CVA Newsletter 2 (1994): 15-18.

On the Trail of the Native's Point of View: The Göttingen International Ethnographic Film Festival, Göttingen, Germany, May 11-15, 1994.

A Home for Ethnographic Film

For five days, filmmakers and anthropologists from over twenty different countries watched ethnographic films at the second Göttingen International Ethnographic Film Festival at the Institut für den Wissenschaftlichen Film. Göttingen, an old university town in Germany, offered a peaceful setting for an eclectic selection of films and videos from Asia, Africa, North America, and Europe. Under clear skies, the atmosphere of the festival was casual and friendly, more reminiscent of the Robert Flaherty Film Seminar than other festivals of ethnographic film, such as the Festival dei Popoli in Florence, the Margaret Mead Film Festival in New York, or the Bilan du Film Ethnographique in Paris. From May 11-15, 1994, Göttingen drew an international audience of 300 scholars and filmmakers, plus a collection of students mostly from Germany. There were no concurrent screenings, so all those in attendance saw the same films, allowing for good conversations at meal times. In addition, most of the festival guests were staying at one of two different hotels, contributing to the cohesive ambiance. The festival party, with dancing until three o'clock in the morning on May 14, confirmed this feeling of camaraderie.

Student Film Competition

The festival opened with a Student Film Competition, which consisted of twelve videotapes, in competition for a Hi-8mm video camera donated by SONY, one of the sponsors. Many of the productions were shot in video, and most of these were shot on semi-professional or small-format amateur equipment. The student screenings were well-attended and there was a good deal of speculation and interest in the competition. Most of the festival goers thought that the separate student competition was a good idea. In general, the student films were the same quality as the films in the main selection, which makes one wonder why they were segregated. During the award presentation, anthropologist Asen Balikci stated that many of the student works 'could have been easily included in the main festival program'.

The Student Film Competition included videos from Germany, the United States, the Netherlands, Palestine, Denmark, Hungary, Portugal, Iran, and Great Britain. The thesis works of M.A. students from the Granada Centre at Manchester University in England dominated the student competition, including Hanna Musleh's Sahar's Wedding (1992), Charlie Clay's Pepsi War (1992), Kristin MacLeod's Bash Street (1993), and Catarina Alves Costa's Back to the Homeland (1992), the deserving winner of the competition. The dominant style of these productions--and hence the style counseled, however informally, by the selection committee--involved observational sequences combined with interviews, sound segments of which were occasionally used over images. Voice-over commentary was comparatively rare.

Many of the student videographers were taping their 'own' cultures, as was the case with Ali Attar's I Swear, I Love Spring (1994), about a harvest festival prohibited in years past by the Iranian government; Amanda Crane's Many Will Come (1994), a University of Southern California production about Catholics in Santa Maria, California; Margriet Jansen's Witchcraft as Religion (1993), about new age sects in Denmark; Zoltan Füredi's Rushes (1993), a parable about homelessness in Hungary; MacLeod's Bash Street, a portrait of a homeless man in Manchester; Costa's Back to the Homeland, about Portuguese immigrants returning during vacation to their homes; and Musleh's Sahar's Wedding about the ritual of marriage in Palestine. Musleh nicely combined insider and outsider perspectives to explore family life in the context of political upheaval. Rounding out the Student Film Competition were My Bisnis is Soup (1994), Sebastian Eschenbach and Karin Klenke's affectionate portrait of a street seller in Bali, Indonesia, a promising first video; Peter Lutz's Out of Place (1993), about Bosnian refugees in Sweden; Thomas Hammer's Carnival in Wasungen (1993), about a government-sponsored festival in the former East Germany; and Lone Sahl Liboriussen's Almighty, Satan and the Boys (1992), a look at a street painter in Ghana.

Few of the student works offered explanations or interpretations; decidedly the emphasis was on showing versus telling. All too often, however, the showing wasn't enough as directors referred viewers to their written M.A. theses for answers to questions about context and interpretation. To my knowledge, none of them brought copies of the written theses to Göttingen. Did the absence of analysis in the videos result from a hesitation to interpret other cultures, an unwillingness to advance an outsider's perspective, and a fear of making judgments?

