by Tim­o­thy Asch

Anthro­pol­o­gists con­tin­u­al­ly seek better ways to record and trans­late the beliefs and tra­di­tions of human cul­tures. The emer­gence of ethno­graph­ic film­mak­ing in this cen­tu­ry has given humankind unprece­dent­ed oppor­tu­ni­ties to vic­ar­i­ous­ly expe­ri­ence the details of life in unfa­mil­iar, often dis­tant and iso­lat­ed places.

Unlike fea­ture film­mak­ers, ethno­graph­ic film­mak­er record events as they happen no scripts, no actors, no sets, no retakes. The film must also cap­ture the essence of the people, their pas­sions, their fears, their moti­va­tions.

Vital to suc­cess is the devel­op­ment of trust between the ethno­g­ra­ph­er or anthro­pol­o­gist and the people he or she is study­ing. That trust con­sti­tutes an unwrit­ten ‘social con­tract’, which brings cer­tain oblig­a­tions and eth­i­cal con­sid­er­a­tions into play that might never have occurred to anthro­pol­o­gists even two or three decades ago.

In 1960, when I began making ethno­graph­ic films through the Peabody Museum at Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty, our models were Robert Fla­her­ty’s 1922 clas­sic, NANOOK OF THE NORTH, Merian Cooper and Ernest Schoed­sack 1925 film GRASS and Basil Wright’s 1937 film SONG OF CEYLON.

SONG OF CEYLON, pro­duced by the British Empire Mar­ket­ing Board, is an exquis­ite­ly shot doc­u­men­tary nar­rat­ed with excerpts from the diary of a 17th cen­tu­ry trav­eller. GRASS doc­u­ments the stag­ger­ing migra­tion of 50 000 people over the Zardeh Kuh Moutains in Turkey and Persia in search of grass for their herds. And NANOOK OF THE NORTH depicts an Eskimo fam­i­ly’s strug­gle for sur­vival in the frozen north.

Fla­her­ty’s NANOOK was the excep­tion in doc­u­men­tary films in that it focused on indi­vid­ual lives and pro­vid­ed a sym­pa­thet­ic, per­son­al view of Eskimo life. But the film was script­ed. Fla­her­ty used Eski­mos as actors play­ing their own role and in that sense cre­at­ed a pro­to­type for fea­ture nar­ra­tive films rather than doc­u­men­tary films.

GRASS and SONG OF CEYLON inspired gen­er­ates of ethno­graph­ic film­mak­ers with their stun­ning, often heroic approach to image-making. Views from moun­tain tops and val­leys were breath-taking but per­mit­ted no inti­ma­cy with indi­vid­ual sub­jects. The people in these doc­u­men­taries remained strangers to the viewer. The film­mak­ers dealt with cul­tures in broad terms and with people from a dis­tant. This dis­tance tended to turn people into objects.

Early film­mak­ers went into the field with the most advanced equip­ment avail­able to them and filmed what­ev­er they wanted with little regard for the sen­si­bil­i­ties of their sub­jects. Their sole objec­tive was to col­lect images and make a film that would be both sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly objec­tive and inter­est­ing to anthro­pol­o­gists and audi­ences at home. Although the sub­jects of the films were gen­er­al­ly coop­er­a­tive, they were pow­er­less to influ­ence the process of making the film or the final prod­uct result­ing from their col­lab­o­ra­tion.

Start­ing as early as 1946, French ethno­g­ra­ph­er Jean Rouch paved the way to a more per­son­al approach to ethno­graph­ic film­mak­ing. He learned the lan­guage of his sub­jects and spent a great deal of time in the field get­ting to know them and let­ting them know what he was trying to accom­plish.

