Ethnographic film

An ethnographic film is a non-fiction film, often similar to a documentary film, historically dealing with non-Western people, and sometimes associated with anthropology.


Prospector, explorer, and eventual filmmaker Robert J. Flaherty is considered to be the forefather of ethnographic film. He is most famous for his 1922 film Nanook of the North. Flaherty's attempts to realistically portray Inuit people were valuable pictures of a little-known way of life. Flaherty was not trained in anthropology, but he did have good relationships with his subjects.[1]

The contribution of Felix-Louis Regnault may have started the movement. He was filming a Wolof woman making pottery without the aid of a wheel at the Exposition Ethnographique de l'Afrique Occidentale. He published his findings in 1895. His later films followed the same subject, described to capture the "cross cultural study of movement." He later proposed the creation of an archive of anthropological research footage.

The Cambridge Anthropological Expedition to the Torres Straits, initiated by Alfred Cort Haddon in 1898, covered all aspects of Torres Straits life. Haddon wrote to his friend Baldwin Spencer recommending he use film for recording evidence. Spencer then recorded the Australian Aborigines, a project that consisted of 7,000 feet of film, later housed in the National Museum at Victoria.[2]

In the 1930s, Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead discovered that using film frame-by-frame was an essential component of documenting complex rituals in Bali and New Guinea. John Marshall made what is likely the most-viewed ethnographic film in American colleges (The Hunters),[3] his filming of the Ju/'hoansi of the Kalahari (the !Kung-San) that spans from 1951 to 2000. His ethnographic film N!ai, the Story of a !Kung Woman is not only ethnography but also a biography of the central character, N!ai, incorporating footage from her childhood through adulthood. Marshall ended his career with a five-part series, A Kalahari Family (2004), that critically examined his fifty-year involvement with the Ju/'hoansi. Napoleon Chagnon and Tim Asch's two famous films, The Ax Fight and The Feast (both filmed in the 1960s), are intimately documented ethnographic accounts of an Amazonian rainforest people, the Yanomamo.

The genre flourished in France in the fifties due to the role of ethnographers as Marcel Griaule, Germaine Dieterlen, and Jean Rouch. Light 16 mm cameras synchronized with light tape-recorders would re-evolutionise the methods of both cinema and anthropology.

Rouch, who has developed the concept in theory and practice, went against the dogma that in research the camera person must stay out of the event or distance him/herself as an observer. He decided to make the camera interfere and became an actor, developing and popularizing Cinéma vérité. This was of course earlier deemed the "observer effect" by Gregory Bateson, who was perhaps unaware of the dogma Rouch was attempting to violate. Bateson, as one of the earliest to write about using cameras in the studies of humans, was not only aware of the observer effect, but both he and his partner, Margaret Mead, wrote about many ways of dealing theoretically and practically with that effect.[4]

Robert Gardner, a film artist, collaborated with several anthropologists (Karl Heider among them) to produce Dead Birds (1964), a study of ritual warfare among the Dani of New Guinea ). David Maybury-Lewis was among the first to receive enough funding to send many video cameras into the field in a single field setting to gain multiple simultaneous points of view. In the 1970s, Judith and David MacDougall introduced subtitling their subjects' speech and went on to make films that involved more collaborative relationships with their subjects.[5]


Although ethnographic film can be seen as a way of presenting and understanding different cultures that is not normally seen, there are some issues in the case of portrayal. As of late, ethnographic film has been influenced by ideas of observational cinema similar to the British Free Cinema movement. The arrival of lightweight sound cameras and their accessories opened up possibilities of being able to film almost everywhere. This led to revealing private and informal behaviours to already discreet film-makers. The issue of presentation was noted by Flaherty, when he realized that when the audience is shown individuals dealing with problems, it helps them affirm the rationality of their own choices. Despite new lightweight camera equipment, the status of the camera was still seen as an invisible presence. This only led to undermine the idea of film being an disembodied observer. It was later realized that the procedure of filming could carry false interpretations of the behaviour recorded. Film-makers then had new intentions for their films to be self-revelatory, making sure to film the primary encounter as evidence of their production. An example of this would be Chronique d'un éte, a film by Rouch and Morin where it touched on questions about how film deals with reality and changed the course of ethnographic film-making. Due to the difficulty of film being a direct representation of the subject, film-makers then perceived their work as a venture of the complexities of the presented cultural, or their work as a continuing inquiry. However, the camera continues to see selectively. This means leaving the film-maker with the precaution of interpretation during the process of recording. While observing informal events, a technique of filming from different angles or shooting the scene more than once has been developed.[6]

