The Relationship Between Film and Anthropology, Essay Example

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Essay

The relationship between film and anthropology is one that is long lasting and in many ways could be described as a love/hate encounter. This is in part due the nature of the anthropologist to preserve artifacts as remnants of culture, while film with all of its manipulating factors can also be perceived as artifact in its own right. There is also the concept of the anthropologist as a contributor to the production of films, which are recognized as documentations of historical relevance; while at the same time hand the anthropologist plays in the creation of these documents is an undeniable compromise of the integrity of the process.  The ultimate question that comes into play when assessing the relationship between anthropology and film is can film preserve human culture on its own or is the anthropologist a necessary part of the artifact and dialogue?

Margaret Mead wrote in ‘Visual Anthropology in a Discipline of Words,’ that:

Anthropology, as a conglomerate of disciplines—variously named and constituted in different countries as cultural anthropology, social anthropology, ethnology, ethnography, archaeology, linguistics physical anthropology, folklore, social history, and human geography—has both implicitly and explicitly accepted the responsibility of making and preserving records of the vanishing customs and human beings of this earth…The recognition that forms of human behavior still extant will inevitably disappear has been part of our whole scientific and humanistic heritage.  There have never been enough workers to collect the remnants of these worlds… (Mead, p3)

This is a mouthful, and a lot to grasp, but at the heart of this statement resides both her personal relationship with the field of anthropology and the universal truth of human existence.  Her ability to romanticize the work is undeniable, but what is also undeniable is the true value of the work itself. Mead identifies the role of the anthropologist as a preserver of what will inevitably run out, human existence. If Mead is correct, and human existence on this planet will ultimately be extinct along with its history, then film as an artifact and anthropological-educational tool becomes more valuable than the anthropologist, as film is able to reach where the anthropologist cannot. When one is placing value on global and historical human culture, and its preservation as artifact, language comes into play as both a cultural signifier and a limitation. Anthropologists are limited by their language, whichever language they choose to communicate. Film is not limited by language. The observer is free to interpret film in whatever language they see fit. There is also a downside in the relationship between anthropology and film that has to do with the misconceptions of the untrained eye.

Visual anthropology, a subset of cultural anthropology, is specifically focused on the creation of ethnographic photography, film and new media, and how cultures are historically represented and documented through these forms.  The field identifies film less as an art form and more a tool to learn and better understand the world, but what happens when the viewer is uneducated, or already misinformed with preconceived notions. Prior to film in anthropology, it was entirely the responsibility of the anthropologist to articulate things like uniquely human cultural traits, language oral and written, games, sports and recreational activities of other human societies. Anthropologists, prior to the advent of photography, were both historians and educators. Communicating concepts like technology and tools, and how when those tools are used for transforming nature into the satisfaction of needs, it generates additional needs, were complex and has to be taught in the process of being passed on. When film came along, these concepts were immediately implied and put on display. The anthropologist was no longer looked to solely as the preserver of these cultures or the source of articulation. Audiences were free to misinterpret as they saw fit. Aspects of all human societies like religion/spirituality, systems of food production, arts and aesthetics, sexuality and the complex emotions that come with it, traditions, or war were all shot directly into the eyes of the viewer for their interpretation, with no disclaimer. This is not to suggest that when sharing the traditions of past cultures with the modern world that people need to be coddled, but there is something to be said for the value of perspective Mead mentions in her quote. There is an undeniable difference in how information will be interpreted when it’s relayed by a scholar who has studied and embraced the methodology documenting and preserving human existence, verses just being viewed in a production. Films have their weak points.

