“I am teaching a class on topic X. Can anyone recommend a film to show that addresses this subject?” This is a typical question increasingly posed to many scholarly listservs, particularly ones with a visual focus. Usually within a few hours or days a list of some sort is collectively suggested. Yet rarely, if ever, is there a discussion about how a film can be integrated into scholarly dialogue or put in conversation with readings. This column is intended to intervene at precisely this point – to bring attention to visual works (primarily non-fiction film but also, on occasion, fictional films and other visual materials) that we find to be of direct relevance to topics discussed and taught in anthropology today. Our broader goal is to develop ways of putting those works into conversation with anthropological research.
So to begin with we would like to solicit your input. Is there a subject you teach where you’ve wondered what documentaries might be out there? Please send us an email: eyetoethnography “at” gmail.com.
Or have you made a film that addresses a key theme in anthropology and/or ethnographic methods that you want to see reviewed and engaged with, rather than merely summarized? Again, let us know.
Perhaps you’re planning to organize a film screening series at your institution or in your community in order to raise awareness and attention to the value of anthropological perspectives on issues of contemporary concern. We’d love to hear from you and to think through the possibilities together.
While we all know how to conduct a literature review on a new topic we are researching or teaching, why is it harder to find visual work being produced by anthropologically-minded scholars and artists? One reason for this is that in the rare case when an anthropologist refers to a film in an article not on a visual topic per se, he or she typically does so only in the body of the article. A scene from the film might be used as an illustration, often as the hook in the opening vignette, but there is usually no mention of the film’s theoretical engagements, ethnographic methods or interventions into anthropological questions. And rarer still is it to find the film referenced as a work cited, making it more difficult for the film to be tracked down by another scholar. Despite this, as many of our students are well aware, some kinds of visual materials are more accessible than ever. Online streaming, whether openly accessible through sites like YouTube or via institutional subscriptions such as with Alexander Street Press, ought to play a much larger role in the future of film and anthropology for both teaching and research.
Finally, beyond bringing specific films to the attention of a broader anthropological audience, we want this space to foster an ongoing conversation not only about what is “out there,” but also about the processes and predilections of film making in, by, and with anthropology today. What drives the visual impulse in ethnography, and how might this speak to literature on the anthropology of affect, memory, and the body? Or, more concretely, what are the politics and pragmatics of film curation and selection, given the increasing number of documentary film festivals around the world?
We are both cultural anthropologists who have made films, reviewed films, written about visual anthropology and conducted research on the production and circulation of various kinds of images. Our motivation for this column began in a shared desire to talk more directly about how our own filmmaking projects have influenced our research, rather than to simply accept image-making as no more and no less than just another part of ethnographic practice today. We also hope to contribute to conversations about visual media as scholarship rather than illustration or worse yet decoration.
After years of leaving a screening thinking “Well, that film was problematic or beautiful or dull or captivating, but it would be great for teaching in an anthropology class,” the Eye to Ethnography column will be a place where we take on the challenge of articulating what we mean by that. We hope you’ll join the conversation.
Eye to Ethnography, aims to increase knowledge of and conversations about visual work in anthropological scholarship and teaching. Jenny Chio and Zeynep Gürsel welcome suggestions on topics/themes to address, films/visual projects to review, and filmmakers/scholars to profile — email them at email@example.com