Academic journal article Journal of Film and Video

Course File for "Documentary Film, Visual Anthropology, and Visual Sociology"

Academic journal article Journal of Film and Video

Course File for "Documentary Film, Visual Anthropology, and Visual Sociology"

Article excerpt

In response to a paradigm shift toward reflexivity in critical anthropology and media studies, this course attempts to address and relocate questions of representation and reconstruction in the context of reflexive explanations for ethnographic films as images used to document patterns of culture, usually within discourses of Othering. The epistemological foundations of media and media studies are critically examined, in this specific instance, ethnographic film and the construction of the Other.

The emergence of visual anthropology as a contender for status as an academic discipline and the methodological claims and counterclaims made with respect to ethnographic film have become prominent in recent years as people globally have begun to assert their right to a greater say in the ways in which their lives are represented. The course offers a critical overview of concepts of visual anthropology, ethnographic filmmaking, and visual representation. It examines questions of power and power relations; the anthropological and media construction of the Other; and trends in visual anthropology and their relationship to documentary, ethics, recording strategies, and approaches to visual documentation. These issues are contextualized as questions of ontological indeterminacy that emerge from the imputed differences between the Historical Same (Europe) and the Third World Other (Africa, South America, etc.).

Other issues that are investigated include the notion of the "scientifically unexplainable," "ethnographic surreality," and the clash between cartesian subjectivities derived from industrial societies and those that shape the consciousness of societies still living within orality, or secondary cultures thereof. The course is contextualized within what can be seen as the human experience of the last explicitly colonial environment, that of apartheid South Africa. It is intended to raise concrete topical criticisms of ethnographic and documentary film in the context of how these genres raise their subjects to the epistemological status of Other. As a result, many of the films screened during the course are about South Africans and often are by South Africans; however, the relevance of this selection within a wider context is explicated throughout. This decision is made in order to elucidate the global order of knowledge, which is frequently elided in the way ethnographic film (as the fieldwork of visual anthropology) is presented to its audiences as Objective Knowledge.

Because film as a product is exhibited to audiences removed both in place and time from the context of its production, the course focuses on both the ethics of production and the morality of exhibition of ethnographic film. The different contexts within which these issues arise are drawn out with respect to the reception of film, rather than the political economy of its production. Students are required, therefore, to study both the content of prescribed films and various debates conducted about them, as well as the broader issues of theory and criticism.

The course lasts 13 weeks, with a weekly seminar. Students are assessed on the basis of essays and a three-hour exam.

The overall intellectual approach is the multidisciplinary perspective used in contemporary cultural studies. Students are required to participate in applied visual anthropology projects if these are part of the teaching department's activities and to contribute to journal/film/video productions in order to obtain a hands-on understanding of the media and communication issues dealt with in the course. It is possible, therefore, to include assessments of students' abilities in various practical aspects of the course.

General theoretical background is provided through textual material. A focus on semiotics is a feature of the course, in part because semiotics cuts across methodological boundaries. Semiotics is presented as the study of how thought, knowledge, and behavior relate to meaning. …

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