In his publication “Exposing yourself: Reflexivity, anthropology and film” Jay Ruby talks about the practice of anthropologist/ filmmakers to exclude themselves from the film in an attempt to maintain anthropological integrity. There is much more complexity in the relationship between anthropology and film than is initially on the surface. Take the documentary film for example, Ruby notes that, “filmmakers and anthropologists included, to present a communicative product and to exclude any information about the other two components-producer and process. The revelation of these two was unusual and thought to be nonessential and even inappropriate (Ruby, p162).” This opens up the avenue for distrust. One must wonder is it better for the anthropologist to be deceptively a part of documentary or excluded entirely. This is not true of all anthropological films, as we see with the film Nanook of the North, where the director makes it an important introductory part of the film to explain the plight of the main character, Nanook, before the film has even started, but in doing so also bring his own involvement into the story.  “To reveal the producer was thought to be narcissistic, overly personal, subjective, and even unscientific. The revelation of process was deemed to be untidy, ugly, and confusing to an audience (Ruby, p162).” Here Ruby demonstrates how the common view among anthropologist of the audience was one where the audience was deemed as needing to be coddled and protected from the truth as though they would have great difficulty handling it. As undermining as this perspective shared by many in the anthropological community may be, when it comes to the modern world interpreting visual artifacts, the anthropologist may have some reason to be overprotective.

David MacDougall retraces the foundation of anthropology and its visual interpretation in his work “The visual in anthropology.” The main point of his study is that at the point of photography becoming a key educational and research tool for anthropologists, there began to grow a distinctive difference between how modern culture interpreted these images and how they were understood within academia. MacDougall notes that, “Anthropology has had no lack of interest in the visual; its problem has always been what to do with it (MacDougall, p.276).” Very often images in National Geographic are referenced within popular modern culture very differently than they are in academic circles, or by the very people who take the pictures in the first place. MacDougall touches on this concept as well he noted that,“ For a general public imbued with ideas of social Darwinism, the visual appearance of exotic peoples was the most obvious way of placing them on a scale between civilized man and animal (MacDougall, p278).” MacDougall notes that while modern society viewed these images in this limited light, the anthropological world saw something much deeper, noting that, “Pictures became a substitute for more abstract or esoteric knowledge, which in any case was now beginning to contradict evolutionary theory (‘primitive languages, for example, were now recognized as highly complex) (MacDougall, p279).” Traits modern culture views as primitive, MacDougall points out are actually the exact opposite, “Features such as nakedness and the use of animal products (feathers, skin, hair and bones), communicated by means of photographs and visible artifacts in museums and magazine illustrations, became symbolic indicators of how close people were to nature (Macdougall, p279).” There is undoubtedly a key difference between how these visual artifacts film, photography, and online media, are viewed by the public verses how they are perceived by those seeking to preserve their authentic value.

In sum, similar to the way anthropologist view human culture as the last of a dying breed, it can be said this is also how they view their field. On one hand, they are the preservers of a methodology built on the documenting the fading trends of man; and on the other hand they have a vested interest in how those trends or perceived within their own academic circles. Film and photography, the visual representation of anthropology, has empowered the anthropologist to preserve what Mead identifies as the inevitable extinction of humanity, but it has also taken the anthropologist out of the equation as untrained eyes are now allowed to assess for themselves the value and meaning of these visuals. The old saying ‘a picture says a thousand words’ is taken literally in this equation, and the view of the anthropologist is just one articulation among the many. As MacDougall pointed out when photography was first utilized as a tool to document human culture, the bulk of society merely viewed the images as a Darwinian metric scaling the relation between primitive to civilized. Anthropologists, however took this opportunity to look deeper and recognize the affinity other cultures shared with nature and instead of looking at many lost culture as primitive, they were identified as more spiritually advanced. If anything film has created a dynamic where the preserver of authentic perspective is outnumbered by misconception.

Work Cited

Mead, Margarete. “Visual Anthropology in a Discipline of Words “<retrieved from>http://www.wou.edu/~smithr/369%20VISUAL%20ANTHROPOLOGY/Readings/2A1_Mead_in_a_discipline.pdf

MacDougall, David. “The Visual in Anthropology.” Rethinking visual anthropology University Press, London. 1997. 276-295

RUBY, JAY . “Exposing yourself: Reflexivity, anthropology, and film.” Semiotica 30-1/2 (1980). pages. 153-179.

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