Expanding the Frame: Ethnographic Film and its Others
an academic conference part of the 16th RAI FILM FESTIVAL 2019 (27-30 March 2019, Bristol, UK)
We Three: Apparatus, Subject, Society
Convenors: Timothy P.A. Cooper, University College London & Vindhya Buthpitiya, University College London
Departing from the tripartite relationship between apparatus, subject, and society this panel invites reflection on issues of exclusion, consent, cinephobia, cinephilia, censorship, archival absences, informal circulation, piracy, sharing, pre- and post-cinematic entertainments and the efficaciousness of films as categories of knowledge.
Ethnographic film assembles context but less consistently considers local conditions of film-making and film-going. This panel seeks to explore the backstage of ethnographic film: the sociality and politics of film-making, film-screening, and film-going. Much work has been done on the use of film by indigenous communities and the politics of representation, yet Andre Bazin’s deliberation on “What is Film” evidences only one of film’s multiple ontologies. Elsewhere, cinemas are burned or the subject of moral policing, costume dramas ignite nation-wide outrage, in congested cities derelict cinema halls live unlikely afterlives, piracy stands in for film archives, and regional language made-for-DVD films challenge homogeneity and nativism.
Departing from the tripartite relationship between apparatus, subject, and society this panel invites reflection on the exorbitant space that radiates from the various dimensions of film experience and the cinema theatre as a social and solitary space. We hope to discuss issues of exclusion, consent, cinephobia, cinephilia, censorship, archival absences, informal circulation, piracy, sharing, pre- and post-cinematic entertainments and the efficaciousness of films as categories of knowledge. We hope that critical dialogue with notions of film as performance, event and process can shed light on ontological and epistemological issues that may add richness to ethnographic filmmaking, and help to expand the canon to include its “others”.
From the Field to the Screen: Reflexive Practices and Collaborative Methods in Ethnographic Film
Convenors: Angélica Cabezas Pino, University of Manchester & Mattia Fumanti, University of St. Andrews
This panel invites contributions from visual anthropologists and filmmakers of contemporary ethnographic films that explore the challenges and opportunities of collaborative and/or reflexive methods, and the limits of these practices when presenting that cinematic work to an audience.
The aim of this panel is to provoke reflection and dialogue about collaborative visual practices -in the form of ethnographic film- and its methods of production: from collaboration in the field to its impact when presenting this cinematographic work to an audience.
Jay Ruby (1977) suggested that audiences are usually only presented with film as a product, focusing the attention only on the story presented, but with no critical engagement with how that material was produced. In this context, this panel calls for the analysis of cinematic research projects that not only reveal the product (film) and the producer (filmmaker) but also the process from which that narrative emerges.
Following Ruby´s idea that ‘filmmakers along with anthropologists have the ethical, political, aesthetic, and scientific obligations to be reflexive and self-critical about their work’ (1977), we seek to open a discussion about practices that propose and engage with what is usually not made visible: the process of production, and its impact when reaching an audience.
This panel seeks to promote a conversation that critically explore new ways in which visual anthropologists and filmmakers confront the challenges of reflexivity when it comes to reveal the process from which audio-visual ethnographic data is produced; and how these reflexive practices have an impact when visual outcomes are presented to an audience.
Indigenous Cinema: past, present and future
Convenors: Renato Athias, PPGA/UFPE & Rodrigo Lacerda, CRIA / NOVA FCSH / ISCTE-IUL
Indigenous cinema is a very diverse and global category with more than fifty years of history. The panel seeks submissions to analyze the past, present and future of indigenous cinema, including papers centered on case studies that allow us to think about the general framework, or broad reflections applicable to different contexts.
Indigenous cinema is a very diverse and global category that exists throughout the American continent, Australia, New Zealand, northern Europe, etc. This production emerged in the 1970s, and established itself in the following decades. Indigenous cinema has its origins in technological developments, in dialogical experiences of visual anthropology and, above all, in the expansion of the indigenous movement in several countries and international organizations, such as the United Nations and UNESCO. Therefore, cinema is an important arena of outcry, namely in the areas related to land, the environment and decolonization, but it is, above all, a means of giving a voice and body to indigenous peoples, that is, of “talking back” or “shooting back” to the colonizer. Concomitantly, festivals and online platforms dedicated to this category have begun to appear, and some films have won important awards in prominent generalist film festivals. Currently, certain social scientists argue that there is a “global indigenous cinema” assembled through these international networks, but it is important to emphasize that most of the production has a local origin, with specific relevance to the collectives from which it emanates. Taking into account this background, the panel seeks subsidies to analyze the past, present and future of indigenous cinema, including papers centered on case studies that allow us to think about the general framework, or broad reflections applicable to different contexts.
