Roundtable participants (Ilisa Barbash, John Bishop, Karma Foley, Jake Homiak, Guha Shankar, David Rowntree) break off into small group discussions. Photo courtesy Frank Aveni

Exploring Ethnographic Film Archiving Today

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Alice Apley
Alijah Case


Last spring, a group of 20 notable archivists, anthropologists, filmmakers and others concerned with the future of ethnographic media met at Harvard’s Peabody Museum for the Roundtable on Ethnographic Film Archiving. The day-long meeting, convened by Documentary Educational Resources (DER), took place on May 23, 2013 and was made possible by a grant from the National Science Foundation’s Cultural Anthropology Program. DER’s relationship with NSF dates back to the production of several of DER’s signature films, most notably works in the Yanomamo series by DER co-founder Tim Asch and Napoleon Chagnon, which were NSF funded. Tim Asch and John Marshall founded DER together in 1968 for the purpose of producing and distributing ethnographic film, and as a home for the innovative short films they were developing for the classroom.

Alice Apley, begins the day by discussing desired outcomes and agenda for the Roundtable.Photo courtesy Frank Aveni

Alice Apley begins the day by discussing desired outcomes and agenda for the Roundtable. Photo courtesy Frank Aveni

In the 40 plus years since then, DER has grown its collection to over 1000 films, and has adapted its film formats and viewing options—making films available first as 16mm, then VHS, DVD and BluRay, as well as master formats such as Betacam—to ensure access for use in classrooms, for community screenings, and for broadcasters and exhibitors. While streaming platforms have created new opportunities for accessibility—and have been embraced by DER as essential to making our films available—we know we can’t rely on third parties to be attentive to the sensitive details and contexts of the films, or look after the interests of the field. We recognize that DER needs to organize our holdings using available tools, and explore new possibilities for information and image sharing. It was in this light that we felt it important to formally connect with the field. As NSF had supported some of DER’s founding collection, it seemed fitting DER should reach out to the Cultural Anthropology Program at this time for funding as we began to chart a course to support anthropological research through improved accessibility and archiving of our collection in the changing media landscape.

The roundtable was convened with a two-fold purpose: (1) to field ideas specifically related to the development of an ethnographic film database; and (2) to begin a discipline-wide discussion of priorities and concerns regarding the preservation, storage, and accessibility of ethnographic films and videos. In a variety of small and large group discussions, participants addressed concrete issues such as specific design suggestions relevant to an ethnographic film archive, and voiced other concerns for the field including the desire for greater interconnectivity between disparate collections; opportunities for increased accessibility to ethnographic collections by the individuals and the descendents of those whose lives and communities are documented in the films; and need for greater dialogue about archiving and preservation practices.

Archivist David Rowntree explains PBCore archival model, Sharon Pucker Rivo, founder of the National Center for Jewish Film, on his left. Photo courtesy Frank Aveni

Archivist David Rowntree explains PBCore archival model, Sharon Pucker Rivo, founder of the National Center for Jewish Film, on his left. Photo courtesy Frank Aveni

Roundtable participants (Ilisa Barbash, John Bishop, Karma Foley, Jake Homiak, Guha Shankar, David Rowntree) break off into small group discussions. Photo courtesy Frank Aveni

Roundtable participants (Ilisa Barbash, John Bishop, Karma Foley, Jake Homiak, Guha Shankar, David Rowntree) break off into small group discussions. Photo courtesy Frank Aveni

For DER staff, we were particularly interested in learning about our colleagues’ experiences with database development. We feel that DER’s current operational needs can serve as a catalyst for fulfilling a long-standing interest in a comprehensive ethnographic film resource. Better organization and cataloguing of our film assets in such a database would allow us to better serve our constituents. The DER website receives over 18,000 unique visitors each month; one-fifth of whom are returning visitors, many of whom we know are searching to identify films for classrooms, museums and screenings. Our search tools are dated and the film information currently available, such as the date of a DVD release, is not always sufficient to meet the needs of a researcher or programmer who might be interested in the date materials were shot, or information about different versions of a title. Thus, we need to begin the task of organizing our film metadata—culling information such as a film’s title or titles, names of directors, producers, researchers, year of production and release, filmmaking technologies used, information about the research context, locations, crews, subjects, and historical happenings.

