Panel Discussion

Creative Ethnography of Beings and Things

The films by Judith and David Mac­Dougall have had a deci­sive impact on the work of the Sen­so­ry Ethnog­ra­phy Lab. Lucien Cas­taing-Taylor, the founder and direc­tor of the SEL, is the editor of MacDougall’s Tran­scul­tur­al Cinema (1998) and wrote an intro­duc­tion which pro­vides a kind of survey of the state of audio­vi­su­al anthro­pol­o­gy at the turn of the mil­len­ni­um. With J.P. Sni­adec­ki, one of the most pro­duc­tive film­mak­ers to grad­u­ate from the lab, and David Mac­Dougall as our spe­cial guest at the freiburg film forum, we are excit­ed to have them togeth­er in a panel that will dis­cuss the sim­i­lar­i­ties and dif­fer­ences between their respec­tive positions.

The panel will be chaired by Hen­ning Engelke, the author of a recent com­pre­hen­sive work on ethno­graph­ic film called Doku­men­tarfilm und Fotografie. Bild­strate­gien in der englis­chsprachi­gen Eth­nolo­gie (2007).

Hen­ning Engelke is a member of the Insti­tute of Art His­to­ry of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Frank­furt. Pub­li­ca­tions: The Art That Never Was. US-amerikanis­ch­er Exper­i­men­tal­film 1940 – 1960 (pend­ing); Film als Raumkun­st. Aktuelle Meth­o­d­en und his­torische Per­spek­tiv­en (co-editor, 2012).

The iron ministry

P. Sni­adec­ki, who lived in China for a long time and trav­elled all over the coun­try by train, con­densed the results of these ethno­graph­ic excur­sions into a mul­ti­far­i­ous and col­or­ful film. The entire cosmos of this part of the world can be found in the trou­bles, sto­ries, hopes, and expec­ta­tions of people from all walks of life moving amidst heavy lug­gage, small chil­dren, strict rail­way con­duc­tors and chick­ens flying around. Out­side is the vast, expan­sive for­eign coun­try. (Vien­nale)

Sni­adec­ki offers a for­mal­ly con­trolled look at the range of class­es, the implied changes wrought by China’s eco­nom­ic boom, and the inter­ac­tions par­tic­u­lar to train travel. Refresh­ing­ly, Sni­adec­ki allows the film — or rather, some pas­sen­gers — to engage in pol­i­tics, from the rights of minori­ties to eco­nom­ic pres­sures. While cere­bral in intent and plan­ning, the pic doesn’t feel overly strait­jack­et­ed by theory and offers unex­pect­ed moments of amuse­ment.” (Jay Weiss­berg, Variety)

The train’s roar is a con­stant, inter­rupt­ed by some amaz­ing mono­logues and con­ver­sa­tions: a young woman, work weary, musing about how nice it would be to do noth­ing than eat and sleep all day; a con­ver­sa­tion about the par­tic­u­lars of Muslim life in the outer provinces, and a young boy’s daz­zling­ly nihilis­tic parody of a train conductor’s set­ting-off speech.” (

Foreign Parts

A hidden enclave in the shadow of the New York Mets’ new sta­di­um, the neigh­bor­hood of Wil­lets Point is an indus­tri­al zone fated for demo­li­tion. Filled with scrap­yards and auto sal­vage shops, lack­ing side­walks or sewage lines, the area seems ripe for urban devel­op­ment. But For­eign Parts dis­cov­ers a strange com­mu­ni­ty where wrecks, refuse and recy­cling form a thriv­ing com­merce. Cars are stripped, sorted and cat­a­logued by brand and part, then resold to an end­less parade of drive-thru cus­tomers. Joe, the last orig­i­nal res­i­dent, rages and ral­lies through the street like a lost King Lear, trying to con­test his immi­nent evic­tion. Two lovers, Sara and Luis, strug­gle for food and safety through the winter while living in an aban­doned van. Julia, the home­less queen of the junk­yard, exalts in her beatif­ic visions of daily life among the for­got­ten. The film observes and cap­tures the strug­gle of a con­test­ed “emi­nent domain” neigh­bor­hood before its dis­ap­pear­ance under the cap­i­tal­iza­tion of New York’s urban ecol­o­gy. (