative traditions of the people whom they are studying regardless of how closely the story that they are recording matches their own sense of how a story should be told. One possible example of this is that a popular ethnographic filmmaker would in many cases want to focus on an individual undergoing some sort of personal transformation -- some version of the heroic journey so central to Western narrative forms from at least Homer onward.

Such a biographical approach would appeal to many Western audiences. It might, however, be highly problematic to a culture that is more collective in its focus and disapproving of individual unconventionality. A scholar recording a culture would be obligated (both ethically and in adhering to the most basic standards of scholarly inquiry) to capture on film those images and sequences that allowed the subjects to tell their own story within the narrative traditions of their own culture.

It should be made explicit at this point that this paper is addressing not all films that have central ethnographic elements to them for arguably all films have ethnographic elements to them, since ethnography is simply the act of recording details of a culture in a conscious way. However, the term "ethnographic film," like the broader term "ethnography" itself is conventionally used to describe films made about non-Western cultures or, in a pinch, disempowered communities in Western cultures such as prostitutes.

Henley summarizes this definition of ethnographic film:

Although there is no absolute reason to consider films about such exotic societies as any more 'ethnographic' than films about the societies of the metropolises, the former present the particular of ethnographic film in a more acute manner.

He also summarizes some of the key aesthetic and philosophical points that ethnographic filmmakers must take into account:

This difficulty concerns the question of how information that is non-visual, but which is of critical importance in providing the sociological context of the action visible on the screen, is to be retailed. If this information is presented in the form of a heavy-handed voice-over commentary, it can kill one of the greatest advantages that film has over a literary account, namely the capacity to facilitate an empathetic understanding on the part of the viewer of what exotic ways of life mean to those who live them. In films of this kind, the film subjects can become no more than mute visual aids to an intellectual argument that could be advanced probably more coherently and certainly more cheaply on paper. On the other hand, if this contextualizing information… [END OF PREVIEW]

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