Some directors argued that analysis is anathema to the medium, that film and video succeed best at conveying a sense of place, mood, tempo, and feeling. Peter Lutz, whose Out of Place showed a stylistic mastery that eluded many of the other student videos, stated outright what was implicit in many of the directors' comments. 'Film,' according to Lutz, 'represents feelings better than ideas'. Any Hollywood producer would say the same thing. However, visual anthropologists should remain committed to a cinema of ideas, a cinema as theoretically informed, as thoughtfully constructed, and as empirically rich as written ethnography. Costa's Back to the Homeland, through judicious interviews and editing, managed to provide a richer sense of context and analysis than most of the other student productions. The Jury awarded Costa's 35-minute video for the clarity of its presentation, the use of purely cinematic techniques, and the absence of a 'miserabilist philosophy prevalent in many social documentaries'. Speaking for the Jury, Balikci noted that 'one almost feels a feminine touch,' a dubious compliment that underscored the absence of works addressing issues of gender at the Göttingen festival.

Question-and-Answer Sessions

The festival organizers allowed twenty minutes for public discussion after each screening, an excellent idea that unfortunately didn't live up to its promise. The discussion was not always well facilitated. Selection committee members read their statements justifying the works shown, but these comments rarely provoked interesting responses. Questions were often predictable and one festival goer privately listed five proto-typical questions: 1) Did the subjects like the film?, 2) How did the camera influence the subjects' behavior?, 3) What kind of camera did the filmmaker use?, 4) How long did the filming last?, 5) Is it ethically defensible to make films about other people? To my knowledge, no one ever asked what anthropological paradigm--functionalism, structuralism, interpretive anthropology, post-modernism, etc.--the directors favored.

Another participant suggested that the discussions would have benefited from a charismatic, and opinionated, figure who could galvanize the debate. The exchanges after the projections were


simply question-and-answer sessions rather than actual dialogues. In addition, discussion generally lagged in the absence of the filmmaker. Conference organizers repeatedly apologized for the few filmmakers who did not attend, as if nothing could really be debated without the director. But films, like ethnographic monographs, are made to be analyzed and criticized in the absence of their authors. Anyone who has ever heard a question-and-answer session with Frederick Wiseman knows that a more fruitful exchange would take place without him. Furthermore, the meanings of films and videos lie not in the intentions of the directors, but in the minds of the audience. However, at Göttingen, the absence of the filmmaker guaranteed that little would be said during the public discussion.

The festival was conducted in English. This fact probably contributed to the reticence of some viewers to participate in the public discussions. Given the international character of ethnographic films and their audiences, directors should consider subtitling their films systematically, in whatever language they deem appropriate. Even videos shot in English--such as MacLeod's portrait of a homeless man in Manchester or my own Hacklebarney Tunes: The Music of Greg Brown (with Andrea Truppin, 1993) about a singer/songwriter from the midwestern United States--were not automatically comprehensible to native speakers. In this way, subtitling and titling could become a dramatic component of visual anthropology, rather than an afterthought.

Not surprisingly, the best discussions took place during the breaks between films, the breakfasts, lunches, and dinners that festival goers shared at the IWF cafeteria and elsewhere in Göttingen. Each day, viewers could count on a consistent group of people with whom to share reactions. At these times, vast quantities of coffee and German cakes were served up by the amiable IWF staff. The festival offered films and tapes from nine o'clock each morning until eleven o'clock each night, a rigorous schedule that didn't allow much time to rest. Anthropologist Nashko Kriznar admitted, guiltily, that he went to buy a postcard and missed seeing two films as a result.

The Place of Voice-Over Narration

Purely observational works--apart from Frederick Wiseman's Zoo (1993) and Füredi's Rushes--were nowhere to be found at the festival, while voice-over narration appeared to be strictly verboten. Unlike many of the productions shown, Füredi's short video, his first, exhibited a rare unity of style and purpose. Almost a Rouchian single-take experiment, Rushes ambled unsteadily from the inside of a wealthy house in Budapest to observe, through a forest of trees, an opulent party taking place next door. The videographer then proceeded, in a continuous long take, to an encampment where a homeless man was sleeping under a makeshift roof. Without any dialogue or spoken words, but with considerable suspense, Rushes made a compelling statement about the social injustice of contemporary Budapest. The video ended with a freeze frame of the young director reflected in the window of his home, an image implicating him in the social hierarchy.

