What are Ethnographic Films and Why Might They be Your Next Watch

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Peek inside the daily lives of the remote Yanomamo in southern Venezuela as they masterfully craft long blowguns for monkey hunting. Or the mournful and yet beautiful rituals of religious figures and community healers in one of India’s most holy cities. 

Ethnographic films, a specific manifestation of the research from the field of Social-Cultural Anthropology, strip down the common documentary movie-watching experience. What is left is a compelling, organic, and non-sensationalized form of nonfiction filmmaking that gives viewers a glimpse into various cultural realities around the world. 

But what exactly are ethnographic films, how are they different from many of the documentary films consumed today, and why might their unique form make them your next watch? 

Ethnography largely comes from the academic field of Social-Cultural Anthropology, a branch of the greater Anthropology field. Defined as the study of human cultures and their variations depending on space and time, Social-Cultural Anthropology has been a pillar of social science research for the past hundred years.

Ethnography is the form of research conducted by cultural anthropologists. Its current working definition, something that has evolved over the years due to questions of ethics, often refers to researchers dedicating years of infield engagement with their area of study. 

According to Anthropologist Ryan Gomes-James, a professor at York University in Toronto, Canada, anthropologists will “spend a year or two immersed in some kind of cultural group or situation” trying to understand the everyday life of the people and community in which they find themselves. This form of research is seen as essential to reach the field’s required holistic understanding of a community from the perspective of an insider. 

Ethnographic films are the visual manifestation of ethnographic studies. As it stands today, ethnographic films, according to a publication by Karl G Heider, a Visual Anthropologist who wrote a book on the subject, are generally defined by their following of the greater requirements of ethnographic methodology. 

This mainly includes years of field research, using anthropological theory as a foundation for analysis, a dedication to truth-finding, and the importance of presenting a topic within a greater cultural context. Additionally, the relaying of information is placed at a higher level of importance than other common documentary attributes such as cinematography and storytelling.

These requirements often manifest in films through simple shots, little to no additional music, detailed voice-overs, and on-screen texts with supplementary information. However, when speaking with Professor Gomes-James, he cited that the specific look of these films are of far lesser importance than the requirement to keep them to anthropological standards. 

A good example of the ethnographic film style is “The Feast” produced by Timothy Asch and Napoleon Chagnon. Focusing on food consumption practices of the Yanomamo of southern Venezuela, the film contains simple shots of community members completing tasks such as hunting, cooking, and eating. Alongside are voice-overs providing supplementary information about the importance of what is being seen on screen. There is no music, no slick transitions, and no complex storyline. 

Producer Timothy Asch

The lack of complicated filmmaking seen in this film exemplifies the favored intention of information communication, contrasting many of today’s documentaries and their focus on viewership numbers. 

Additionally, what sets these films apart is their relationship with cultural complexities. Written into the practice of ethnography is the understanding that few things in our world are objective. Individual perspectives make it challenging for social scientists to claim universality in their research. 

But it is not a single objective truth that ethnographic films are trying to show. Professor Gomes-James asserts that ethnographic films focus on “the flow of everyday life…giving a snap-shot describing what it is like to live there.” 

Gomes-James argues that it is this very attribute that makes ethnographic films a vital addition to our media consumption. He argues that much of the media our society consumes gives viewers only a partial picture of a community while claiming it to be whole. Media, he believes, “needs to reduce the complexity, telling a clear story about a particular thing, and claiming it to be true. Thus, you have to simplify things to some extent” 

Ethnographic films, however, “take it in the other direction by vamping up the complexity,” says Gomes-James. 

For viewers from the general public, the benefit of this prioritization means the ability to dive into a more holistic and complex version of the daily lives of often unseen people and communities around the world.

Take the example given at the beginning of the article about “one of India’s most holy cities.” In the film “Forest of Bliss” directed and filmed by American Anthropologist Robert Gardner, we are given a glance at a single day in the city of Varanasi, India, an ancient city home to extreme religious significance for Hindus, Buddhists, and Jains. We follow ritual leaders conducting ceremonies for the dead, manual laborers moving wood for ritual burnings, and kids playing along the holy Ganges River. The film focuses on capturing what daily life is like for the city’s residents. 

Image of The Ganges River From “Forest of Bliss”

This form of information communication provides the viewer with a unique and yet impactful glimpse into how people in Varanasi live. The film provides no direct interpretation of what is happening on screen. Rather, Gardner looks to capture the daily happenings of the city. And though it does not cover all aspects of everyday life, viewers get the opportunity to immerse themselves in a space across the planet. 

Once a niche industry, the field of documentaries is seeing a boom. Most major streaming services, including Apple TV Plus, Discovery Plus, and Netflix, are investing millions of dollars into the field, creating viral films like “Tiger King ” and “The Social Dilemma.” 

If you are looking for films similar to these, ethnographic movie making will not fulfill your desires. 

But, for those interested in getting to know our complex world and the vast diversity it possesses, ethnographic films will provide for that. They will be stripped of dramatic music and scenic cinematography. But with a lack of these attributes, ethnographic films will instead convey an organic, holistic, and fascinating visual picture of the complexities of people from around the world. For those that are interested in this diversity, whether that be in a remote community from the Amazon, or the urban population in a city across the planet, ethnographic film could be the perfect source.

By Seth Pollak

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