an evolution of ethnographic film in its depiction of the other

As film has become a medium for anthropologists to present their conclusions to the world, problems have arisen because of our association of the camera lens with the unmediated view of the eye. In contrast with a written article where a reader can really stop to think about what is being presented, the film-viewer must make sense of what they are seeing as it is being presented before them. As Taylor discusses, film is fiction in its manipulation of space and time and there is a fear held by the community of anthropology that the viewer may passively receive the information on the screen as absolute realism (77). If this is the case, how can anthropological filmmakers allow viewers to have their own experience with the culture shown? How can ethnographers allow viewers to come to their own conclusions without giving them a convenient conclusion to take like a pill? As Moore expresses, this questions becomes even more important to consider as ethnographic film has often chosen indigenous culture as its subject (126). Because the anthropologist is an outsider looking onto a cultural Other, there is a risk of projecting a highly western and one dimensional point of view onto this culture. As I consider three important ethnographic films, I will be asking how films can show otherness without having to explicitly state otherness and how has the anthropological conception of otherness evolved overtime?

One of the most central and revered anthropological films, Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North, outlines the relationship between western and Inuit culture by accompanying Inuit quotidian scenes with subtitled text that speaks directly to the western viewer. Instead of simply showing the viewer Inuit daily life, Flaherty feels the need to provide detailed and descriptive information that dumbs an action or decision down to our own terms. Flaherty also draws connections to western life, allowing the viewer to map their own experiences onto the experiences of this foreign culture. For example, when the Inuit are building the house, they include a piece of clear ice to reflect light from the outside of the igloo to the inside. In his narration, Flaherty takes the liberty of calling this added piece a window because it serves the same function as the windows we have inside our own homes (Nanook of The North 42:48). As one views these perfectly narrated snippets of Inuit daily life, one begins to question how Flaherty could have simply stumbled on these scenes while observing the Inuit; therefore, the degree of realism in this documentary comes into question. These scenes seem to fit too perfectly with the narration’s rumination of the similarities and differences between us and the Inuit. While this is what I understood visually, Flaherty’s experience provides a new layer of information for understanding the film as more than simply performed conclusions drawn about Inuit culture from a western frame of mind.

To really uncover how this portrayal of otherness came about, it is necessary to investigate the interactions Flaherty had with the Inuit people in producing this film. Flaherty even explains himself that when he returned North to the Belcher Islands he “brought apparatus so [his] character and his family could understand and appreciate what [Flaherty] was doing” (Nanook of the North 1:25). In Flaherty’s second time around filming, the Inuit culture plays a new role in the film. Instead of mere subjects, the Inuit seem to have also been directors, proposing ideas for scenes, and actors, watching their scenes back, self-critiquing and adjusting their performances accordingly (“The Aggie Must Come First” 88). Overall, while the staged scenes were not real in the sense that they were unmediated observational footage, Flaherty’s decision to consult the Inuit on how to best display his observation of their reality make the scenes more realistic as an encompassing depiction of Inuit life.

With knowledge of Inuit awareness and active involvement, the film can be seen in a different light. While highly staged and produced, the film is no longer solely about how Flaherty viewed Inuit culture, but it also reflects how the Inuit viewed themselves. Flaherty was a filmmaker and not an anthropologist; however, the way in which he immersed himself in Inuit culture and developed a relationship with Nanook and his family is similar to what we know as a professional anthropological fieldwork today (“The Aggie Must Come First” 83). Moreover, while the film is sometimes criticized as fictionalized because it infused narrative text into its portrayal of indigenous culture, we know that narration came from a developed understanding of who the Inuit were and how they wanted to be seen. Overall, otherness is somewhat explicitly stated in the highly descriptive captioning; nevertheless, Flaherty was conscious of a view of the Other that explained more about the western view than Inuit realities stating “I am not going to make film about what the white man has made of primitive peoples. . .” (“The Aggie Must Come First” 89). Placed in the constraint of appealing to an audience not yet ready or accustomed to the format of documentary film today, Flaherty takes the liberty of using subtitles and performed scenes to create a comprehensive story; nevertheless, his account is far more than a primitivist gaze of the Other because it integrates the Inuit people’s own view of themselves.