In the con­text of the times in which they lived, I’m sure Rouch’s pre­de­ces­sors and others who fol­lowed the models of early ethno­graph­ic film­mak­ers felt no eth­ni­cal twinges about their aproach, but today things are dif­fer­ent. The world is chang­ing and threat­en­ing indige­nous soci­eties at an ever-quick­en­ing rate. Expo­sure to the out­side world can occa­sion­al­ly pose grave dan­gers to the people and soci­eties we study. With this in mind, we can no longer view our sub­jects as objects. It is no longer enough to film wher­ev­er and how­ev­er we want for the simple sake of sci­en­tif­ic inquiry. Our social con­tract with our sub­jects demands that we ask our­selves: Am I living and work­ing with these people for legit­i­mate rea­sons and not simply for per­son­al gain? And can I get the footage I need with­out doing injury to these people who have so gen­er­ous­ly allowed me to live with them and see and under­stand their most close­ly held beliefs and cus­toms?

Having wrestling with these ques­tions for the past 30 years, I have devel­oped a method­ol­o­gy for ethno­graph­ic film­mak­ing that I believe responds to impor­tant eth­i­cal issues facing film­mak­ers and anthro­pol­o­gists today. Taking the fol­low­ing steps encour­ages not only eth­i­cal con­duct on the part of film­mak­ers, but also better long-term rela­tion­ship with sub­jects and ulti­mate­ly better, more per­son­al film doc­u­men­ta­tion

1) Know your sub­jects
If you have not done exten­sive field­work in a com­mu­ni­ty, work with an anthro­pol­o­gist who knows the lan­guage and the soci­ety well and who is inter­est­ed in focus­ing in-depth on one spe­cif­ic issue or area of study. Spend­ing at least two or three months in the field before film­ing begins will give you an oppor­tu­ni­ty to become famil­iar with your sub­jects and their rou­tines, devel­op trust, and let the people know what you are attempt­ing to accom­plish. With the solid lan­guage skills of the anthro­pol­o­gist and an under­stand­ing of the cul­ture, you and the anthro­pol­o­gist with whom you work will become more sen­si­tive to the sub­tleties essen­tial to making a good rep­re­sen­ta­tive film.

2) Avoid mis­lead­ing biases
(…) No matter how objec­tive the ethno­g­ra­ph­er tries to be, per­son­al, con­cep­tu­al and the­o­ret­i­cal biases inher­ent in his or her train­ing and inter­ests will find their way into the film. Ethno­g­ra­phers are con­stant­ly in the way of their own obser­va­tions.

One way to coun­ter­act this ten­den­cy is to be aware of your biases and seek diverse points of view when you put your team togeth­er. Having both men and women involved, for exam­ple, will give you per­spec­tive on the activ­i­ties of all mem­bers of the soci­ety you are study­ing women and chil­dren as well as men. Some soci­eties iso­late male ethno­g­ra­phers from wom­en’s activ­i­ties and female ethno­g­ra­phers from cer­tain male activ­i­ties, so col­lab­o­ra­tion is essen­tial to get­ting a film that will be useful to future gen­er­a­tions. Anoth­er way to con­front the prob­lem of bias is to use are flex­ive approach. (…) In are flex­ive film. The film­mak­er and anthro­pol­o­gist step for­ward and become part of the film, openly inter­act­ing with the Yanomamo, let­ting the viewer see how ques­tions are phrased and con­clu­sions drawn form events. The film­mak­ers do not become the sub­ject of the film, but are includ­ed as other ele­ments of the Yanomamo envi­ron­ment are includ­ed when they are influ­enc­ing what is record­ed. (…) The film audi­ence sees who the film­mak­ers are and how they are react­ing to the events they have observed. This ‘reflex­iv­i­ty’ per­mits audi­ence to observe and, if they wish, chal­lenge the sub­jec­tiv­i­ty film­mak­ers bring to their work. (…)

3) Shoot whole events
Long takes of whole events or at least com­plete sequences within an event permit the sub­jects’ action to influ­ence the struc­ture of the final film.(…)
Film­mak­ers who shoot long takes of an entire event or at least of entire sequences within an event pro­vide a more com­plete and objec­tive view of indige­nous rela­tion­ships than can be achieved through edited and spliced short takes. What is more, the par­tic­i­pants in the event rather than the film editor, pro­vide the chronol­o­gy and action of the event.

