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.