By rejecting voice-over narration, visual anthropologists at Göttingen boxed themselves into a stylistic corner; many asserted that commentary was inherently uncinematic and, worse, essentially authoritarian. Nevertheless, in the question-and-answer periods after the projections, typical complaints about the lack of context surfaced, especially in the case of Clay's Pepsi War, which contained some exciting footage of ritual warfare in New Guinea, but little explanation. Clay's principal informant was a tribal leader with a Ph.D., an arrangement that promised an intriguing mix of insider and outsider perspectives. Unfortunately, the sensationally-titled video failed to deliver. Clay admitted that he had 'no idea what was going on' while he was filming, though he referred to Bob Connolly and Robin Anderson's Black Harvest (1991) and Robert Gardner's Dead Birds (1963) as models for his work. One wonders if good examples of voice-over narration, such as Gardner's, may be taught to students so that both didacticism and lack of context may be overcome.

In the introduction to the festival catalogue, anthropologist Peter Crawford reiterated the selection committee's disappointment with films that were marred by heavy voice-over narration. Ethnographic film, still very much in its infancy as a coherent body of work, appears destined to recapitulate the stylistic evolution of documentary film. In the 1960s, observational cinema--in the work of Robert Drew, Richard Leacock, and the Maysles brothers--reacted against what Drew dubbed 'illustrated lectures,' pictures with continuous voice-over commentary, still the mainstay of television journalism. Similarly, when Leacock taught documentary filmmaking in the 1970s, voice-over narration was considered an unacceptable technique. However, American documentaries in the 1980s, such as Jill Godmilow's Far From Poland (1985), Ross McElwee's Sherman's March (1985), and Michael Moore's Roger and Me (1989), rediscovered the possibilities of voice-over, using personal, ironic, and interpretive commentary to counterpoint the synchronous images and sounds.

Obviously, voice-over narration need not be the only filmic technique for making interpretive statements about culture. Any fluent camera, sound, and editing style offers certain perspectives on reality. During this period of growth, ethnographic film should embrace a wide variety of styles. In the wake of cinéma-vérité, and Jean Rouch's praise of the participant camera, nearly all of the productions exhibited at Göttingen used hand-held cameras and available light, as if artificial lights and tripods were unfilmic or inauthentic devices. While a tripod was considered bad, handheld camerawork that appeared 'as steady as a tripod' was lauded. Imagine assuming about fiction film that Miklós Jancsó's roving camera was, by definition, better at representing reality than Yasujirõ Ozu's fixed camera. Rouch at least acknowledged that his camerawork in Madame L'Eau (1993) was almost willfully bad and that visual anthropologists should beware of the trap of producing beautiful images.

Gloriously shot, using almost exclusively natural light, David MacDougall's Time of the Barmen (1993) offered a pastoral elegy to the lives of Sardinian shepherds, a way of life gradually giving way to agro-tourism and economic development. This 16mm film relied on long sequence shots with very little dialogue, or action, to slowly detail the worlds of three generations of shepherds, deliberately structured to explore historical change. MacDougall was invited to make a film about shepherds by the Instituto Superiore Regionale Etnografico of Sardinia. He emphasized during the question-and-answer session that, since he didn't speak the local language, he decided to focus more on non-verbal communication.

The first twenty minutes of Time of the Barmen introduced the viewer to the sounds and sights of the Sardinian mountains, and the work of the shepherds, without any auxiliary commentary or interviews. There was even less dialogue than in Wiseman's Zoo, which, incidentally, consisted primarily of anthropomorphic conversations between keepers and animals. MacDougall gradually introduced interview material later in the film to flesh out ideas implicit in the scenes of everyday life. In this documentary, MacDougall moved away from the intertitles and Brechtian interrogative devices that he employed in earlier films, such as The Wedding Camels (with Judith MacDougall, 1980), for a seamless narrative style that used shifts from scene to scene for contrast and comment, not unlike Wiseman's work.


In Zoo, Wiseman, too, examined the relationship between nature and culture, between human beings and their animal brethren, issues he touched upon in Primate (1974) and Meat (1976). However, Wiseman's increasingly diffuse observational style left too much up to the audience at Göttingen. Very few viewers at the festival--trained anthropologists, filmmakers, and students--offered interpretive statements when asked what they thought about Zoo; most said that it was about 'how a zoo works'. A study of anthropomorphism, as well as the control of nature, Zoo delineated a totally artificial environment. The director insisted upon the fact that every twig, every tree, every part of the ecosystem was pruned and arranged.

