Intimacy, Integrity, and Indulgence in Anthropological Film

By Lydall, Jean | Journal of Film and Video, Summer 2008 | Go to article overview

Intimacy, Integrity, and Indulgence in Anthropological Film


Lydall, Jean, Journal of Film and Video


I WANT TO ADDRESS THREE INTERRELATED themes in this article: first, how, as an anthropologist, I have responded to the challenge of making anthropological films for television; second, the question of what degree of intimacy is acceptable in anthropological film; and third, how the subjects of my films have taken advantage of the filming situation.

It is interesting to note that when anthropologists talk about films made by or in consultation with anthropologists, they call such films ethnographic, whereas W producers call them anthropological. By calling such films ethnographic, anthropologists imply that they have the lowly status of unanalyzed, non-theorized data, in contrast to anthropological writings that aim at theoretical analysis of ethnographic data. W producers, on the other hand, like to raise the status of such films by calling them anthropological, implying that they reveal knowledge and understanding of their subject matter. In this article I use the two terms interchangeably to refer to documentary films made by or in collaboration with anthropologists who have become acquainted with the subjects and topic of their film through fieldwork, that is to say participant observation. In this respect I share Paul Henley's view that "a necessary feature of any film one might describe as 'ethnographic' would be the fact that it had been made under circumstances conforming to the norms associated with the characteristically anthropological fieldwork method of participant observation" (Henley, "The Promise" 14-15).

The Challenge of Television for Anthropology

When an anthropologist does fieldwork, he or she usually goes and lives with people who reside in a remote place and observes seemingly exotic customs. Through getting to know individual persons, participating in their lives, and being taught and enlightened by them, an anthropologist gains knowledge and understanding of their customs. Anthropological films parallel this process of knowledge acquisition in so far as they allow the viewer to gain an understanding of the "other" by viewing people and events and hearing individuals explain things to an often invisible anthropologist. The viewer of such an anthropological film does not need to be a professional anthropologist or student of anthropology in order to appreciate and understand the subjects of the film, who themselves are usually non-academics. For the same reason, anthropological films are appropriate for all kinds of audiences and are very suitable for TV, as many anthropological film series have proved ever since the Disappearing World series in Britain started being broadcast in 1970. Paul Henley pointed out that "the Disappearing World series managed to satisfy several constituencies at once. The film-makers' colleagues were sufficiently impressed to give the series a highly prestigious British Film and Television Academy (BAFTA) award in 1974. The senior executives of Granada were happy because viewing figures remained high: in 1978, the public voted the series the best programme of its kind on commercial television." Furthermore, "the Disappearing World films are now widely used as teaching resources in the anthropological departments of British universities" (Henley, "British Ethnographic Film" 7).

Ten years later, Paul Henley warned, "The trend towards international co production means that all sorts of compromises have to be made to meet the expectations of several different kinds of W viewer" (Henley). But how can one know what viewer expectations are, and why should anthropological films have to meet viewer expectations in any case? Surely the purpose of any anthropological film, whether for television, schools, or archives, is to document things as they appear to be and as people interpret them, whether this accords to viewer expectations or not.

Werner Dütsch, the long-standing producer of an exceptional TV slot for lengthy (up to twohour) documentary films at the West Deutsche Rundfunk in Germany, pointed out how difficult, if not impossible, it is to know what viewers think of films, let alone what they might want or expect:

It's always like this with W productions. …

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