ASA Decennial Conference - Anthropology and Science

Beyond Observational Cinema – again…

Contact Convenor: Paul Henley

Granada Centre for Visual Anthropology
Department of Social Anthropology, University of Manchester
Roscoe Building
Oxford Road
Manchester M13 9PL

Tel: 0161 275 4002 

Co-Convenor: Rosie Read

Panel abstract

The many parallels between the methods of observational cinema and the distinctively anthropological method of participant observation have frequently been noted in the visual anthropology literature: both presume an extended immersion in the day to day lives of the subjects, both follow the subjects’ action rather than direct it, both claim to be concerned to provide a platform for the subjects’ voice, and so on. Nor should these similarities be particularly surprising since from its earliest inception in UCLA in the 1960s, observational cinema has evolved in almost constant dialogue with anthropologists.

But despite all these similarities and this extended common history, observational cinema has never really become central to the anthropological project. Whilst some have suggested that this is due to the ‘iconophobia’ of academic anthropologists, others have argued rather that it is a result of the film-makers’ reluctance to demonstrate the relevance of their films, within the filmic text itself, to the broader ‘conversation’ in contemporary anthropology. Meanwhile amongst professional documentarists, media commentators and even some visual anthropologists, there is a feeling that the hey-day of observational cinema is over. The implicit epistemology of the approach has been denounced as naïve whilst its naturalistic aesthetic has been dismissed as being, at best, unimaginative and at worst, dishonest.

Being closely associated with a particular array of 16mm technology that emerged in the 1960s, observational cinema is said by some to have been simply displaced by the emergence of a new technology of visual media that favours clips rather than long takes, highly manipulated images rather than carefully rendered observation, fractured narratives rather than subtly evolving story lines, interactivity at post-production rather than reverential witnessing.

And yet, regardless of all these criticisms, for some proponents, far from reaching the end, we have merely reached the end of the beginning of observational cinema. Far from undermining the approach, they argue that modern technology expands the possibilities offered by observational cinema. Far from surrendering to the temptation to cut their films at the speeded up tempo much favoured by other contemporary documentarists, they have made their films even longer, more layered, novelistic. Meanwhile teachers of visual anthropology have found that a skilfully executed observational film still has the power to captivate students who have grown up in the most sophisticated media environment, precisely because it does not surrender to contemporary visual fashions.

This panel will consider whether it is finally time for anthropologists to go ‘beyond observational cinema’ as David MacDougall proposed almost thirty years ago.

It will consist of a half-day session in which speakers will be invited to support their arguments with visual material. There will also be a subsequent half-day screening in the Granada Centre itself which will be used to screen material too lengthy to include in the panel.

In addition, as a parallel event, there will be two half days of screenings of films produced by the Granada Centre itself.

A political visual anthropology practice: following a human rights defender during a low intensity war

Alejandra Navarro Smith, University of Manchester

This paper will describe the process of defining and executing a doctoral fieldwork research project which involved film-making within the current highly sensitive political situation of northern Chiapas, Mexico.

In the context of censorship both by the military and by the insurgents, I chose to investigate the definition and defence of human rights in the Tseltal indigenous area using participant observation methods and, as far as the film-making was concerned, observational cinema. The paper will discuss various aspects of the production process which took place over the course of eighteen months. These will include the critical importance of the development of a collaborative relationship with the main character and the way in which this led to a film project that was very different from the one originally conceived. It will also consider how the filming of certain practices and rituals served as a means of raising central issues. Finally, the paper will consider the dialectical process whereby filming influenced the process of writing and vice versa.

Under observation: ways of seeing in a Czech institution

Rosie Read, University of Manchester

This paper will explore the author’s use of the observational  filmmaking method in a Czech institution, comprising a  women’s prison and a nursing home. The focus will be on  how the observational ‘way of seeing’ was shaped and  refracted through visual discourses and relations particular to  the institutional context. Thus, the dynamic relationship  between issues of ‘context’ and those of ‘method’ will be  drawn out. On this basis, the paper will argue for the forging  of further creative and intellectual connections between two,  somewhat separate strands of enquiry within visual  anthropology: debates about visual methods/techniques on  the one hand, and more ethnographically-based explorations  of particular visual cultures on the other.  

New sensations: representing sensory experience in visual anthropology

Sarah Pink, University of Loughborough

Recent discussions of ethnographic film have suggested that big budget filmmaking funded by broadcast TV and other bodies might be abandoned in favour of lower budget digital video. In contrast to the former the latter would offer filmmakers more freedom, time and tape to follow informants/film subjects narratives and to produce documentaries in ways that more closely resemble anthropological fieldwork. In turn the final results would be able to follow more closely to the narratives engaged in during this filmmaking/fieldwork process and to respond to anthropological questions and issues more adequately. This might lead to new film styles and forms of anthropological cinema (see for example, Camas et al 2003, Ruby 2000, MacDougall 2001). While these new anthropological cinema productions certainly offer a new way forward for visual anthropology, in this paper I shall argue that we need to recognise the limits (as well as potentials) of the anthropological or ethnographic documentary as a means of communicating anthropologically. Instead I shall propose that the future of visual anthropology should represent a diversification of types of text. I shall suggest that hypermedia offers a medium of representation that can be used to communicate anthropologically in ways that film cannot, by combining visual and written texts of different kinds.

To explore this I will discuss the question of the senses in visual anthropology. I shall compare how sensory embodied experiences both of fieldwork/filmmaking and of informants/ film subjects might be represented and communicated using these different media. I shall argue that in contrast to documentary film, by using hypermedia we might produce texts that use the visual to engage directly with mainstream anthropology debates on these issues. In doing so I will draw from my experience of a visual ethnography project using video to explore people’s experiences of their sensory homes, and show how I have attempted to represent these using visual and written text on CD ROM. 

Monsterous outcomes: the marriage of ethnographic film and anthropological theory

Marcus Banks, University of Oxford

While there are strongly theorized assessments of the conjunction between film and anthropology (e.g. Grimshaw 2001, Hockings and Omori 1988, Loizos 1993, MacDougall 1998) there is less clear evidence of the role of ethnographic film in actually generating theoretical insight within the discipline. This paper does not attempt to do this, but in preparation proposes a model of the relationship between theory and film content as a Latourian hybrid: a conjunction of social practice and technology.

Since Malinowski, film has been seen as inadequate to represent -- let alone generate -- anthropological insight because the apparently inescapable specificity of its mode of representation cannot index the abstractions of anthropological categories. In this paper I use Latour's notion of hybridity (1993) to examine the relationship between the 'science' of technical visual recording media, and the 'society' or social practice of anthropological abstraction. The outcome is a 'monster' (Law 1991), but as with all techno-social hybrids one with a capacity to mediate between the realms of the scientific and the social.

Taking the theme further, the final part of the paper assesses a number of ethnographic films which attempt to represent the mediation betweeen human and divine in South Asia, as a starting point for the generation of new theoretical insight within mainstream social anthropology.

Moving images

F. Hughes-Freeland, University of Swansea

This paper explores how practical work in participant-observational filming can contribute to fundamental anthropological understanding at undergraduate level.

The paper will present the methodologies and findings from the current project on visual assessment being carried out at the University of Wales Swansea with funding from C-SAP (Centre for Sociology, Anthropology and Politics), which is part of the British-based Teaching and Learning Network.  It will reinforce the controversial view that anthropology undergraduates (as well as postgraduates) can acquire visual literacy through practical and theoretical engagements with film, but more importantly, can learn about central processes in research and representation of research findings through practical engagements with film situations in the field.

Discussant: Cristina Grasseni, University of Bergamo