Reflections on an Ethnographic Film Festival

My friend and I slunk into the auditorium showing Kivalina because the line for a workshop held by a prominent filmmaker was tailing back into the café area and we didn’t have a hope in hell of getting in. But that’s the magic of serendipity. Turns out Kivalina was well worth the compromise as the film is a carefully, beautifully constructed story about the people who may become America’s first climate change refugees, perched on the edge of an Alaskan peninsula threatened by rising sea levels, their hunter-gatherer ancestors required by colonial policy to settle there 100 years before. 

A first timer to the Royal Anthropological Institute’s biannual Ethnographic Film Festival and a non-visual anthropologist, I had enjoyed the insights offered by visual colleagues on films we watched together. A critique that kept coming up in our conversations was the use of a narrative voice over to orientate viewers to the storyline. I’d exclaim, but I loved it! It was an amazing film! They would shake their heads. Too leading. Let the characters emerge. Trust the subjects. This is what ethnographic film making is at its best. Kivalina finally showed me what they meant. The film, produced, shot, and directed by Gina Abatemarco, demonstrated what a relationship based on warmth and intimacy between filmmaker and subject can generate. Scenes of everyday life inflected with the consequences of colonial displacement, climate change, inequality, and resilience. No voice over required.  

Moi, un noir was exhilarating. Stunningly photographed, and with a character driven voice over that gave me another angle on the narrative debate in ethnographic film.

The venue for the fifteenth occasion of the Festival was the Watershed Cinema in Bristol, a city whose history weaves together narratives of multi-racial port communities years before Windrush, tremendous civic wealth generated by the trans-Atlantic slave trade, trip hop, Banksy, and soaring ecclesiastical architecture. Open to the public, the venue drew in a more diverse crowd than the usual academic cohort, and the use of other other public arts spaces added to the sense that the insights offered by ethnographic film making could and should reach a wider audience. On Friday, The Arnolfini Contemporary Arts Centre was the setting for the keyote event of the Festival, a commemoration of French ethnographic film maker Jean Rouch, which included a screening and panel discussion of his most celebrated film, Moi, un noir (1958). I came with some trepidation, having only engaged with the work of Rouch through the lens of post-colonial critiques emerging from African film makers such as Ousmane Sembene. 

But Moi, un noir was exhilarating. Stunningly photographed, and with a character driven voice over that gave me another angle on the narrative debate in ethnographic film. Moi, un noir portrayed a day in the life in 1950s Abidjan for three young men from rural Niger, pulled along with thousands of others to the possibilities and opportunities offered by rapidly growing urban centres. A perfunctory reading located the film in its time; the choice of title and Rouch’s voice ‘setting the scene’ implied a white gaze, revealing much about the maker and intended audience. That the film was framed by Rouch as being a depiction of a raced experience also sidestepped the gendered dimensions of the film. As one viewer commented in an informal talk afterwards, the film would be more aptly titled ‘Tres Filhes’—Three Brothers—exploring as it does the energy, desires, adventures, and pain of young masculinity and fraternal friendship in a West African metropolis in the 1950s. This is an intersectional story, exploring the contours of a raced, classed, and gendered subjectivity, but its framing as a story about Blackness by a white film maker reveals much about Rouch’s location in a culture built on a separation from colonised ‘others.’

To reify Rouch as the solitary practitioner is to silence how his raced and gendered privilege was key to his success.

Yet, the opportunities to unpack these threads to offer a nuanced and relevant reading of the work were not taken up in the panel discussion. Worse, the panel actively articulated a series of statements rooted in practices that perpetuate the ongoing mythology of, to put it bluntly, white male supremacy in world making and representational practices. One statement in particular got me scrambling for Google to call loose-cannon fact slinging to account. A panel member, a well known scholar of Rouch’s work, made the bold claim that there were no African film makers working at the time of Moi, un noir’s production, and thus celluloid representation could only take place through the (white European) lens of Jean Rouch. 