Wiseman constructed an Orwellian world in which Animal Farm encountered 1984; the activities of the animals were relentlessly observed, noted, photographed, and documented at every stage of life and death, in a rigorous scientific manner, by Homo Sapiens. In an ironic twist near the end of the film, typical of Wiseman's dark sense of humor, unleashed domestic dogs ran 'wild' in the zoo, killing several animals, and were mercilessly tracked down and shot by the personnel. Unplanned actions--eruptions of the natural order, so to speak--were clearly not tolerated. The final sequences focused on the totalitarian regulation of reproduction as eggs were taken away from a crocodile's underground nest, counted, weighed, measured, photographed, and placed in an incubator, while a male wolf was castrated, in a surprisingly amusing scene, by a group of women veterinarians. Wiseman addressed the manipulation of nature more astutely in Primate, however, which chronicled experiments devoted to controlling violence and sexual behavior in our closest animal relatives.

'The Native's Point of View'

Most of the directors, many of whom were in attendance--one of the strengths of the festival--claimed that the mixture of observational scenes and interviews best represented the native's point of view. (No one at Göttingen addressed the problematic nature of these terms.) Copperworking in Santa Clara (1989/1993), Beate Engelbrecht and Manfred Krüger's elegant depiction of a Mexican craft in Santa Clara, Michoacán, was exemplary in this regard, combining observational sequences with interviews used exclusively in voice-over. Barbara Keifenheim's Und du bildest dir ein, frei zu sein (1991/1992) sensitively explored the world view of a German homeless man living in Paris through interviews and scenes of everyday life in the streets. Few of the works offered any kind of explanation or interpretation from the ethnographer's point of view. As a result, some of the distinctiveness of the anthropologist's voice--one of the justifications for an ethnographic cinema--was lost. The notion that only the native's point of view is valid represents one legacy of anti-colonialist sentiment in anthropology. In this model of ethnographic film, the anthropologist becomes simply a transmitter, a transparent medium, a far cry from James Clifford's and George Marcus' call for a dialogic ethnography, much less Jay Ruby's demand for a reflexive anthropology.

Paul Henley, a professor of anthropology at the Granada Centre, stated categorically, after the projection of his work Faces in the Crowd (1994), an entertaining look at hard-core fans of the British royal family, that the 'aim of anthropology is to present the native's point of view,' an assumption that went unchallenged during the festival. This assumption precludes not only a critical anthropology, but an interpretive one. The native's point of view is certainly necessary, but not sufficient, to an anthropological cinema. Like many of the Manchester tapes, Henley's collaboration with anthropologist Anne Rowbottom took, as it were, the subjects' point of view as its rallying cry. Near the end of Faces in the Crowd, one of the English fans of the Queen mother declared, 'We lost our colonies, we lost our passports; without the royal family, we'd be just an island with a bunch of people on it,' a comment that provoked much mirth in the audience, but demanded additional analysis. The question of who speaks in a documentary has intrigued scholars for decades; those interested in this debate should see Jay Ruby's 'Speaking for, speaking about, speaking with, or speaking alongside: an anthropological and documentary dilemma,' in the fall 1991 issue of Visual Anthropology Review.

The emphasis on the native's point of view reached its logical conclusion with the indigenous media movement, an effort to put cameras and recorders in the hands of the subjects themselves. Few of these productions were shown at Göttingen, although a symposium at the 1993 Mead Festival examined this fascinating work. Following in the tracks of Sol Worth and John Adair's Through Navajo Eyes, regrettably without their theoretical rigor, community activists have promoted films and videos made by the natives themselves. Curt Madison's Hitting Sticks-Healing Hearts (1992), an exploration of a traditional potlatch produced at the request and with the collaboration of village elders in Minto, Alaska, came the closest to this emerging tendency. This fifty-eight minute documentary, well-received by the audience in Germany, was conceived as a warning to the next generation, to preserve indigenous tradition and culture. Madison has lived in this community for over twenty years and his video took an explicit stance against cultural change.

