Ethnographic films are described as a non-fiction film where the focus is generally on non-Western people and cultures. It is associated with anthropology. It is the visual manifestation of anthropological practice organized into a lineal and moving media.
Conception of Ethnographic Films
Since its inception, there have various debates about the conception and content of ethnographic movies. Since it is anthropological in nature, the question of visual entertainment comes into the foreplay. Robert. J. Flaherty is said to be the father of ethnographic film. In his film, ‘Nanook of the North’, he attempts to capture the lives of the Inuit people as realistically as possible. Felix-Louis Regnault has contributed greatly to ethnographic and started the movement. His filming of a Wolof woman making pottery without a wheel and the consequent documenting became extremely popular. John Marshall made the most popular ethnographic film called ‘N!ai, the Story of a !Kung Woman’ which documents the Ju’hoansi tribe of the Kalahari.
Ethnographic films developed as an aid for research. Since colonialism led to the exposure of Western people to previously unknown cultures and regions, they started documenting the lives of the indigenous people to understand their culture and society. Technology has also revolutionized the filming and documenting of ethnographic films. The main technology, which led to this revolution are 16 mm cameras with tape recorders which are light and easy to carry around. According to de Brigard, in the 1950’s and 1960’s, ethnographic films were perceived as ‘communication between those filming and being filmed.’
Ethnographic films are said to be a loose construct which lacks a monolith concept. Due to the diversity of cultures, it is almost impossible to bring about a stringent framework in such films. Since ethnographic films are made mainly for purposes of research, it is limited to the scope of anthropology. Some argue that aspect this takes away the visual entertainment that people look for in a film. Hence, the film loses a big audience. However, it can be argued that such films are non-fictional and focus more on the cultural and sociological aspects.
Representation is another point of debate in ethnographic films. Since it usually involves the documenting of unknown or little known people and cultures, the filmmaker can end up representing them as primitive and unintelligent. Cultural stereotypes can easily distort reality from representation. Since inception, ethnographic films were made primarily by people from the West about cultures in the outside their domains, the tendency to portray them as uncivilized and too simple ran high.
Nowadays, channels like Discovery and National Geographic channel broadcast numerous documentaries about various cultures and people. Although they are technically documentaries, they still give an insight into the lives and ways of indigenous people.
Thus, in conclusion ethnographic films have forayed into the world of unknown cultures. What initially started off as research has now created a niche for the people of these cultures? People learn from these films in ways that they could have never done so before. Even if people cannot study the tribes on a first-hand basis, they can always refer to these films. They also generate a thirst for knowledge about non-Western cultures. Even though ethnographic films are still evolving along with technology, they have indeed revolutionized the way non-Western cultures are represented and perceived.