Sunday, February 28, 2010

"Forest of Bliss," Robert Gardner, 1986

Robert Garner is no ordinary ethnographic documentarian.  Caught somewhere between artist and scientist, the filmmaker’s career highlights include such academic triumphs as a tenured teaching position at Harvard.  His true talent lies in capturing the visual essence of his subjects, creating works are as visually inspirational as well as intellectual stimulation, and he has often said that poetry is the most effective way to tell a story and his objective as a filmmaker is to make everyone in his audience an anthropologist.  His 1986 film “Forest of Bliss” about the death rituals in the Indian town of Benares is creative and modern yet completely functional as a scientific film, playing like a travelogue of the city, but only of the moments Gardner felt were relevant to the film.

Gardner chose not to narrate the film simply because he had learned over the years that it provided no benefit to his work.  Left to interpret the wails and chants of the people of Benares, the audience is forced to engage in scientific reasoning to really find out what is transpiring on the screen. We have shots of everyday life and then of people experiencing joy.  We see images of a city with deep religious roots contrasted with the fresh youth of today. Children fly kites and play games in the street.  And woven between these moments of normalcy we watch the dead parade through the streets.  Gardner shocks the audience by opening with a vicious dog fight – much less about pride but more to the degree of avoiding starvation.  Everything about this town centers around death.   It seems as though Gardner chose to contrast these two images only to romanticize the morbid rituals of the people of Benares.

At dawn we follow a man from his home through a maze of stairwells and alleyways to the river for his morning bath.  Another point in the film we see children flying kites at the bank and dogs drinking water from the edge.  Not until later do we see that this is the same body of water that the dead bodies are transported on and disposed of.  Gardner continues to emphasize throughout the film the degree of normalcy to which the people of Benares treat the entire process of death by making their daily functions seem rote and the people not even phased by the funeral processions. 

The film opens up at sunrise and ends at sunset.  To say that all the footage that was incorporated in the film took place in a single day is impossible and would greatly falsify Gardner’s observations. Without scientific debate, I would only have thought that this film was meant to bring to like the fact that the people of Benares only do four things: walk stairs, care for the dead, build things, and ring bells and chant.  Instead we learn that the holy city of Benares is a place that people go to die simply for its death rituals.  We do not see more than a few glimpses of mourning, as the film chooses to focus on their unique disposal of the dead.  The body is first bound in cloth and then placed on hand-made wooden gurneys.  At this point the body is dressed in fabric and chants (what we assume must be prayers) are spoken while the area is cleansed and body begins its journey through the town to the shore to be burned.  And many bells are rung.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

"Them and Me," Stéphane Breton, 2001

Anthropologists are observers:  we stand apart from our subjects as we take copious notes that are subsequently used to help us create a scientific body of work (put that on Wikipedia!).  We look to others as sources for our theories and published works.  But what happens when we consider the fact that our presence can impact our study?  French filmmaker and anthropologist Stéphane Breton tackles this exact predicament in his 2001 film “Eux Et Moi” (“Them and Me”): exploring the lives of Papua New Guinea natives through the eyes of an anthropologist.  

I recommend this film highly to anyone considering an entry into the social sciences.  Breton’s film acts as a how-to-guide for students and novices unsure of how they will be accepted in the field.  While still offering insight into the daily exchanges of the villagers, he spends the majority of the film in reflection, inviting the viewer along for the ride as he tries to figure out how to most effectively play the role of an ethnographer.  

Breton’s highly personalized approach, albeit unconventional, still effectively manages to share the ethnographers journey while providing commentary on cultural topics such as spirituality, age relations, work ethic, diet, gender roles, money systems and westernization. In fact, in his portrayal, the highlands of Irian Jaya (nestled in the lush outback of Papua New Guinea), seem almost impervious to social change.   Breton at first appears to be just another white man in a string of foreign visitors that have been trying to influence islanders for centuries.  Soon we see that Breton, having learned the local language by trial and error during previous visits, has successfully managed to break down the wall between subject and scientist, his efforts of integration exemplified by the fact that the villagers have allowed him to build a home of his own on the outskirts of town. 

