Good reasons not to stick to the straight and narrow

Picturing Culture

五月 10, 2002

Jay Ruby's exploration of film and anthropology is a single-minded quest to define one kind of ethnographic film-making, although, luckily, Ruby often strays, engagingly and informatively, into other territories. It consists of essays written and published over the past 20 years in which the author has been "refining the same ideas" during his entire professional life. His mission and that of his book is stated clearly and succinctly and becomes something of a leitmotif.

Anthropological film is "designed by anthropologists to communicate anthropological knowledge", and anthropologists are "academics who have received formal graduate training". Thus anthropology is presumably what anthropologists do. There is a tight circularity to Ruby's statements: anthropological films should be filmed anthropology by and for anthropologists. But Ruby is writing on two levels: on what anthropological films should be, and on what they are taken to be today. Ruby has an almost missionary zeal to re-educate us about the possibility of a truly anthropological film. To this end, anthropologists should acquire a "rudimentary understanding of video production and editing" and acquire visual means to convey their knowledge. If this were a matter of creating a kind of scientific documentary, then Ruby would not have bothered, but he claims that what goes under "ethnographic film" today falls outside his prescription.

What would films of the approved genre look like? Here the script is less sure-footed. Several precursors are commended for practices: much of Robert Flaherty, less of Dziga Vertov. A few contemporary practitioners are approved: much of Jean Rouch and John Marshall, less of Tim Asch and even less of David and Judith MacDougall, but all of the 1960s experiments of Sol Worth. There are lots of exhortations: anthropological filming should be ethical, self-critical and reflexive. Reflexivity is at the heart of Ruby's project, to the extent that all the films should be stories anthropologists tell about other people's (their subjects') stories. Such films would "divorce themselves from the current world of documentary/ethnographic film practice", especially realism and artistry of all kinds. Their makers would also succeed in developing a method to convey anthropological knowledge.

Ruby devotes chapters to the work of Flaherty, Asch, Eric Michaels and Robert Gardner. There are also numerous references to Rouch and Marshall, who come in for least criticism, and who share Ruby's stamp of approval for long-term field involvement with the same group of people. Ruby also approves of "indigenous" people filming themselves, ethnographers exposing a lot of research footage, anthropologists collaborating with the people they work with, and documentary film-makers such as Barbara Kopple and Jill Godmillow for their self-reflexive methods. But for Ruby none of these efforts qualifies as truly anthropological films.

He delivers neither a genre nor a theory, and he dismisses a vast body of work. Tellingly, he devotes most effort to film-makers' intentions and the production histories of particular films, with a lot of painstakingly assembled textual and archival references (undeniably worthwhile from those points of view), but never a detailed study of a single film or set of films. For all his approving account of Flaherty's filming of Nanook of the North , Ruby never discusses the film itself. Mostly he applies a pre-calibrated measuring rod, with many films receiving one or two lines of treatment, others even less, and with some errors and omissions. Perhaps reflecting these priorities, there is no filmography, although the bibliography is excellent. Finally, there is no discussion of Ruby's own venture into ethnographic filming: the book cover credits him with the co-production of two "award-winning ethnographic documentaries", which we learn little about.

Nevertheless, the collection is valuable. It will be a useful teaching aid, provoking students to examine the issues of combining film and anthropology; conducting forays into neglected histories of ethnographic film production; discussing funding sources, festivals, distribution; and providing critiques of positivism and the more extreme intellectual fads in literary, film and cultural studies. The drawback is that Ruby recognises one way of ethnographic film-making and one only. I am ambivalent towards Ruby's passionate, erratic work: on the one hand, there is room for restricted, professional films much like those in chemistry, geology and biology, but if that is what Ruby wants, why all the fuss? On the other hand, Ruby seems to reach for something wider and more ambitious that looks suspiciously like the films that the MacDougalls - and yes, Gardner - have been making for years. But then Ruby only partially approves of the MacDougalls and not at all of Gardner. In one of his more reflective moments, Ruby notes that "we need to see the world from as many perspectives as possible". Indeed.

Akos Ostör is professor of anthropology and film, Wesleyan University, United States, and has co-directed two films on Tanzania.

Picturing Culture: Explorations of Film and Anthropology

Author - Jay Ruby
ISBN - 226 73099 9 and 73098 0
Publisher - University of Chicago Press
Price - £28.00 and £12.00
Pages - 339



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