On the other hand, Jean Rouch and Philo Bergstein's remarkable Madame L'Eau simultaneously celebrated, parodied, and criticized cultural exchange between Africa and Europe. Rouch's longtime African collaborators, Lam, Illo, and Damouré--best known for their adventures in Jaguar (1954/1967) and Petit à petit (1970)--hit the road again to visit the Netherlands to study windmills, possible low-tech aids to relieve the drought in Niger. Rouch referred to this improvised fiction film as the result of a dream, a surrealist juxtaposition of incongruent images, though it fell short of his earlier works. Even more fascinating was Rouch's Gang (1993), directed by Steef Meyknecht, Dirk Nijland, and Joost Verhey, a behind-the-scenes look at the making of Madame L'Eau, which joined a long line of documentaries, such as Les Blank's Burden of Dreams (1982) about the making of Werner Herzog's Fitzcarraldo (1982), which were better than the fiction films they examined. The collaborative nature of Rouch's endeavor, the difficult practice of structured improvisation, and the good humor of his 'shared anthropology' were well underlined.

Promising new ethnographic films from Asia generated significant comment. Hu Tai-Li's Voices of Orchid Island (1993), which juxtaposed three related stories of how the Yami people cope with pressures from mainland Taiwan, opened with a direct challenge to ethnographic film from one of the subjects, 'We tend to feel that the more anthropologists come here, the deeper the harm they do to the Yami'. The rest of this provocative 16mm feature film explored how the island inhabitants struggle with tourist photography, medical care, and nuclear waste disposal.

Puji and His Lovers (1993), a feature documentary by Fan Zhiping, Hao Yuejun, and Deng Qiyao, was the great discovery of the festival, undoubtedly a revolutionary work in the context of Chinese ethnographic film. The video traced the sometimes comical, always intrusive, attempts of the anthropologists to understand and document the sexual practices of the Yiche, an ethnic minority in a secluded mountainous region of China, a group that encourages pre-marital and extra-marital sex for men and women. As the title implied, the production focused on one young man whose experiences offered a 'typical biography'. Although marred by a terribly awkward English-language commentary, spoken by a rank amateur, the documentary amused and offended, provoking excellent debate about the process of ethnographic research. The voice-over of Puji and His Lovers was so consistently bad that it gradually became inoffensive, bordering on a parody of didactic, scientific, commentary. As the crew struggled to record this difficult,


and elusive, activity, the anthropologist/narrator commented on a scene of coitus interruptus, 'It's a pity our timing was not good'.

Refreshingly, the anthropologists and crew members were characters in the story, even being invoked as possible sexual partners. Of an attractive, but short, crew member, one woman informant stated, 'The sun can make a long shadow so long as it does not set'. Most films at the festival, like most written ethnographies, masked the rapport between anthropologists and subjects. Although this approach hardly represented a sophisticated, critical reflexivity, Puji and His Lovers, through sheer honesty, raised issues of field rapport and ethics that most of the other films avoided. The discussion afterwards, despite the difficulty of translating from English to Chinese and back again, was the most engaging of the festival. Viewers were particularly disturbed by the apparent invasion of privacy, unavoidable in the study of human sexuality, and by the depiction of women, since the principal crew members and anthropologists were men. Viewers were not assuaged by the videographer's comment that he had 'many girlfriends' in the village, even though Yuejun spoke the local language and the work was based on his ten years of fieldwork in the community.

From this point of view, audience members seemed much more in tune with the sensitive Our Way of Loving (1994), by Joanna Head and Jean Lydall, the third BBC television film about Hamar women in Ethiopia, following The Women Who Smile (1990) and Two Girls Go Hunting (1991). Based on twenty-five years of fieldwork in Ethiopia, the film demonstrated a practiced relativism as it focused on women's experiences. It detailed a coming of age ceremony in which men whipped their women relatives, while one character acknowledged that 'Beating is our way of loving,' a comment that provoked surprisingly little discussion afterwards. Another BBC production, War: We Are All Neighbors (1993), Debbie Christie and Tone Bringa's study of the breakdown of community among Muslims and Croats in a small village in Bosnia, may have been the most dramatic work shown in Göttingen. Tightly structured and brilliantly shot by Doug Hallows for the Disappearing World series, the film clearly demonstrated the corrosive effects of nationalism and ethnocentrism. Ironically, the selection committee evaluation singled out the voice-over narration as 'often redundant,' at a festival where most films needed some voice-over but had none and the rest had poorly written and spoken commentaries. A moving and disturbing documentary, War: We Are All Neighbors returned to the town eight weeks after the initial filming to find that all the Muslim houses had been destroyed and the people killed or displaced by their fellow villagers.