4) Sup­port your film with good writ­ten doc­u­men­ta­tion
If at all pos­si­ble, tran­scribe and trans­late all audio tapes while you are still in the field, par­tic­u­lar­ly all tapes relat­ed to syn­chro­nous record­ing for the film.(…)
If the film­mak­er fails to give the audi­ence ade­quate back­ground and a con­text for view­ing cer­tain activ­i­ties or events, the film may unwit­ting­ly sup­port common prej­u­dices about prim­i­tive or iso­lat­ed cul­tures, the very mis­un­der­stand­ings anthro­pol­o­gists are striv­ing to dispel.

5) Make and archive an uncut ver­sion of your workf or schol­ar­ly research
Film makers mayexpose15to 100 feet of film for every foot used in the final edited ver­sion of a film. The unused footage usu­al­ly is thrown away and lost for­ev­er to future schol­ars. Just con­sid­er the cost, time, effort and exper­tise that went into your field work that could be pre­served for the ben­e­fit of others.
To avoid this waste, you can file a copy of your uncut, unedit­ed work, along with copies of all tran­scrip­tions and trans­la­tions of your audio tapes in the Human Stud­ies Film Archives at the Smith­son­ian Insti­tute in Washington,D.C. (…)

6) Seek feed­back from the sub­jects of your film
(…) Seek­ing feed­back from the sub­jects has two dis­tinct advan­tages for the film­mak­er as well: It serves as an accu­ra­cy check, and it solic­its addi­tion­al infor­ma­tion from your sub­jects that might not come out in any other sit­u­a­tion. With the feed­back, you can make final revi­sions that often result in a better film.(…)

7) Get feed back from sample audi­ences.
A film maker or anthro­pol­o­gist who knows much more about the sub­ject of the film than the audi­ence can easily mis­judge what the audi­ence will under­stand from the film. Lec­tur­ing with the edited film before rep­re­sen­ta­tive audi­ence of stu­dents, col­leagues or the gen­er­al public gives you an oppor­tu­ni­ty to see if the film is com­mu­ni­cat­ing with the audi­ence as you intend­ed. (…)

8) See that the film is prop­er­ly dis­trib­uted
Sub­jects the world over are more sophis­ti­cat­ed today and want to know how footage will be used before they allow you to film them. Reluc­tant sub­jects often are will­ing to be filmed to pre­serve the cul­ture for the edu­ca­tion and ben­e­fit of future gen­er­a­tions. The film­mak­er has an oblig­a­tion to see that the films are used as promised in ways that do not jeop­ar­dize the dig­ni­ty or the well-being of the sub­jects. The more con­trol you can exer­cise over dis­tri­b­u­tion the better your chances of ful­fill­ing the unwrit­ten con­tracts you have drawn with the people you film, which to the eth­i­cal film­mak­er are as bind­ing as any legal con­tract signed and sealed in a lit­er­ate cul­ture.)…)

9) Make a roy­al­ty arrange­ment with the people filmed and see that they receive money
1971 Sahrah Elder and Lenny Kamer­ling decid­ed to have the Inuit people they were study­ing not only help make th films AT A TIME OF WHALING and ON THE SPRING ICE, but also share in the copy­right and roy­al­ties. The notion of shar­ing roy­al­ties was unusu­al at the time, but once it came up, it seemed like a prac­tice that should have been in place long before. Roy­al­ties, how­ev­er, must be han­dled care­ful­ly to assure ben­e­fit rather than detri­ment to the people filmed.(…)

10) Pub­lish a study guide or mono­graph to be dis­trib­uted with the film
In 1969 Karl Heider made an impas­sioned plea for writ­ten back­ground mate­r­i­al to accom­pa­ny films. The films, he said, par­tic­u­lar­ly those used in teach­ing, are incom­plete with­out solid, writ­ten back­ground mate­r­i­al and deeper inter­pre­ta­tion of the cul­ture or events por­trayed in the film. Joint­ly pub­lish­ing writ­ten mate­r­i­al and films goes against the tra­di­tions of cur­rent book and film dis­trib­u­tors. In gen­er­al book dis­trib­u­tors don’t dis­trib­ute films, and visa versa. In 1971 John Mar­shall and I, (…), found­ed Doc­u­men­tary Edu­ca­tion­al Resources (DER), a non-prof it dis­tri­b­u­tion cor­po­ra­tion.

