The ethnographic mirror: cinema, anthropology and experimentation

Cinema and anthropology were born at the same time in history and their paths have not ceased to cross since then. At the end of the 19th century, cinema and anthropology emerged in association with a positivist movement that sought to understand, catalogue and, although not explicitly admitting it, dominate the world, be it the "physical" world (nature) or the "social" world (the working class, colonised peoples). In the case of anthropology, the desire to study so-called "primitive" cultures formed part of what has been called an "evolutionary perspective": Others were seen as representatives of an inferior stage of humanity which "Western civilisation" had already surpassed. The latter's mission was to "instruct" and "liberate" the representatives from these supposed "vestiges of history".

For its part, cinema struggled in those early years between its "scientific" use (focusing, for instance, on studying the movement of bodies), a "documentary" vocation (such as the famous filming of Baños from a Barcelona tram in 1908, or certain works by the Lumière brothers), and a register clearly linked to the power of magic and imagination (Méliès, Chomón). Later on, fictional narrative cinema, which aimed to tell stories through the performance of actors, would end up becoming the dominant register, giving rise to what Adorno called a globalised "culture industry".

From the very beginning, anthropologists used film for  their explorations. In 1898, the Haddon and Spencer expedition in the Torres Strait was carried out with the help of film and photographic devices. Other productions would follow that aspired to represent non-Western cultures in a supposedly "objective" and "neutral" way, even if this often meant covertly "distorting" reality to make it fit the researchers' own prejudices and expectations. While this was happening, Flaherty's ethnographic eye was making the unforgettable Nanook of the North (1925), perhaps the most beautiful example of what Jean Rouch would later call a "shared anthropology". Dziga Vertov, for his part, captured the incessant flow of urban life in the monumental The Man with the Movie Camera (1929), highlighting the potential of editing to represent the systemic nature of the processes of social transformation. Another lesser-known example is Cooper and Schoedback's Grass (1925), a mythical journey to the origins of civilisation through the migration of the Bakhtiri people in search of fertile land for their livestock (although this exodus had actually been due to an armed conflict provoked by the colonial forces). All these works made important contributions to anthropology, even though they were not produced by academic "ethnographers". And all of them challenge the supposed distinction between "science", "documentary" and "fiction".

However, by the beginning of the 20th century "official" ethnographic cinema was moving in a different direction. With few exceptions, an "objectivist" type of filming became the norm,  presented as a mere "record" or "data" of a cultural reality. In formal terms, this cinema was based on the absence of interaction between the filmer and the filmed (in other words, concealing the ethnographic situation), on the overuse of narration and intertitles, linear editing and the systematic silencing of the voice of Others. It was a cinema that concealed its own conditions of production, giving a false appearance of "scientificity" and analytical distance. And nothing is more ideological than the discourse of objective neutrality.

However, by the mid-20th century a number of filmmakers dared to question this formal and ideological canon, inaugurating a new conception of the relationship between cinema and anthropology. This subversive programme would end up influencing fictional cinema (the most obvious example perhaps being Jean Rouch's influence on the Nouvelle Vague) and, in the longer term, the social and cultural anthropology produced by academics. In this respect, contemporary debates concerning multimodal anthropology or the role played by art in anthropological research cannot be fully understood without considering the influence exerted by those filmmakers who, often from the margins of university institutions, insisted on the potential of the image and experimentation as tools to delve into the study of cultural otherness from new perspectives.

Fictions and frictions

The aim of the cycle F(r)icciones etnográficas (Ethnographic F(r)ictions) is to reflect on and update this creative impulse that gave rise to new conceptions of ethnographic cinema. This interest in a less conventional and rigid ethnographic cinema is related to the "classic" works of the aforementioned Jean Rouch but also to authors such as Trinh T. Minh Ha, Chick Strand, Maya Deren, Robert Gardner and Judith and David MacDougall. It's a cinema that, at times, comes close to fiction or dares not to explain everything, leaving spaces where absence and silence are used as a means to avoid pigeonholing or describing the Other.

In the case of Trinh T. Minh Ha, for example, this approach is embodied in an ethnographic cinema whose aim is to "speak nearby" rather than "speak about": "to acknowledge the possible gap between you and those who populate your film: in other words, to leave the space of representation open so that, although you're very close to your subject, you're also committed to not speaking on their behalf, in their place or on top of them". Thus, in Reassemblage, the Vietnamese author's masterpiece, instances that make on sense, breaks and silences become strategies to reflect the impossibility of defining the Other. In this way, a fragmentary, unstable representation is constructed that questions the ethnographer's observations and highlights the disparity between the experience lived in the field and its representation. The case of Trinh T. Minh Ha and other cineastes invites us to think about a less conventional type of ethnographic cinema that provides spaces in which the audience can take on a more active role in viewing films, transforming spectators into something like an "ethnographer of images," as noted on occasion by Robert Gardner.

This intermittent or fragmentary nature of the image coincides with the approach adapted by many experimental filmmakers, who works often question the material processes of visual perception. As Nathaniel Dorsky said: "Life is full of gaps. We try to make the whole thing seem continuous and solid, but it's actually more intermittent than we often want to admit. In a sense, for film to be true, it has to trust this intermittence […] If a film fills in too much, it violates our experience" (Dorsky, 2005:31).

This critical, reflective approach to the processes of perception, observation and description is shared by anthropologists and experimental filmmakers: both see film as a tool that is "good to think with", to use a famous expression by the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss. In this respect, they don't limit themselves to using the camera as an instrument to document or record reality but realise its potential as a research tool and as a device to challenge the hegemonic canons of representation.