While Flaherty’s creative liberties manage to avoid a primitivizing portrayal of another culture, Robert Gardner’s Dead Birds only serves to show a western view of the Dani capitalizing on the violent stereotype that often accompanies indigenous cultures. As a viewer, this one-sided approach to anthropological filmmaking becomes clear almost immediately. The first clear instance is the interjecting of what Ruby refers to as “the voice of God” (“Robert Gardener and Anthropological Cinema” 100). The narrative voice describes a selected Dani myth about morality and death in animals to open and close the film. This story will tie into and relate to the creative direction taken by Gardner to depict the Dani. While this myth creates a thematic flow, it is not up to the filmmaker to assume that this myth embodies the trajectory of the Dani lifestyle. A second problem with this voice is that it narrates the personal thoughts of the films characters. As Kirsch points out with the character Pua for example, the voice takes the liberty of knowing what he wonders amidst the violence of the older men (6). Without knowing the nature of Gardner’s fieldwork, there are already problems with his portrayal of another culture. Unlike Flaherty’s narrative captioning which serve a didactic purpose, merely explaining information that can clearly be inferred visually, Gardner’s captioning serves a creative purpose, digging into what can only be known by the characters themselves.

Learning more about how Gardner made the film exposes his abandonment of any authentic portrayal of Dani culture in favor of his own personal view. In an attempt to capture what he thought would be more authentic footage, Gardner did not actually interview the Dani despite having access to a translator (Kirsch 6). Therefore, we see that the voice that seems to know all in fact knows nothing. The thoughts and emotions are not obtained during interviews in which the characters are shown footage and given the opportunity to comment as anthropologists like Jean Rouch do, they are a figment of Gardner’s imagination. Additionally, Ruby points out that Gardner has cut scenes of battle and woven them together to better fit his war narrative (“Robert Gardener and Anthropological Cinema” 101). As the entire film is committed to creating a view of war as the foundation of Dani culture, the film, which is wrongly understood as a tool for learning about other cultures, becomes a distortion of realism used to uphold negative violent associations towards the native West Papuans (Kirsch 5). In his quest to depict the Other and achieve a cohesive storyline, Dead Birds only serves to expose a western point of view of the Dani culture. As Gardner had limited interaction with the culture the film lacks an essential element of otherness: the perspective of the indigenous culture depicted.

Dennis O’Rourke’s Cannibal Tours perfectly encaptures otherness by, not only showing the realities of Iatmul culture but also, providing the perspective of the Iatmul and Western tourist as they interact with and observe each other. While the realities of Iatmul culture is a subject of the film, the focus of the film is on the relationships between western culture and the Other. As MacCannell points out, the “. . .primitive ‘Other’ no longer exists” (100). Instead we recognize otherness through the odd behavior of the westerners as they try to engage in an authentic ‘primitive experience’ while still maintaining a distance from the Iatmul. From a visual perspective, one sees otherness through the lingering distance between the two cultures despite their interaction throughout the film. While the western tourists appear ignorant, condescending and stupid, it is not because O’Rourke has painted them in that way. We see interviews and scenes of tourism that show western Europeans and Americans gladly assuming this stereotypically western character type. While reflecting on what he has seen on his tour one Italian tourist concludes that the Iatmul live a very simple lifestyle explaining, “Nature provides them with the necessities of life and they do not have to worry about thinking of tomorrow” (Cannibal Tours 9:32-9:44). While the tourists can be seen claiming to want to have a worldly experience, it is clear that they have only taken away what they wanted to see from the tour.

