The Nature and Ethics of Anthropological Film

Chatt Festival In India.Anthropology is widely recognised as the study of humankind, be that through cultural, physical, social or linguistic aspects. It often focuses in on certain groups, such as an indigenous tribe in Polynesia, although recently there has been a rise in so-called native anthropology, whereby a researcher would study their own culture, rather than one alien to them.

Ethnography is a set of methods by which one can complete research. It involves spending long periods of time within the community you are studying, with the goal of understanding them to a greater degree. A researcher may have an informant, who would act as their way into a community, and who might also act as their interviewee. Although it is no longer a purely anthropological framework, it is rooted in the practice as a way to build a monograph, a long-written description that attempts to document culture.

When you combine anthropology, ethnography and a camera, you might get an anthropological film. This would be a sort of visual monograph to show a cultural practice, anything from the construction of a bowl to an annual migration across thousands of miles. A picture speaks a thousand words, but it cannot necessarily communicate everything writing does. This then prompts debate over what extent anthropological film should be used as opposed to monographs, and how they can be combined for maximum effect. Should all monographs have films and vice versa? If so, which should take precedence or should they have equal value?

Some academics also argue that an anthropologist with a camera is incapable of truly making an anthropological film, in the same way that a film-maker with some ideas of anthropology is incapable. Each has their own desires for the end product – for it to be academically sound and rigorous, as well as cinematically enjoyable, but often these two requirements do not intersect. Some believe that a true anthropological film must be made by an individual who is both a trained film-maker and a trained anthropologist, and only then might it be possible that the warring factions can be harmonious enough to create an anthropological film. Any other films that were not rigorous enough in either discipline would then be defined as a film with anthropological value, but not an actual anthropological film.

However, no matter the level of cooperation, films can still end up with strong ethical issues as well. These can occur when the subjects are asked to perform acts in a way, time or place other than they naturally would, or, in the case of several films, acts that they had long abandoned. Not only will the final result be an unrealistic representation of that practice, it can also be harmful to those involved. However, it could be argued that, for the sake of a cohesive film, such actions should be taken. For example, footage of several hunts edited together to suggest that it is all part of one big one, in order to give the viewer the fullest picture of each stage, even if they did occur at different times.

Overall, ethnological film, how it is defined, produced and used, has been a point of contention for as long as it has occurred. Nonetheless, it is often extremely valuable for researchers, as long as the process by which it was formed is well documented, and the viewer is aware of which parts have been manufactured to prevent misinformation.

Rose (Year 13)

Photo Credit
Universal Image Group

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