Experimentation as correspondence

Anthropology is the comparative study of different ways of inhabiting and imagining the world in which we live. Anthropology therefore explores the meaning attached by different human groups to the relationships that bind them to each other and to their environment. At the heart of anthropology lies a desire to approach the Other - or, rather, to become the Other. Colonial cinema lacked investigative merit: film was used merely to serve the endeavour of political domination. True ethnographic cinema, on the other hand, is based on the principle that film is an instrument of exploration, a way of approaching the Other. Its aim is not to corroborate what is already known but to discover the real by filming (or editing) it. All ethnographic film (like all anthropological research) opens the door to the unexpected. It's not about filming an investigation: it's about investigating by means of filming (or editing). Investigation makes the film. Film is not conceived in merely representational terms (as a strategy or language to "reflect" or "picture" a given culture), but in terms of a dialogue; i.e. as an encounter, as a way of relating to the Other. In this respect, Ingold notes that anthropology is, above all, a process of mutual learning based on correspondence between the anthropologist and those with whom he or she relates. Ariella Azoulay, for her part, argues that "every photograph bears the traces of the encounter between the photographer and the photographed" (Azoulay, 2008).

What the authors in this cycle make clear is that, in the case of ethnographic cinema, the concept of "investigation" assumes a markedly reflective dimension: investigating "Others" also implies investigating the way in which we relate to them. In the case of film, this involves questioning the filmic device itself; i.e. the methodological and formal strategies applied when we film "cultural otherness". We can consider experimental ethnographic cinema as the inverted mirror of scientistic anthropological cinema. Hence many of the most experimental ethnographic films, by playing with mutual representations, question the filmic ritual itself, the very logic of the ethnographic situation. How do we situate ourselves when we film Others? In what way do those who are filmed form part of the film's conception and creation? What strategies do we follow when editing? What use do we make of colour, music or voice-over? Nothing in ethnographic film is self-evident or natural. In this sense, all investigative filmmaking, in turn, entails an investigation of film.

On the other hand, it's also important to note the idea of "experimentation". This is a very familiar concept in the world of art and cinema and it's also familiar, albeit for somewhat different reasons, in the so-called "hard sciences" (biology, chemistry and physics, among others).  All these disciplines carry out "experiments". But what about anthropology? And what would it mean to "experiment" ethnographically? 

In Latin, experimentum means "to experience, test, experiment". To experiment, then, is to have or provoke an experience, an event that entails a degree of novelty and uncertainty: "Experience, when used in this sense of a testing out or experiment vis-à-vis something whose outcome is undetermined, sets up the possibility for establishing new existential perspectives and understandings", (Cox et al. 2016:3). In this respect, experimental ethnographic cinema necessarily explores using new methodologies and languages. It also believes that the aim is not to apply a predetermined "research method" in fieldwork, let alone a formal and aesthetic pattern when editing, but that each approach to social issues requires a different visual and methodological approach. Such approaches should not be imposed "from above" but must necessarily arise from a correspondence (Ingold) between the anthropologist and those taking part in the film.

Consequently, when we speak of experimental ethnography we're referring to an ethical and methodological approach of a critical and markedly anti-colonial nature that takes nothing for granted: certainly not ethnographic method and much less the literary or visual conventions used to "write" anthropology. It's an ethnography that, in methodological terms, assumes that only by investigating different forms can we achieve new understandings and reverse the rationale of domination that has overshadowed part of anthropology's history.

All this highlights the fact that, in the case of anthropology (and ethnographic film in particular), there's no contradiction between "investigate" and "experiment". In fact, the two terms are indiscernible. To investigate is to experiment insofar as all investigation, as we have said, opens the door to the unexpected; it's a journey into unknown territory, an adventure into the Other. In turn, all experimentation entails a search; that is to say, a desire to discover.

Before concluding, it's also important note that, just as many filmmakers-ethnographers have delved into so-called "experimental cinema", there are also many artists and visual creators who have come closer to anthropology. Perhaps this is due to a certain weariness with the principle of "art for art's sake" and a desire to reconnect artistic practices with concrete human experiences. Many artists and creators of videos have seen anthropology as a source of inspiration to attack the ethnocentric, patriarchal and neo-colonial principles that still underpin many of today's social relations.

As we said at the beginning, anthropology and cinema were born together and their paths have remained united ever since. Now is a good time to rethink this long journey and to imagine, together, fresh horizons for the future. It's time to experiment with a freer, more creative ethnographic cinema, giving voice to "Others" and openly reflecting on how "intercultural" knowledge is generated and distributed. In turn, film and art have much to learn from a discipline such as anthropology which, in spite of its colonial origins, can now claim to be one of the most active and radical movements in terms of questioning relations of domination and social control.

Alexander Cabeza Trigg and Roger Canals


AZOULAY, A., MAZALI, R. and DANIELI, R. (2008) The Civil Contract Of Photography. New York: Zone Books.

BALSOM, Erika (2018) "There's no such thing as documentary". An interview with Trinh T. Minh-ha (online). Frieze.

COX, Rupert, IRVING, Andrew and WRIGHT, Chris, (2016) . Beyond Text? Critical Practices and Sensory Anthropology. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

DORSKY, Nathaniel (2005). Devotional Cinema. Berkeley, CA: Tuumba Press.

INGOLD, Tim (2014). That's enough about ethnography. HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory, 4 (1): 383-395.

13 December 2021