As we hear from the Iatmul we get quite a different assessment of their way of life and the Other. While gladly accepting the revenue this tourism generates, the “ex-primitive” Iatmul people, are angry and confused by the behavior of the western tourists. One member of Iatmul culture explains “We have no money—we need it! You white people! You have all the money!” (Cannibal Tours 18:45-18:49). As one can see O’Rourke’s work illuminates the disconnect between how the Iatmul are seen and how they actually are. O’Rourke also expresses how money is often used as an emblem of technology in this classic form of primitivism. While the Iatmul continue to accommodate the tourist, it is because they desire to advance their economic status in an attempt to one day break out of the primitive mold. The western tourist selfishly hopes to suspend this romantic view of the Iatmul because of the promise that they might find something more in themselves preserved in the Other.

O’Rourke’s film directly alludes to what anthropology is really about. While O’Rourke could have simply chosen to show the Iatmul people or the ignorant tourists, he wants to capture a complex relationship that has been evolving since the Germans first came to Papua New Guinea. These relationships are not black and white but rather extremely complex. The film focuses on relationships across cultural ways of understanding. The challenge no longer revolves around finding the Other and explaining this Other to the audience; the challenge now becomes discovering what this view of the Other can tell us about our own culture. In his discussion of the making of cannibal tours O’Rourke explains his intention for audience members to feel embarrassed for the tourists with their shameless disrespect towards another culture but also recognize the possibility for this quality to exist within ourselves (7). So often do anthropological documentaries seek to teach us about the cultural Other. There is a search for cultures uncontaminated by modernism and a challenge to define their lifestyles to an audience. However, very rarely do these films allow us to mediate on our own culture as well. As O’Rourke states “This film is a reminder that the task of anthropology is far from done –we have yet to explain ourselves” (10). While we often define otherness as the Other, O’Rourke addresses how otherness might refer to the relationship of other to our ourselves that lies within this definition.

Ultimately, the concept of otherness is multifaceted as films have transitioned from telling to showing the cultural Other. As we see with Flaherty, interaction with a cultural other allowed similarities and differences to be drawn speaking to our fascination with cultural Other. However, it seems these similarities had to be stated in order to express a reality of complexity to a simplified western state of mind. In the past otherness manifested itself as a view that we projected onto another culture through our own ways of thinking. Gardner’s work expresses how one’s overly prescriptive primitive portrayal of the Other can reveal everything about us and our primitivizing mindset and nothing about the Other. Conscious of what otherness once was and what it should become, O’Rourke seeks a way of directly addressing the distorted version of realism that the western tourist chooses to see and the impenetrable primitive mold that the cultural Other feels trapped in.

Works Cited

  1. Castaing-Taylor, Lucien. “Iconophobia.” Transition, No. 69, 1 Jan. 1996, pp. 64–88.
  2. Flaherty, Robert. Nanook of the North. United States, 1922.
  3. Gardner, Robert. Dead Birds. United States, 1963.
  4. Kirsch, Stuart. “Ethnographic Representation and the Politics of Violence in West Papua.” Critique of Anthropology, vol. 30, no. 1, 2010, pp. 3–22., doi:10.1177/0308275×09363213.
  5. MacCannell, Dean. “Cannibal Tours.” Visualizing Theory: Selected Essays from V.A.R., 1990-1994, by Lucien Castaing-Taylor. Routledge, 2014, pp. 99–114.
  6. Moore, Rachel. “Marketing Alterity.” Visualizing Theory: Selected Essays from V.A.R., 1990-1994, by Lucien Castaing-Taylor. Routledge, 2009, pp. 126–134.
  7. O’Rourke, Dennis. Cannibal Tours. Australia, 1988.
  8.  “ON THE MAKING OF ‘Cannibal Tours.’” Camerawork, 1999, www.cameraworklimited.com/get/58.pdf.
  9. Ruby, Jay. “The Aggie Must Come First: Robert Flaherty’s Place in Ethnographic Film History.” Picturing Culture: Explorations of Film & Anthropology. University of Chicago Press, 2000, pp. 67–93.
  10.  “Robert Gardner and Anthropological Cinema.” Picturing Culture: Explorations of Film & Anthropology. University of Chicago Press, 2000, pp. 95–113.

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