American Ethnographic Cinema and Personal Documentary: The Cambridge Turn

By Smith, Matthew Ryan | Canadian Journal of Film Studies, Fall 2014 | Go to article overview

American Ethnographic Cinema and Personal Documentary: The Cambridge Turn


Smith, Matthew Ryan, Canadian Journal of Film Studies


AMERICAN ETHNOGRAPHIC CINEMA AND PERSONAL DOCUMENTARY: THE CAMBRIDGE TURN By Scott Macdonald. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013,424 pp.

REVIEWED BY MATTHEW RYAN SMITH

Scott MacDonald's new book American Ethnographic Film and Personal Documentary: The Cambridge Turn examines ethnographic and personal documentary filmmakers who have been closely engaged with Cambridge, Massachusetts during their career. In particular, many of the filmmakers addressed in the book have, at some time, been connected to the area's educational institutions in some capacity. To this end, MacDonald argues that the MIT Film Section, Peabody Museum's Film Study Centre, and the Department of Visual and Environmental Studies at Harvard University have been instrumental in developing ethnographic film in the United States, which he defines as "the use of film to document information about preindustrial cultures, particularly cultures on the verge of collapse or transformation," though he acknowledges its broadening definition in recent years (3). On the other hand, MacDonald locates the genre of personal documentary as one where the filmmaker explicitly interacts with their family or personal life in some way. The Cambridge Turn is intended to invite readers to explore ethnographic and personal documentary filmmaking from Cambridge-area filmmakers rather than offer a sustained historical analysis or theoretical examination.

MacDonald does however preface his book by situating Cambridge-area ethnographic and personal documentary within the critical framework of Charles Peirce, William James, and John Dewey's notions of Pragmatism, the belief that truth and knowledge are generated from careful observation of lived experience. Although doing so helps to explicate how higher meaning can be produced from documentary discourses, academic advances in affect and trauma theory in recent years have also forged meaningful relationships with many of the structural and systemic issues explored by filmmakers mentioned in the book-namely, issues concerning suffering, cultural genocide, and loss- and may represent a more useful analytical schema. Furthermore, the book does little to explain the social, economic, cultural, and political motivations behind why Cambridge and the Boston area produced some of the most recognizable (and radical) ethnographic and personal documentary films; thus, it remains difficult to locate and define the larger context and meaning behind the "Turn."

The book is organized into nine chapters that provide a broad overview of some of the leading Cambridge-area ethnographic and personal documentary filmmakers. The first three chapters-"Loma and John Marshall," "Robert Gardner," and "Timothy Asch"-draw focus to ethnographic documentary. MacDonalds chapter on Loma and John Marshall's ethnographic approach is particularly compelling. Here McDonald briefly outlines the historical background of the Marshall family's sponsored expeditions and how they came to film the Kung / Ju/'hoansi people of the Kalahari from 1950 to 1961. The sections within this chapter, as with the other chapters, offer formal analyses of select films, usually those that are considered seminal, including John Marshall's The Hunters (1957). This is one of the strongest aspects of MacDonald's book-indeed, not only does the author employ a rigorous and often fascinating observation of the films he discusses in terms of its larger cultural context and epistemology, but he also uses his own experiences of films as a meaningful dialogue for criticism. For the reader, this approach maybe particularly useful for the reason that many of the films discussed in the book are unavailable to screen because of distribution issues. In the chapters that focus predominantly on ethnographic documentary, the reader will also become aware that MacDonald deconstructs the categories of ethnographic and personal documentary filmmaking to argue that certain films regularly cross over between their selected genres. …

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