11) Ongo­ing Com­mit­ments
One more eth­i­cal ques­tion to con­sid­er relates indi­rect­ly to ethno­graph­ic film­mak­ing: What role
can and should the film­mak­er and anthro­pol­o­gist play in the future of the soci­eties they study,
par­tic­u­lar­ly with regard to devel­op­ment?

Ethno­g­ra­phers gain a great deal from their inter­ac­tion with indige­nous pop­u­la­tions - if not fame and for­tune, at least knowl­edge and a com­fort able uni­ver­si­ty fac­ul­ty posi­tion. We owe it to our sub­jects to do what we can for them in return.

Ethno­g­ra­phers often are in the best posi­tion to know how to help the people they study inte­grate into con­tem­po­rary life. The modern world is encroach­ing so rapid­ly on small scale iso­lat­ed soci­eties that their sur­vival will ulti­mate­ly depend on their abil­i­ty to adapt. Ide­al­ly devel­op­ment is man­aged by cit­i­zens of your sub­jects’ native coun­try, but often local policy makers have little knowl­edge or inter­est in indige­nous cul­tures. You can speak to the needs of your sub­jects and share your knowl­edge with local social sci­en­tists and policy makers. Infor­ma­tion you pro­vide may enable the policy makers to make better choice for their people.

We are all prod­ucts of our times. We can’t really fault early ethno­graph­ic film­mak­ers for their dis­tance and appar­ent indif­fer­ence to their sub­jects. Eth­i­cal truths are rel­a­tive to a par­tic­u­lar cul­ture and a par­tic­u­lar moment in his­to­ry. As film­mak­ers we need, at least to be aware of the full range of eth­i­cal con­sid­er­a­tions of the time in which we live.

In our dynam­ic era, cul­tures are under fero­cious pres­sure to change and change quick­ly. Many will dis­ap­pear. That is why anthro­pol­o­gy and ethno­graph­ic film­mak­ing are so impor­tant. We have learned over­time that anthro­po­log­i­cal stud­ies are not a one-way street but an exchange that involves a ‘social con­tract’ between ethno­g­ra­ph­er and the people being stud­ied, a con­tract which implies that in exchange for an inti­mate under­stand­ing of a cul­ture and the priv­i­lege of record­ing it, the ethno­g­ra­ph­er will do noth­ing to exploit or mis­rep­re­sent his or her sub­jects now or in the future.

Tim­o­thy Asch, born in 1932, is pro­fes­sor of Anthro­pol­o­gy at Uni­ver­si­ty of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia and direc­tor of the Anthro­pol­o­gy Depart­men­t’s Master Degree Pro­gram in Visual Anthro­pol­o­gy. He had taught anthro­pol­o­gy at Bran­deis and Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty; was a senior research fellow at the Depart­ment of Anthro­pol­o­gy and the Aus­tralian Nation­al Uni­ver­si­ty and has pur­sued a career in find­ing ways to best uti­lize visual media for anthro­po­log­i­cal research and teach­ing. To this end he has worked in 9 dif­fer­ent cul­tures, col­lab­o­rat­ing with 5 dif­fer­ent anthro­pol­o­gists to pro­duce or help­ing to pro­duce over 70 ethno­graph­ic films and he estab­lished an ethno­graph­ic film monog­ra­phy, recent­ly pub­lished by Cam­bridge Uni­ver­si­ty Press.