Experimental Techniques

An outsider's perspective, and a critical one, was only acceptable, indeed demanded, in works that dealt with European culture, such as Thomas Imbach's Well Done (1994), an impressionistic study of a Swiss bank and its employees. The politically correct double standard was operative; criticize your own culture, treat other cultures with utmost respect. This montage of life inside, and sometimes outside, a major corporation used highly experimental techniques--time lapse, jump cuts, and rapid intercutting of unrelated shots. The unit of meaning in Well Done was not the sequence shot, but the montage sequence, the flurry of autonomous images, made meaningful through editing. Well Done emphasized the extent of institutional control, the elaborate grading of performance, and the profound hierarchy of the corporation. Imbach contended that the mercenary capitalist values of the bank, a depressingly anti-democratic environment, reached into the workers' personal lives. Dominance and accommodation were the order of the day. Shot on Hi-8mm video, but distributed on 35mm film, this polished documentary entertained the audience and received praise from the partisans of experimental efforts, while perhaps unfortunately reinforcing negative stereotypes of Swiss national character.

There were a handful of aesthetically daring documentaries at the Göttingen festival. Audience members, however, displayed a general suspicion of so-called experimental techniques--slow motion, posterization, canned music, black-and-white sequences crosscut with color sequences, etc.--preferring the conventions of plain documentary style. This may explain why the Jury of the Student Film Competition--Judith MacDougall, Asen Balikci, and Lisl Waltner--chose Costa's unpretentious Back to the Homeland. Lutz, another graduate of Manchester University, acknowledged the influence of MTV and his use of strobe, slow motion, colorization, and non-diegetic music contributed organically to the themes of displacement and exile in Out of Place. MacLeod's Bash Street used experimental techniques to 'question the nature of representation,' in the words of her advisor, Paul Henley, who opposed these stylistic choices. Like anthropologist Peter Loizos, David MacDougall, in both his film and his interventions during discussions, was an articulate advocate of the transparent documentary style, arguing against 'special effects'. Anthropologist and filmmaker Ivo Strecker coyly pointed out that MacDougall's glowing lighting, lush color, and elegant camerawork provided a special effect all of its own.

One selection committee member noted that Gary Kildea's Valencia Diary (1992) 'has puzzled many a viewer with its oscillation between scenes in black-and-white and scenes in colour,' implying that this practice lacked structure or pattern. Kildea alternated black-and-white scenes, primarily interviews and interactive sequences shot on 8mm video, with lush 16mm color landscapes and establishing shots. In addition, Kildea inserted intertitles in an diary-like style detailing the passage of time before the Philippine election between Marcos and Aquino. This first-person travelogue documentary questioned the surface objectivity of traditional reportage; the journal style became current for American documentarists in the late 1970s when Ed Pincus completed Diaries, 1971-76 (1978/1981). Valencia Diary seemed a bit dated in its coverage of the election despite the brilliant intimacy of the style, which captured, among other things, a Catholic priest urging parishioners not to sell their votes. Kildea's presence at the festival was missed, partly because he could have presented a vocal alternative to the straightforward documentary style that predominated. While some of the critics of experimentation remained attached to pre-modernist narrative styles, others may have reacted to the clumsy use of such devices, rather than to the techniques per se.

Although visual anthropology remains in its infancy, the Göttingen International Ethnographic Film Festival has contributed mightily to its development. With efforts like Valencia Diary, Our Way of Loving, and the controversial Puji and His Lovers, the field will become a respected, and innovative, dimension of anthropological inquiry. The Institut für den Wissenschaftlichen Film and the organizers--Rolf Husmann, Werner Sperschneider, Beate Engelbrecht, Ulrich Roters--deserve praise for an exciting and well-run festival. Unquestionably, Göttingen will provide definition to the development of an anthropological cinema in the coming years. Anyone committed to ethnographic film should plan to attend the 1996 festival; like the immigrants in Back to the Homeland, who return year after year to their mountain village in Portugal, I'll be back.


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