Many ethnographic films include recorded speech by people in the community being filmed. When this speech is in a language unfamiliar to the intended audience of the ethnographic film, the producers generally use voice over translation or subtitles. However, it has been shown that these translations of the film's subjects to the film's audience have not always been accurate. In the film Spirits of Defiance: The Mangbetu People of Zaire about the Mangbetu people of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Robert McKee has shown that the subtitles can not only leave out part of what is said, but at times even change what is said to support the point of view of the film's producers.[7] Timothy Asch has set out ethical principles for producers of ethnographic films to ensure that communities being filmed have input into how they are portrayed.[8]

See also



  1. ^ Flaherty, Richard. "How I filmed Nanook of the North,"
  2. ^ [1]
  3. ^ university catalog counts
  4. ^ Bateson, Gregory. Naven, Cambridge, 1936. Mead, Margaret. "Letters from the Field." 1971
  5. ^ "David MacDougall". Berkeley Media. Retrieved 15 March 2013.
  6. ^ [2]
  7. ^ McKee, Robert Guy. 2017. Film-maker ventriloquism in ethnographic film: Where subtitles don’t let subjects “speak for themselves”. GIALens Volume 11, No. 1: 1–27. Online access
  8. ^ Asch, Timothy. 1992. The ethics of ethnographic film-making. In Peter Ian Crawford & David Turton (eds.), Film as ethnography 196–204. New York: Manchester University Press.


  • Banks, Marcus; Morphy, Howard (ed.): Rethinking Visual Anthropology. New Haven und London: Yale University Press 1997. ISBN 0300066910
  • Banks, Marcus and Ruby, Jay (editors) "Made to B e Seen: Perspectives on the History of Visual Anthropology." Chicago: University of Chicago Press 2011 ISBN 0226036626
  • Barbash, Ilisa; Taylor, Lucien: Cross-Cultural Filmmaking: A Handbook for Making Documentary and Ethnographic Films and Videos, University of California Press 1997. ISBN 978-0520087606
  • Grimshaw, Anna; Ravetz, Amanda: Observational cinema. Anthropology, film, and the exploration of social life. Bloomington: Indiana University Press 2009. ISBN 978-0253221582
  • Heider, Karl G.: Ethnographic film. Austin: University of Texas Press 2007. ISBN 978-0292714588
  • Hockings, Paul (ed.): Principles of visual anthropology. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter 2003, 3. Auflage. ISBN 978-3110179309
  • Loizos, Peter: Innovation in Ethnographic Film: From Innocence to Self-Consciousness, 1955–1985, University of Chicago Press, 2nd edition 1993, ISBN 0-226-49227-3
  • MacDougall, David: Transcultural Cinema, Princeton University Press 1998, ISBN 0-691-01234-2
  • Pink, Sarah: Working images. Visual research and representation in ethnography. London: Routledge 2006. ISBN 978-0415306546
  • Ruby, Jay: Picturing Culture. Explorations of Film and Anthropology. University of Chicago Press 2000, ISBN 978-0-226-73098-1

External links

CAFFE – Coordinating Anthropological Film Festivals in Europe

CAFFE stands for Coordinating Anthropological Film Festivals in Europe. It is an initiative geared towards better cooperation and communication between the existing anthropological film festivals in Europe.

There are now courses in, and even centres of visual anthropology at several universities in Europe. An increasing number of students are

enrolling in these courses, even short-term courses that merely scratch the

surface of either visual anthropology or ethnographic filmmaking.

Most importantly is the fact that we now have an abundance of film

festivals in Europe that are linked to the fields of visual anthropology,

visual culture, ethnographic film, and other forms of audio-visual


Each event has its own features and foci, reflecting both trends in the

academic environments from which they emanate, as well as the

cultural diversity of the globalised world that surrounds them.