Transforming theory in and through film.
Convenors: Mattijs van de Port, University of Amsterdam, Janine Prins. University of Leiden &
Ildikó Plájás, University of Amsterdam
This panel seeks to expand theoretical ambitions in visual anthropology. We explore audio-visual modes of report that speak about existential issues via the minutiae of life-as-lived. We invite visual anthropologists to bring video fragments that provide examples of theorizing in and through film.
Ethnographic films have long been theorized — in texts. But what is the ‘theoretical’ in film? Can film do theory? Or rather: what becomes of theory when practiced in and through film (as filmmaker Eyal Sivan would put it)?
This panel is organised around a certain dissatisfaction with the dominance of the ethnographical in visual anthropology, or to put it more provocatively: it’s lack of theoretical ambitions.
Of course we recognise how camera based research has enriched ethnography with incredibly detailed depictions of lives lived elsewhere. And we enthusiastically embrace the possibility to bring the sensorial and emotive dimensions of these lifeworlds into our accounts. Yet our search is for audio-visual modes of report that embrace anthropology’s theoretical ambitions: to speak about larger existential issues via the minutiae of life-as-lived.
This search requires expanding the notion of theory, for clearly, theory practiced in and through film will always be different from the theory that is practiced in and through texts. The search also requires an in depth exploration of the cinematographic experimentation that is going on in anthropology, and beyond: in the arts, videography and experimental filmmaking. To stimulate our discussions, we invite visual anthropologists to bring video fragments to the panel that will provide examples of doing theory in and through film.
PANEL 005. Expanding Ethnographic Film: Multimodality?
Convernors: Mark Westmoreland, Leiden University & Janine Prins, Leiden University
This panel seeks to investigate the expansion of ethnographic film practices in cases where a combination of different practice-based methodologies led to a multimodal approach. To what extent does multiplying creative methods improve the anthropological enterprise?
Practice-based research approaches have gained broader appeal for their ability to depict multiple forms of sensorial knowledge. These endeavours have also emphasized forms of collaboration, experimentation, and creative methods from data generation to research communication. While the accessibility of digital technologies enables many anthropologists to produce an expanded range of research materials, those technically trained in visual anthropology have a methodological and analytical advantage. Rather than blindly celebrate this trend, we must ask: how to best utilize these creative methods, for which arguments, and to what end?
This panel seeks to investigate the expansion of ethnographic fieldwork practices, the diversification of anthropological epistemologies, and the proliferation of new creative and communicative outputs in the context of shifting contemporary media ecologies and research sensibilities. An era that acknowledges multiple, simultaneous constructions of reality may indeed require a patchwork methodology assembled from so-called mixed methods, theories, and media. Moreover, a truly multimodal anthropology, should consider approaches that go beyond cinematic traditions and novelties alone. Many audiovisual anthropologists already engage in a variety of research modes as applied in artistic research such as drawing, soundscapes, installations, interactive documentary, design thinking methods, etc.
Still, since each method creates its own research object in specific ways, using a multimodal approach would allow for new scholarly-artistic insights and interventions. Therefore, in order to bring complementary synergies as well as conceptual inconsistencies to the fore, we seek examples of multimodal research that combines creative research methods and highlight their (dis)advantages as integral contribution to the anthropological enterprise.
The material mediation of the ‘non-normative’ body
Convenors: Cathy Greenhalgh, Independent Researcher / Central Research Unit, Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts London & Catalin Brylla, University of West London
This panel seeks filmmakers working with and representing ‘non-normative’ bodies that are traditionally stereotyped and portrayed as “the other”. The aim is to explore innovative or experimental approaches that highlight the materiality of practices in the pursuit to challenge, bypass or reconfigure tacit audience dispositions towards alternative bodies. This exploration assumes a methodology focussed on the mediation between filmmaker, participants and spectators.
