Festival International du Film Ethnographique du Québec

Experimental Approaches to Ethnography

Artist Victor Arroyo and filmmaker Alisi Telengut hold together a panel about experimental approaches to ethnography. This panel revolved mainly around the notion of Iconophobia, a term coined by Lucien Taylor, which refers to the academic neglection to ethnographic films.

Victor: Festivals like this one, the Festival International du Film Ethnographique du Quebec need all the support from us, the makers, the artists, to make these films visible, for these films to be seen.

Ethnographic films, and particularly experimental ethnographic films, tend to be over-sighted or neglected in the universe of the film festival circuit. I think one of the reasons for this neglect has to be with the fact not only because their experimental nature – even though there are many festivals and audiences for experimental works-, but also because of their orphan origins. These films cannot be considered solely as documentary, or experimental, or ethnographic; neither can be regularly broadcasted or circulate in the educational circuit. They often leave us with more questions rather than answering our concerns. A common thread is that the makers, the directors—consciously or not—choose to be unseen in the films. Their gaze, their presence attempts to be concealed. Of course, given the nature of the cinema apparatus, this operation cannot be achieved completely. However, what’s interesting for me is not to evaluate how much these films truly represent the culture they are investigating, but rather to maybe talk about the cultural phenomenon that Lucien Taylor refers to as ‘Iconophobia’.

Since long ago there’s this tendency to give more importance to anthropological and ethnographic texts, rather than to their visuals or the moving image for that matter.

Anthropologists and ethnographers had heavily rejected the notion of truth or veracity on film, they don’t consider the film to be an important piece of evidence or to hold some sort of truth. In an essay called Anthropological Visions, written by Kirsten Hastrup, a Scandinavian Anthropologist, from a 1992 collection of essays titled Film as Ethnography, she says that “film is capable of producing no more than a thin description of happening. Text, on the other hand, can articulate a thick description of an event.” A happening, she says, has more cultural significance. In my experience when watching ethnographic films, I must say I agree a bit with these concerns. How can we, not only evaluate, but also how can we situate these films, within any kind of anthropological or ethnographic discourse?.

When directors very consciously choose to re-enact and introduce characters and folk tales and interviews and so on, creating some sort of collage, and we, as a rather specialized audience react to these films from a more conservative position, trying to be strictly anthropological, most of times we say that these films don’t hold any ethnographic truth, in a conventional conception of truth. But if we consider experimental ethnographic films, more as a sensorial experience rather than a truthful representation of a given culture, probably we can have a richer intelectual experience.

For example, Alisi’s Telengut ‘Tengri’ can be an extremely difficult film to situate as an ethnographic film, mainly because she’s not an ethnographer and she wasn’t on site for an ethnographic investigation. From a classical perspective it will be hard to fit her film within the conventional ethnographic discourse. Alisi is Mongolese and she’s familiar with Mongolese traditions because they were passed on to her mainly from her family and her grandmother. Her research is oral history-based. So we have these questions of “is it that valid?” Is this a vehicle for validation of cultural representation, or how can we evaluate this practice?. I don’t know if you have a question for her, or…

Question: So your intention was not an ethnographical or anthropological intention, then what was it?.

Alisi: I didn’t witness everything, my grandmother told me about this story when I was very young. And then later my family also told me the same story, so one day I decided: “Okay, I’m going to make an animated film on this story.” Because, this kind of nomadic lifestyle is gradually disappearing, so I think it’s important to record it. Even though I didn’t witness it, I want with my own understanding, make a film on this subject.

Q: Did you find that, because you’re animating, you had the freedom to get to a deeper representation?.

A: Yes. Actually I found it’s kind of personal. Emotionally it’s personal, because my grandfather died when I was young, and he wasn’t buried in that way. So when I was animating, I was thinking about him, I wished I was the girl the film and my grandfather was the character in the film. So I was thinking like that, yeah.

Q: I was thinking, you were commenting on re-enactment in film and the use of fictional aspects. Is it new? I don’t think it’s new.

Victor: No I don’t think it’s new, actually, documentary was born that way, right?. Nanook of the North which is the first documentary feature, as most film text books consider it to be, it’s a complete re-enactment.

I think documentary filmmaking was born with that original sin, which is the sin of misrepresentation and exploitation. As directors, we always try to go around those problems and say “yeah, we have a great relationship with our subjects, we are not exploiting them, etc,” but in my opinion we are always exploiting, and we are always not completely telling the truth if there’s a truth. We are dealing with cinema apparatus, which involves not only technological aspects but also ethical aspects. When we are there and we are manipulating the camera in a certain way and we are manipulating the sound and we have editing and when we are further into post-production we are manipulating the material into a narrative form, and obviously life has no narrative. I truly acknowledge that. I know there are some filmmakers that they kind of—and I’m not trying to diminish them—go around that question of misrepresentation and justify their actions saying “well, we’ve become friends with our subjects, and we tried to be honest with the material, etc.,” which, I think, has no relationship whatsoever to the issue of veracity. I think documentary filmmaking was born with the problematic issues of veracity and exploitation. For example, when I present my work nobody asks about these issues, and my work is full of re-enactments. Does that matter, is it more truthful or not?. I don’t really feel it matters much, as long as you stay true with your theme or with what you want to express. I would never lie about it.

I remember the case with a character I was documenting, he would just stare at the street from his window in his apartment, and I saw him doing that, I don’t know, 20 times maybe?. I think it’s a great shot, but I never had the camera on when he was doing that, so what about if we try to re-enact that a little bit?, and yes, we did. He re-enacted it for me. We will always have these questions of veracity. In this particular example my justification for that re-enactment is that regardless, I was there with him all the time, a relationship was build between us and he was confident with my use of the material. In the case of Alisi since the very beginning, since it’s animation, she’s saying “I wasn’t there, and I’m not trying to represent anything that I witnessed.”

This group of experimental ethnographers based in the states, they just released a film that is called ‘Leviathan’ that has very good reviews, and what they reject in documentary filmmaking practices in general, it’s that it’s so discursive and language-based. We’re talking about documentary. So thinking in that light, I think they’re right. When we are watching any—just think about the latest documentary feature you have seen in TV— it’s almost as if the filmmakers are telling us “well, this is the story, and this is a character, and this is what happened, and my point of view about this issue is this, and I think this is this, and so on…”, however this group of filmmakers, they are actually trying to do the opposite, which is to heavily reject the notion of constructing a documentary narrative with a language-based structure. If an anthropologist 100 years from now comes back and take a look at our films, I think he will have the same questions we have now “ oh, ok, we have this evidence of the representation of a culture, can we use it as a source for knowledge?” I really don’t know what the answer will be, or if academics 100 years from now will consider films as a primary source, or if they will go the other way around. I cannot say. Film is a very young language, in 100 years… I don’t know. I don’t know if we still have time, are we running out of time?.