Currently CAFFE network brings together seventeen anthropological and ethnographic film festivals

Documentary film

A documentary film is a nonfictional motion picture intended to document some aspect of reality, primarily for the purposes of instruction, education, or maintaining a historical record. "Documentary" has been described as a "filmmaking practice, a cinematic tradition, and mode of audience reception" that is continually evolving and is without clear boundaries. Documentary films were originally called 'actuality' films and were only a minute or less in length. Over time documentaries have evolved to be longer in length and to include more categories, such as educational, observational, and even 'docufiction'. Documentaries are also educational and often used in schools to teach various principles. Social media platforms such as YouTube, have allowed documentary films to improve the ways the films are distributed and able to educate and broaden the reach of people who receive the information.


Ethnocinema, from Jean Rouch’s cine-ethnography and ethno-fictions, is an emerging practice of intercultural filmmaking being defined and extended by Melbourne, Australia-based writer and arts educator, Anne Harris, and others. Originally derived from the discipline of anthropology, ethnocinema is one form of ethnographic filmmaking that prioritises mutuality, collaboration and social change. The practice's ethos claims that the role of anthropologists, and other cultural, media and educational researchers, must adapt to changing communities, transnational identities and new notions of representation for the 21st century.

Ethno-cinematographers have also been associated with American historian James Clifford who has asserted that “all ethnographic representations are partial truths”. Collaborative ethnographic film and video projects are created with the intention of going beyond "preserving", "empowering" or "giving voice" to marginalised cultures, ethnicities, communities or individuals. According to theorists, such voices already have agency and share community or agendas with ethnocinematic filmmakers. Ethnocinematic films primarily document "relationships" between filmmakers from different cultures, or subcultures, who now share common space of a political, philosophical, geographical or virtual nature.

Ethno-cinematographers include Jean Rouch, Trinh T. Minh-ha, Harald Prins, David and Judith MacDougall, Faye Ginsburg, Timothy Asch and, indigenous filmmakers such as Australian Essie Coffey who collaborating interculturally to create ethnocinematic works.


Ethnofiction is a neologism which refers to an ethnographic docufiction, a blend of documentary and fictional film in the area of visual anthropology. It is a film type in which, by means of fictional narrative or creative imagination, often improvising, the portrayed characters (natives) play their own roles as members of an ethnic or social group.

Jean Rouch is considered to be the father of ethnofiction. An ethnologist, he discovered that a filmmaker interferes with the event he registers. His camera is never a candid camera. The behavior of the portrayed individuals, the natives, will be affected by its presence. Contrary to the principles of Marcel Griaule, his mentor, for Rouch a non-participating camera registering "pure" events in ethnographic research (like filming a ritual without interfering with it) is a pre-concept denied by practice.An ethnographer cameraperson, in this view, will be accepted as a natural partner by the actors who play their roles. The cameraperson will be one of them, and may even be possessed by the rhythm of dancers during a ritual celebration and induced in a state of cine-trance. Going further than his predecessors, Jean Rouch introduces the actor as a tool in research.A new genre was born. Robert Flaherty, a main reference for Rouch, may be seen as the grandfather of this genre, although he was a pure documentary maker and not an ethnographer.

Being mainly used to refer to ethnographic films as an object of visual anthropology, the term ethnofiction is as well adequate to refer to experimental documentaries preceding and following Rouch's oeuvre and to any fictional creation in human communication, arts or literature, having an ethnographic or social background.

Incidents of Travel in Chichen Itza

Incidents of Travel in Chichén Itzá is an award winning ethnographic film (ethnographic documentary).

Jeff Himpele and Quetzil E. Castañeda, filmmakers and producers. Production 1995 and 1997. Postproduction release: 1997.This ethnographic film can be considered as a combination of the documentary film styles that Bill Nichols calls the participatory and the performative modes. While shooting the film, the filmmakers emphasized techniques of cinéma verité as pioneered in anthropological films by Jean Rouch. It has become a classic film text in the anthropology of tourism for its portrayal of the economic, social, cultural and political conflicts surrounding a major international tourism destination based on archaeological heritage. It is also a classic in the anthropology of religion and used as a vivid ethnographic account of New Age spiritualists and their practices.

Karl G. Heider

Karl Heider (born January 21, 1935) is an American visual anthropologist.

Maa Ooru

Maa Ooru is a 1987 Telugu non-feature film written and directed by B. Narsing Rao. The film won the National Film Award for Best Anthropological/Ethnographic Film. The film also received the Media Wave Award at the Hungary International festival of visual arts.