The roundtable discussions surfaced information about what kinds of data were of interest to our colleagues and to their constituents. While some of the archivists were most interested in filling in holes in missing data for existing films, the filmmakers present tended to be more interested in how to capture information in real time as part of the production process moving forward. While some suggested the value of creating complete records about particular films of historical interest, others stressed the value of creating a model for the kinds of documentation valuable for future projects, conveying, for instance, the importance of records about the conditions and context surrounding a particular shoot. A general feeling was a desire for extensive documentation of the larger social, political, and personal contexts in which a film was made or a scene was shot, which raised questions about the limits of a database to accommodate this kind of information.

Clara Henderson (left) and Karan Sheldon engaged in lively Roundtable debate. Photo courtesy Frank Aveni

Clara Henderson (left) and Karan Sheldon engaged in lively Roundtable debate. Photo courtesy Frank Aveni

For those of us at DER, the discussion helped us better articulate the range of search capabilities and of content which might be accommodated in such a resource. Informed and energized by these discussions, we have moved forward with our database development. DER Board member and archivist, Karma Foley, has drafted a preliminary metadata schema and cataloging guide for a new DER database. This is essentially an outline of the various fields of information and types of data which would be entered into them. With the semester-long assistance of Laura Alhach Castro, a student intern completing her degree in anthropology, we have developed new subject categories and genre and technique terms for improving the searchability and categorization of our films. As part of this process, we reviewed approximately 100 films, and are now ready to apply the system to the remaining 900 titles. These efforts were directly informed by the roundtable discussions and a clearer understanding of the need to support searches for identifying the right film to introduce students to a particular culture or anthropological theme in the classroom, as well as the very specific questions that might arise from a research query. Thus, we have developed a system involving both broad subject categories and fine-grained keywords to meet the needs of different kinds of inquiries and searches.

The discussion also re-affirmed for us the unique position of DER—at the intersection of filmmakers, researchers, nonprofits, educators and archivists—and encouraged us to think about how we can better leverage our connections across these groups to support the field. Some of the ideas and suggestions have been easy to act upon. For example, since the roundtable, we have looked for ways to generate additional supporting materials for our films and have begun posting filmmaker interviews on our website, as podcasts or transcripts. However, other suggestions will take more time to move forward. We learned from participants from the National Center for Jewish Film that, like us, filmmakers often think—because of the extent of our collections—that preservation work is simply a part of our distribution work. We realize now that we need to better communicate what we are and are not able to do in terms of preservation. While we do not have the resources or proper storage for film preservation, we do work to ensure that information about the production and circulation of films in our catalog, as well as any still photography, trailers or other materials we have, are archived and accessible to DER staff and constituents. Furthermore, we work closely with filmmakers engaged in re-mastering and/or re-releasing older titles to help facilitate the preservation and restoration of their films. We help to find long-term homes for the films in the Human Studies Film Archives, Harvard Film Archives, and others with which we regularly collaborate.

While there was an undercurrent of longings for an earlier era in which there was a stronger sense of an ethnographic film community, there was great excitement about creative approaches to engaging new audiences in historical materials, implementing native taxonomies, and generating new kinds of data through re-engagement with materials by contemporary individuals whose communities have been documented, as well as the possibilities for engaging with new documentary forms. Concerns were raised on the one hand, about the negative associations with the term “ethnographic film” based on colonial-era power relations, and on the other, the way in which the term “ethnographic” has lost its distinction following adoption by other disciplines and practices. Despite these complications, participants reaffirmed the value of a long-term commitment to a field site and the ethical considerations and collaborative approaches that have been fostered by anthropological filmmaking as crucial contributions to both anthropology and to the practice of documentary filmmaking more broadly. Yet another set of concerns emerged around the multiplicity of images about other cultures and new practices of remixing media. Rather than wishing such remixing would simply go away, some participants were interested in seeking out opportunities to set the terms for the recirculation of media, and engaging audiences in questions of image ethics in this new media environment.

The high-energy meeting suggested there is great enthusiasm surrounding online platforms and archiving tools for organizing and linking disparate collections and improving access to ethnographic films for researchers, community audiences, and anyone interested. The funding DER received from the National Science Foundation offered an opportunity to reflect on the transformations in the field since the heyday of funding for ethnographic film in the 20th century, and helped focus a set of concerns and priorities. The day was just the beginning of fruitful conversations and projects that lie ahead.

Alice Apley is executive director of Documentary Educational Resources.

Alijah Case is communications and outreach associate at Documentary Educational Resources.

For the latest columns on news from the NSF, visit AN’s Gateway to NSF column.

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