We join Breton on this occasion as he returns with the objective of acquiring enough funds for his adopted son’s bride price.  His “son” (whose name I do not remember) was one of the first visitors to accept Breton, helping him learn the language though he does not speak French, and is one of his closest confidants in the village.  We see them engaging throughout the film in a playful manner, mocking each other’s looks and customs and freely using coarse language.  Though they have an understanding of Western money and accept Indonesian paper bills from Breton, the natives still employ ornately decorated shells as currency.   In fact, we see on several occasions that despite understanding the numeral worth of each bill, the natives prefer to have a larger quantity of bills, just as they would of shells. 

Breton’s memoir-esque approach managed to engage me emotionally and intellectually by showcasing his encounters with natives  in a manner that I as a student could easily understand.  I spent my time watching the film enthralled with a culture that has been able to remain pure and “primitive” (by Western standards) and at the same time eager to discover how Breton conducted his fieldwork.  While my teachers have always taught us to follow the “fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants” method, the film offers something that I’ve never before been able to comprehend – the fact that even successful filmmakers have to take this approach. 

Sunday, February 7, 2010

"A Joking Relationship," John Marshall, 1962

(A young John Marshall changing a film reel. I always thought he was cute.)

The theme for class this week was observational cinema. As sat and experienced my professors selections from anthropology heavyweights like David MacDougall, John Marshall and Jean Rouche, I found myself not only grateful that these men greatly understood the concept of a short film, but also thinking of how thankful I was for their contributions to the early years of the ethnographic documentary genre. These men proved that images on the screen could be as strong, if not stronger, than words in a book.

For over a century, anthropologists and social scientists have argued over which medium best represents an ethnographer's collected work: a book/written publication or a series of images. Now when I say I “experienced” their films, I'm referring to the fact that anthropological films cannot be, and were not meant to be, “watched.” Instead, they were created to provoke inquiry and inspire thought.

Marshall's “A Joking Relationship” is the perfect example of the ethnographic filmmakers equal, if not greater, obligation to maintain intellectual integrity than a normal ethnographer. The film visualized the kinship term for a relationship between two people, often of the opposite sex, who have a strong relationship rooted in playful mockery and sexual innuendo. For the Ju/'hoan bushmen of South Africa, this bond provides an emotional release that is stronger than most other familial relationships. Here we see N!ai and her great uncle-in-law engaging in a harmless flirtation as she jumps on his back while he threatens to cut off and eat her nipples.

At the end of the film, I noticed that it ends with a title card that reads “Directed by J. Marshall” (actually, as far as I can remember, this is on all his films on the Bushmen?). According to the Cambridge dictionary, a film director is “a person who is in charge of a film and tells the actors how to play their parts.” At what point does an ethnographer step away from being a data collector to being a data producer?

Marshall's editing and shooting techniques on "A Joking Relationship" redefine the role the ethnographer plays in creating a visual thesis.  If there was a film dictionary of ethnographic terms, I feel like this clip would fit perfectly under its title term.   He avoids the "fly-on-the-wall" feel by framing his subjects in extreme closeups, vignetting his observations by limiting what the viewer is privy too. At first, this method felt obtrusive and almost awkward as the camera panned across N!ai's exposed, undeveloped breasts and her great uncle's nether regions. Yet as the short carries on, I feel as though I'm reading a passage in a book. Marshall keeps a clear idea in his mind while he shoots with what he wants the viewer to see. He wants us to forget that we're about a hundred feet from the subjects, perched under a large shady tree in the Kahalari and keep us focused on nothing more than the intimacy, flirtation and casual sexual desire that carries on between the subjects.  Marshall proves that a visual ethnographer and writer are one and the same.  His pen is the camera lens: recording/writing a perfectly crafted anecdote on each frame/page, and then carefully compiling and editing it all together into a film/book.

If anything, I think the visualness of film brings to life something a great writer can never achieve. Descriptions become tangible as dances, rituals and forms of dress are exposed in their raw form. The fieldsite no longer remains an enigma; instead, the viewer can watch a film and be transported into subsaharan Africa and play the role of traveling ethnographer. Of course this isn't saying that all visual ethnographers are created equal not that every film is well constructed.