Contemporary ethnographic film has been part of the popularisation, commercialisation, divergence and plurality John Corner attributes to his notion of “post-documentary” (2002). In this respect, ethnographic film is in the unique position to combine a critical approach to representing “the alter” (instead of “the other”) with the outlook of a wide dissemination beyond academia. This provides the scope for practice-led research addressing tacit and ossified audience dispositions (stereotypes) towards ‘non-normative’ bodies, which have permeated popular culture. Examples include Cathy Greenhalgh’s research on plus-size experience and diversity, and Catalin Brylla’s research on blindness and disability. These works acknowledge cinematic/experimental/artistic approaches to film form, considering it an endeavour aimed at affective engagement with audiences, whilst still adhering to established ethnographic methods and anthropological paradigms. Materiality as a catalyst for the filmic mediation of agency, subjective experience and everydayness is key to interrogating the representation of bodies from or within marginalised or stigmatised communities. Therefore, we wish to encourage papers from filmmakers grappling with using interdisciplinary approaches and innovative/alternative/experimental aesthetics that challenge traditional ways of representing ‘non-normative’ bodies and experiences. The methods should be based around two inter-related principles: Firstly, ethnographic film is a form of mediation that assumes the filmmaker engages in questions of authorship, spectatorship and the representation of ‘otherness’ via particular material forms. Secondly, via these material forms, ethnographic film orders affective experience, embodied encounter and negotiated understanding in which the filmmaker needs to embrace the concept of ‘alterity’ (Nash 2011, Levinas 1989, Taussig 1993). You may be using sensory ethnography, auto-ethnographic modes or phenomenological and cognitive methods that intentionally seek out empathetic connection and mediation. Or, your filmmaking habits and film subjects may be informed by particular corporeal presence and material situations of practices with regards to the ‘non-normative’ body.
Youth-centred frames: visual collaborations and participatory techniques in the research with young people
Convenors: Camilla Morelli, University of Bristol, Flavia Kremer, University of Manchester
This panel explores the use of participatory visual methods (film-making and beyond) in the research with young people who live at the margins of technological and economic progress, and it considers how collaborative visual anthropology can open up a forum for them to express their challenges and gain wider representation.
This panel explores the use of film-making and participatory visual methods in the research with young people across the world, focusing primarily (but not exclusively) on children and youth who feel marginalised, displaced and unable to access the resources available in wider society.
Young people often constitute the largest demographics in societies with developing economies and long histories of displacement and dispossession, and a growing body of research is recognising their key role in processes of change and future-making. And yet their own voices remain largely excluded from academic work and policy practice, where debates on young lives are too often about them rather than being carried out with them.
Our aim is to consider how collaborative visual methods can open up a forum in which young people living at the margins of technological and economic progress are able to express their everyday challenges and gain broader representation. While we are open to considering ethnographic documentary as a key visual method, we also propose to expand the frame of the discussion and include experimental forms of film-making, animation, participatory photography, social media, and others.
We seek participation of anthropologists but also of research participants and collaborators, so as to create a dialogue on the potentials of collaborative visual practice that will move beyond academia. While recognising that such participation might incur in practical challenges, we are keen to discuss possible strategies that we have used before, e.g. participation through Skype and Whatsapp, recorded videos, etc.
Staging the real: (Ethnographic) film as reflexive choreography and co-performative witnessing
Convenors: Ethiraj Gabriel Dattatreyan, Goldsmiths, University of London & Isaac Marrero Guillamon, Goldsmiths, University of London
The papers in this panel engage with the ways in which collaborative filmmaking – whether made by anthropologists who are filmmakers or artists who double as ethnographers — reflexively generate what we call stagings of the real.
The papers in this panel engage with approaches to producing ethnographic film that push against ‘radical observational cinema’ made popular (again) by the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab. We are particularly interested in the ways in which collaborative filmmaking – whether made by anthropologists who are filmmakers or artists who double as ethnographers — reflexively generate what we call stagings of the real. As Jean Rouch intimates, staging could be thought of as a “strange kind of choreography, which if inspired, makes the cameraman and soundman no longer invisible but participants in the ongoing event” (Rouch  2001:99). The real, in this sense, is always co-produced in relations that the camera mediates. Papers in this panel investigate contemporary approaches to and theorizations of the ‘choreography of staging’ and interrogate how ethnographic filmmakers working in the digital age imagine and render themselves (and their team) as key actors in unfolding social dramas. The papers in this panel also engage with staging the real in ways that hinge on what ethnographer and performance studies scholar Dwight Conquergood has called co-performative witnessing — the act of reliving and retelling experiences of the past together, body to body, flesh to flesh (Conquergood, 1985, 2002). How are contemporary (ethnographic) filmmakers taking Conquergood’s call to deeply engage with the political dimensions of the sensuous and the shared to produce stagings of past events or imagined futures?
Precarious landscapes: forensics and decolonial futures
Convenor: Toma Peiu, University of Colorado Boulder
This panel will be discussing the practicalities and ethics of producing images and sound in vulnerable landscapes. Work coming from ethnographers and media artists researching border areas, diasporas and environmentally, politically or economically exposed geographies is expected to challenge notions of centrality and subalternity.