National Film Award for Best Anthropological/Ethnographic Film

The National Film Award for Best Anthropological/Ethnographic Film is one of the National Film Awards presented annually by the Directorate of Film Festivals, the organisation set up by Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, India. It is one of several awards presented for feature films and awarded with Rajat Kamal (Silver Lotus).

The award was instituted in 1984, at 32nd National Film Awards and awarded annually for films produced in the year across the country, in all Indian languages.

Robert J. Flaherty

Robert Joseph Flaherty, (; February 16, 1884 – July 23, 1951) was an American filmmaker who directed and produced the first commercially successful feature-length documentary film, Nanook of the North (1922). The film made his reputation and nothing in his later life fully equaled its success, although he continued the development of this new genre of narrative documentary with Moana (1926), set in the South Seas, and Man of Aran (1934), filmed in Ireland's Aran Islands. Flaherty is considered the "father" of both the documentary and the ethnographic film.

Flaherty was married to writer Frances H. Flaherty from 1914 until his death in 1951. Frances worked on several of her husband's films, and received an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Story for Louisiana Story (1948).

Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland

The Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland (RAI) is a long-established anthropological organisation, with a global membership. Its remit includes all the component fields of anthropology, such as biological anthropology, evolutionary anthropology, social anthropology, cultural anthropology, visual anthropology and medical anthropology, as well as sub-specialisms within these, and interests shared with neighbouring disciplines such as human genetics, archaeology and linguistics. It seeks to combine a tradition of scholarship with services to anthropologists, including students.

The RAI promotes the public understanding of anthropology, as well as the contribution anthropology can make to public affairs and social issues. It includes within its constituency not only academic anthropologists, but also those with a general interest in the subject, and those trained in anthropology who work in other fields.

Salvage ethnography

Salvage ethnography is the recording of the practices and folklore of cultures threatened with extinction, including as a result of modernization. It is generally associated with the American anthropologist Franz Boas; he and his students aimed to record vanishing Native American cultures. Since the 1960s, anthropologists have used the term as part of a critique of 19th-century ethnography and early modern anthropology.

Sardinia International Ethnographic Film Festival

Sardinia International Ethnographic Film Festival (SIEFF) is an International Ethnographic film Festival based in Nuoro (Sardinia - Italy) organized by the Istituto superiore regionale etnografico (the Sardinian Regional Institute of Ethnography).

The festival, born in 1982 (with the name Festival Internazionale Biennale di Film Etnografici) in conjunction with the Bilan du Film Ethnographique by Jean Rouch, (now Jean Rouch Festival) housed in the Musée de l'Homme in Paris, is the oldest ethnographic cinema festival in Europe.

The event is held every two years and takes place in the Auditorium of Museo della vita e delle tradizioni popolari sarde (Museum of Sardinian folk life and traditions) in Nuoro.

From 1982 to 2006 the exhibition was dedicated from time to time to a specific theme; since 2006 the Festival has abandoned the traditional monothematic characterization and has focused its program on a selection of recent films, guided by an ethno-anthropological perspective.

The festival has an international character and for the selection the films come from all over the world. As well as the committee for the selection of films, which is regularly composed of representatives of various institutions, which in the world deal with visual anthropology.

Taiwan International Ethnographic Film Festival

The Taiwan International Ethnographic Film Festival (TIEFF, or 台灣國際民族誌影展) is the oldest and longest running international ethnographic film festival in Asia. Founded in 2001 in collaboration with Academia Sinica, the biennial festival features new and classic works from ethnographic filmmakers around the world.

Each year the festival organizes around a central theme, curating a selection of films and organizing discussions that explore a specific aspect of human life. TIEFF also includes a “New Visions” category that showcases notable ethnographic films made within the past two years. While the selection process is highly competitive, the festival does not include a competition in the event, in order to present each film as equally valuable.TIEFF is organized by the Taiwan Association of Visual Ethnography (TAVE), a non-profit organization that works to raise public awareness around documentary and ethnographic films. With this foundation, TIEFF serves as a forum for education, discussion, community building, and global exchange. The festival has also been a source of consistent support for indigenous cinema in Taiwan, promoting upcoming directors and introducing local works to international audiences.

The Ax Fight

The Ax Fight (1975) is an ethnographic film by anthropologist and filmmaker Tim Asch and anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon about a conflict in a Yanomami village called Mishimishimabowei-teri, in southern Venezuela. It is best known as an iconic and idiosyncratic ethnographic film about the Yanomamo and is frequently shown in classroom settings.