The statement is located in a familiar colonial discourse that the white body brings expertise and mastery, passing it on to locals who can then make their own representations. This is ‘Junior Brother’ rhetoric at its worst. It is also, in the case of the 1950s context in which Moi, un noir was produced, untrue. Malick Sidibe, the celebrated Malian photographer, opened his photography studio in Bamako in 1958, the same year that Moi, un noir was released. Paulin Soumanou Vieyra and Mamadou Sarr made Afrique sur Seine, a film exploring the lives of West African students in Paris in 1955. Rouch’s work did not emerge in a vacuum. While the panel made some welcome, if brief, references to the critical conversations between Senagalese filmmaker Ousmane Sembene and Rouch (in which Sembene famously accused him and other ethnographers of looking at Africans  ‘like insects’), there remained a deep sense of an unbearably distorted discussion. When the perspectives and stories silenced in this space are revealed, the complex set of relationships in the making of Moi, un noir are made visible, straddling relations of mentorship and critique within the hierarchies of colonial relations and refusals of their limitations. As Vieyra pointed out, French colonial authorities in the first half of the twentieth century would refuse scholarships to aspiring African film students, arguing that priority should be given to the training of doctors and teachers (Pfaff 1992). Sembene praised Moi, un Noir as one of the films of Rouch’s that he admired, but with the caveat that it could have just as easily, and probably should have, been made by an African filmmaker. To reify Rouch as the solitary practitioner is to silence how his raced and gendered privilege was key to his success. This does not detract from the magnitude of his work—it aids in a more fulsome understanding of the context in which it is produced, and makes the struggles to participate in representational practice of others working at the same time all the more significant. 

We can not afford to waste time maintaining echo chambers that replicate power relations and representational narratives that were contested when they emerged, and continue to be contested now.

Sarah Ahmed has made the observation that it has become unfashionable to critique panels on the basis that they are made up entirely of white men, but not unfashionable to have panels made entirely of white men. In the context of this panel, a masculine whiteness becomes relevant because claims made to a position of expertise through the exclusion of other positions and subjectivities make it so glaringly obvious. Let us momentarily imagine how another kind of panel might have permitted a more satisfying discussion of Rouch’s work in the wider context of a flowering of West African modalities of visual representation including but not limited to Sidibe, Vieyra, Sarr, and Sembene, how it might have steered the conversation. Instead of reiterating a discourse of white male expertise, both in the composition of the panel of experts, and the reification of Rouch’s practice as somehow separate from its context, we could have explored how his work compels us to make visible all the actors present at this time. We could also have looked at how the innovative film making techniques developed in this time are influencing and inspiring ethnographic film makers in the contemporary moment. Rouch does continue to inspire. Feminist film making collective Rhiza, for instance, draws deeply on his methodology. 

As interest in ethnographic film grows in a wider audience, the RAI must think carefully about who participates in conversations, and the kinds of authoritative discourse that are produced by these conversations. We can not afford to waste time maintaining echo chambers that replicate power relations and representational narratives that were contested when they emerged, and continue to be contested now.   

Dominique Santos teaches at the University of the Free State.

Cite as: Santos, Dominique. 2017. “Reflections on an Ethnographic Film Festival.” Anthropology News website, October 5, 2017. doi: 10.1111/AN.626

Post a Comment

Want to comment? Please be aware that only comments from current AAA members will be approved. AN is supported by member dues, so discussions on anthropology-news.org are moderated to ensure that current members are commenting. As with all AN content, comments reflect the views of the person who submitted the comment only. The approval of a comment to go live does not signify endorsement by AN or the AAA.

Commenting Disclaimer

Want to comment? Please be aware that only comments from current AAA members will be approve. AN is supported by member dues, so discussions on anthropology-news.org are moderated to ensure that current members are commenting. As with all AN content, comments reflect the views of the person who submitted the comment only. The approval of a comment to go live does not signify endorsement by AN or the AAA.