In a world of affordable lightweight technology and pervasive connectedness, it is increasingly facile for images to emerge out of the periphery. At the same time, a large amount of the media produced around the world is subordinate to the aesthetics of the center. In the academia, from ethnographic film to media created in art history & technology programs, the conversation around the distance between those documenting and the documented is often superseded by discussions of materiality / medium, and the subjective choices of the maker.
Between Hito Steyerl’s poor image, Eyal Weizman’s forensis and Michael D. Jackson’s existentiality, this panel will be juxtaposing case studies of experimental art work resulted from ethnographically-minded collaboration with protagonists from the periphery, and / or based in vulnerable geographies. Sites of precarious movement and migration often intersect with shifting landscapes in an era of globalized capitalism. These may include everydays transformed by the extraction economy, the enforcement of international borders, conflict, environmental vulnerability and Rob Nixon’s concept of “slow violence”, the experience of asylum or migration. We welcome papers and project presentations that critically interrogate and / or expand normative forms of representation and documentation in such sites.
In light of ever-increasing inequality, what is the future of ethnographic media practice? Under the siege of an institutionalized flow of descriptive immersivity and graphic imagery, is representation obsolete – if it’s not, what work is being done to give it renewed meaning? Could decolonial aestheSis (“a sensation of touch” – Mignolo/Vazquez 2013), provide an afterlife for ethnography? Panelists should critically address the connection between their methodologies and their sites of study; but also that between the technology they use (360 imagery, celluloid film, digital / sound mapping or oral history), their protagonists and the works resulted from this process – in writing or other media.
Going against the grain: Some counterstrategies to ‘taxidermic’ documentary
Convenors: An van. Dienderen & Thomas Bellinck, The Shool of Speculative Documentary, The School of Arts, Ghent
The very moment you want to film reality it escapes, vanishing into thin air, mutating (van. Dienderen 2017). In the 1990s there emerged an interest for this documentary gesture in various art disciplines. It is no coincidence that as this interest appeared, there also arose a (formal) criticism with regard to Eurocentrism and postcolonialism (Balsom and Peleg 2016). What results are hybrid formats using essayistic, ethnographic, and observational strategies that situate the documentary film in the spatial environment of museums, art galleries, and in theatres. Our panel relates to this documentary turn in the contemporary arts from a speculative and messy point of view.
Despite the socially committed attitude many documentary artists take, (mainstream) documentaries often end up underpinning a large-scale epistemological enterprise linked to global capitalism and Western colonialism. This is mainly due to the fact that such documentaries often criticize unfair power structures on the content level, but fail to do so with regard to the form and to the power differentials (Steyerl 2011). Their formal strategies do not address the power differentials between the filmmakers and their subjects, so that neither viewers nor subjects are left with any form of agency (Bellinck and van. Dienderen forthcoming). Yet at around the same time that Robert J. Flaherty was spearheading such a taxidermic format with Nanook of the North (1922), other artists were experimenting with new forms of representing the real, blurring the lines between art, archivism, journalism and ethnography. Even though, historically, the documentary has often been associated with formats that pretend objectivity and truth, at the same time the documentary tradition has always been anchored in uncertainty, dispute, and contamination (Balsom and Peleg 2016).
Our panel argues for embracing such a speculative form of documentary that puts the messiness of the on-screen and on-stage reality at its heart, which inextricably binds formal experimentation to questions of decolonisation and anti-capitalism (Bellinck and van. Dienderen forthcoming). We openly embrace perpetual uncertainty, befoggedness and messiness, which is typical of the relations that in the course of the centuries have developed between representation and reality, between the West and its constructed ‘others’. This jumble of links, associations, and paradoxes, in which artists incorporate their uncertainty about these relations, contrasts sharply with the illusion of the dichotomous relation between the ‘us’ and ‘them’ that Flaherty and many other taxidermic documentarians present (van. Dienderen 2017).
We therefore invite practice-based research by filmmakers, visual artists and theatre makers, to present counter-strategies so as to criticize unfair power structures not only on the content level, but also on the form. Going against the grain of a taxidermic mainstream, we advocate a speculative form of documentary which challenges dominant formatting through playful formal experimentation; which acknowledges the impossibility to access the real in an unmediated manner; which beliefs in the transformative potential of art and the intertwining of ethics and form; and which reflects on existing power differentials, both geopolitically and in artistic processes.