Ethnographic Films: Supporting Visual Assignments

FestaEditor’s note: Dr. Elizabeth Festa is the Associate Director at the Center for Written, Oral, and Visual Communication at Rice University. I thoroughly enjoyed her presentation at IWCA 2015 and asked if she’d be willing to share more about the Center’s unique workshop.

Earlier this spring, our Center supported a graduate course in ethnographic research methods. The students were assigned to make short ethnographic digital films informed by a theory they had encountered in the course. The instructor wanted to introduce them to current film projects that embrace more experimental approaches to work in the discipline. I was intrigued by this opportunity to address visual argument beyond the familiar topics of slide design, poster design, and data presentation; ours is a relatively new center (we opened in 2012) and supporting visual communication is an important part of our mission.

Screen Shot 2016-02-02 at 12.47.38 PMI designed a 2 ½ hour workshop in which we discussed some recent examples of visual ethnographic work (or film/videos of anthropological interest). I participated in a 3 hour film screening 8 weeks after the initial workshop to offer feedback on the students’ films alongside the instructor and film scholars and filmmakers from the Visual and Dramatic Arts Department. I was fortunate to share our vision for the workshop through an Ignite session at IWCA 2015 and later, to benefit from a broader conversation about visual engagement in writing centers at the lively roundtable facilitated by Daniel Emery, Holly Bittner, and Rachel Wolff.

The workshop that we developed was inspired by a film by Stephanie Spray that the course instructor, Cymene Howe, had seen at the “Ethnographic Terminalia” series at the AAA conference. The collective’s mission is to “develop generative ethnographies that do not subordinate the sensorium to the expository and theoretical text or monograph.” Defining “terminus” as “the end, the boundary, and the border…a site of experience and encounter,” the series encourages audience engagement, interaction, and discovery.   Spray’s film, much like an interactive digital media installation produced for the series by anthropologist and artist Lina Dib, an instructor in Rice’s Program for Writing and Communication, appropriates the visual as a responsive medium through which viewers might explore the nature of human experience.

We began our workshop by contrasting two very short digital stories by anthropologists,  “Participant-Observation” by Wynne Maggi and “The Machine is Us/ing Us” by Michael Wesch to demonstrate the difference between projects that depend primarily on narrative telling rather than filmic showing to make a point and those in which image and sound convey content and argument.   In the course of the workshop, we limned some of the historical values and principles of ethnographic film and contemplated how more recent digital projects draw upon, eschew, and/or transform these values. We referenced a variety of samples, not all of them ethnographies, to illuminate a range of interests, audiences, and tactics including photojournalistic work such as that produced by Media Storm; experimental projects at MIT’s Docubase ; non-profit “client work”; and activist, participatory and applied visual projects.

The focus of the workshop, however, was on the unique capabilities of film in conveying what Sarah Pink has described as the “human place-making practices, emplacement, and …multisensoriality of human experience” (2011, p. 212). We selected examples without expository narrative, interviews, or other commentary so that students could focus on the impact of cinematic form (e.g. composition; camera height, movement, and distance; point of view; sound; lighting; editing). We began by screening two scenes from Philip Gröning’s Into Great Silence, a documentary about the monks of the Grande Chartreuse who take a vow of silence.


Filmed with only diegetic sound and at times, very soft focus, this documentary invites us to enter an ascetic, yet sensuous, environment. In one scene, we draw near as a monk makes a robe for a postulant and in another, we watch as a monk prepares salad greens. Each scene heightens the audience’s perceptions of sight, sound, and touch. The sound of the monk’s scissors cutting through the heavy cloth conveys the celeryweight and satisfying texture of the fabric. As the monk juliennes the celery, we observe his exertion, hear his knife slicing through and hitting the cutting board, and see the luminosity of the stalks in the noonday sun; the film captures affective knowledge that modern life renders opaque or mute.

We then turned to screen sequences from documentaries produced at Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab (SEL) which supports “creative work that is…conducted through audiovisual media rather than purely verbal sign systems.” We looked first at Sweetgrass, which follows herders and sheep as they undertake a perilous journey to summer pasture.