The Hunters (1957 film)

The Hunters is a 1957 ethnographic film that documents the efforts of four !Kung men (also known as Ju/'hoansi or Bushmen) to hunt a giraffe in the Kalahari Desert of Namibia. The footage was shot by John Marshall during a Smithsonian-Harvard Peabody sponsored expedition in 1952–53. In addition to the giraffe hunt, the film shows other aspects of !Kung life at that time, including family relationships, socializing and storytelling, and the hard work of gathering plant foods and hunting for small game.

The film was produced at the Film Study Center of the Peabody Museum at Harvard University by John Marshall in collaboration with Robert Gardner. It won the Robert J. Flaherty Award for best one-off documentary from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts in 1958, and was named to the US National Film Registry by the Librarian of Congress in 2003 for its "cultural, aesthetic, or historical significance". The Hunters was preserved in 2000 with a grant from the National Film Preservation Foundation.In his book At The Edge of History William Irwin Thompson uses the structure of The Hunters to model the universal form of conflict in values in human institutions.

Tim Asch

Timothy Asch (July 16, 1932 – October 3, 1994) was a noted anthropologist, photographer, and ethnographic filmmaker. Along with John Marshall and Robert Gardner, Asch played an important role in the development of visual anthropology. He is particularly known for his film The Ax Fight and his role with the USC Center for Visual Anthropology.

Travel documentary

A travel documentary is a documentary film, television program, or online series that describes travel in general or tourist attractions without recommending particular package deals or tour operators. A travelogue film is an early type of travel documentary, serving as an exploratory ethnographic film.

The genre has been represented by television shows such as Across the Seven Seas, which showcased travelogues produced by third parties, and by occasional itinerant presentations of travelogues in theaters and other venues.

The British comedian and actor Michael Palin has made several series in this genre beginning with Around the World in 80 Days (1989). PBS has several travel shows including those hosted by Rick Steves and Burt Wolf.

Video ethnography

Video ethnography is the video recording of the stream of activity of subjects in their natural setting, in order to experience, interpret, and represent culture and society. Ethnographic video, in contrast to ethnographic film, cannot be used independently of other ethnographic methods, but rather as part of the process of creation and representation of societal, cultural, and individual knowledge. It is commonly used in the fields of visual anthropology, visual sociology, and cultural studies. Uses of video in ethnography include the recording of certain processes and activities, visual note-taking, and ethnographic diary-keeping.Video ethnography involves:

• Observation, including extensive filming of practitioners,

• Allowing practitioners to view the video recorded material and reflexively discuss their practice,

• Transforming practice through practitioner led change, and

• Building the capacity for the ongoing and critical appraisal of practice.

Video-ethnographic methods seek to foreground practitioner knowledge, expertise, and insight into the dynamics of their own work processes. This is achieved by first talking with practitioners about their work and organizational processes, and by seeking an articulation of the social, professional, environmental, and organizational contingencies that both enable and constrain their

practice. By allowing practitioners to discuss their practices in response to video footage clinicians and researchers gain insight into areas of practice that may be benefit from redesign. Video ethnography is contingent on the researcher gaining the trust of practitioners, on becoming familiar with the site and on being trusted to be present at time and in places where critical conducts are undertaken.

Visual anthropology

Visual anthropology is a subfield of social anthropology that is concerned, in part, with the study and production of ethnographic photography, film and, since the mid-1990s, new media. More recently it has been used by historians of science and visual culture. Although sometimes wrongly conflated with ethnographic film, Visual Anthropology encompasses much more, including the anthropological study of all visual representations such as dance and other kinds of performance, museums and archiving, all visual arts, and the production and reception of mass media. Histories and analyses of representations from many cultures are part of Visual Anthropology: research topics include sandpaintings, tattoos, sculptures and reliefs, cave paintings, scrimshaw, jewelry, hieroglyphics, paintings and photographs. Also within the province of the subfield are studies of human vision, properties of media, the relationship of visual form and function, and applied, collaborative uses of visual representations. Multimodal anthropology describes the latest turn in the subfield, which considers how emerging technologies like immersive virtual reality, augmented reality, mobile apps, social networking, gaming along with film, photography and art is reshaping anthropological research, practice and teaching.

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