As Anna Grimshaw notes, Sweetgrass “does not proceed according to the conventions of academic argument”; rather, the film “draws on the synesthetic, spatial and temporal properties of film” to “perform a distinctive form of analytical work” (2011, p. 257). Among the many questions the film raises is the complex nature of the relationship between people and animals, something we sense at the outset through the film’s disruption of our anthro-centric point of view.

Dynamic Sheep ShotIn an early scene in which we observe at close range a sheep feeding on grass, we are surprised as the animal turns unexpectedly to meet our gaze; we realize that we are also observed.  The filmmakers take up this “sheep’s-eye-view” throughout the film (p.252). In a second scene we discussed, the herders struggle to guide the animals through a narrow pass. By manipulating camera height, point of view, and sound (sheep bleating interspersed with inaudible, static-filled transmissions from the shepherds’ walkie-talkies) the film makes the limits of human agency in the wilderness palpable.

Manakama 2We further examined how aesthetic choices can prompt meta-reflections on the act of observation itself. We screened one sequence from Manakamana, which documents people traveling by cable car to make offerings at the Hindu temple of this wish-fulfilling goddess. Void of expository narration, the film invites us to contemplate the mundane, to “linger in a place with people over time” as filmmaker Stephanie Spray puts it. Yet the sheer duration of each scene and the impatience and uneasiness we feel as we are forced to gaze almost interminably at a single subject within the cable cars also heightens our awareness of the representational frame and prompts us to scrutinize the epistemological limitations and ethical implications of the discipline.

The complex aesthetic experimentation we see in these SEL films was, of course, beyond the constraints of time, resources, and the students’ familiarity with filmmaking. Moreover, the students’ projects were meant to complement specific texts and ideas introduced in the course and as such had specific discursive points of reference. Still, the assignment allowed them to experiment with the possibilities of the visual form. With the assistance of our Digital Media Commons and Visual and Dramatic Arts department, students created short digital films on topics ranging from a study of the spatial and cultural economy of the Houston rodeo to an interrogation of Benjaminian aura as manifested in an exhibition of cultural “curiosities” at a local art gallery. One of the films followed an engineering team at Rice as they constructed a solar-Screenshot 2015-10-01 15.05.51 (2)powered car for entry in a competition. The students were initially drawn by the visual motif of the engineers’ hands in the act of tinkering. In the course of the filmmaking process, however, they began to work inductively from their raw footage and the film gradually took shape as a meditation on the nature of prototyping and fabrication as informed by Claude Lévi-Strauss’s notion of bricolage.   Through their filmic choices (to include close-ups and extended takes that enable viewers to immerse in this process) the students crafted an ethnography that showcased both the precision and improvisational culture of engineering.

Screenshot 2015-10-01 14.39.23Perhaps the most significant challenge that students confronted during the project was unleashing themselves from the familiar structure of text, deductive argumentation, and scholarly contextualization to experiment with the uniqueness of film. During the feedback session, I also found myself moving too quickly into analytical mode and preempting the very spirit of affective discovery that we had tried to cultivate in our workshop. If it is one of the truths of writing center work that the guiding principles of clarity and organization will allow us to comprehend a text in any discipline and at any level of study, this guiding principle often leads us to treat everything as a text. To take the visual seriously as a mode of inquiry entails deepening our understanding of design, aesthetics, and form as they relate to a medium and interpret the conventions of a discipline. So too, however, does it involve expanding our realm of engagement beyond verbal or textual signs to respond to work that is essentially creative and that moves us beyond the frame of well-established approaches and ends.

Bricoleur: a student film by Adam Webb-Orenstein, Reza Hashemitaba, and Eliot Storer.

Bricoleur: a student film by Adam Webb-Orenstein, Reza Hashemitaba, and Eliot Storer.

References

  • Pink, Sarah. Digital Visual Anthropology: Potentials and Challenges. In Made to Be Seen: Perspectives on the History of Visual Anthropology. Eds. Marcus Banks and Jay Ruby. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2011: 209-233.
  • Grimshaw, Anna. “The Bellwether Ewe: Recent Developments in Ethnographic Filmmaking and the Aesthetics of Anthropological Inquiry.” Cultural Anthropology, 26, 2, (2011): 247-262.

 

 

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