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MacDougall - Beyond Observation Cinema

MacDougall - Beyond Observation Cinema

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12/10/2012

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Beyond
Observational
Cinema
DAVID MAcDOUGALL
Truth
is
not
a Holy
Grail to
be won: it
is
a shuttle which moves ceaselessly between
the
observer
and
the
observed, betweenscience
and
reality.
EDGAR MORIN
The past
few
years have seen
a.
recommitment
to.
the principle
of
observation in documentary filmmaking. The
n::sult
has been fresh interest in the documentary
film
and a body
of
work which has separateditself clearly from the traditions
of
Grierson and Vertov.l Audiences havehad restored to them the sense
of
wonder at witnessing the spontaneity
of
life that they felt in the early days
of
the cinema, seeing a train rushinto the Gare de Ciotat. This sense has not grown out
of
the perfection
of
some new illusion, but out
of
a fundamental change in the relationship that filmmakers have sought to establish
bet:Jween
their subjectsand the viewer. The significance
of
that relationship for the practice
of
social science
is
now beginning to be felt as a major force in the ethnographic
film.
This would
seem
an appropriate moment
to
discuss theimplications
of
the observational
dnema
as a mode
of
human inquiry.In the past anthropologists
were
accustomed to
takmng
their colleagues'
1
Many
consider Vertov the father
of
observational cinema, and
to
the extent
that
hewas committed to penetrating the existing world with the "kino-eye" there can be
no doubt
of
his influence. But Vertov's films reflected
the
prevailing Soviet preoccupation with synthesis, taking their temporal
and
spatial structures more from theperceptual psychology
of
the observer
than
from structures
of
the
events being fihned.His was
not
a cinema
of
duration, in the sense
that
Bazin attributes
it
to Flaherty.
I
I
. I
I,
II
 
116
DAVID MACDOUGALL
descriptions on faith.
It
was
rare to know more about a remote peo,piethan the person who had studied them, and one accepted
his
analysislargely because one accepted the scholarly tradition that had producedhim. Few monographs offered predse methodological int:ormation
or
substantial texts as documentary evidence.Ethnographic
films
were rarely more liberal
in
this regard. The prevailing style
of
filming and
film
editing tended to break a continuum
of
events into mere illustrative fragments.. On top
of
this, ethnographicfilmmaking
was
a haphazard affair. It
was
never employed systematically
or
enthusiastically
by
anthropologists
as
a whole.
Moana
(Flaherty 1926)was the work
of
a geologist and explorer,
Grass
(Cooper and Schoedsack
1925)
of
casual adventurers who later went on to make
King Kong
(1933). Until very
r·ecently
most ethnographic
films
were
the by-products
of
other endeavors: the chronicles
of
travelers, the political or idealisticvisions
of
documentary filmmakers, and the occasional forays
of
anthropologists whose major commitment
was
to other methods. In most casesthese
films
announced their own inadequacies. When they did not,neither were they wholly persuasive. One often wondered what had beenconcealed or created by the editing, the framing, or the narrator'scommentary.Even as good a
film
as
The Hunters
(Marshall
1958)
left importantareas
of
doubt. Could one accept that this
was
how the !Kung conductedlong hunts, given the fact that the
film was
compiled from a series
·of
shorter ones?
In
Robert Gardner's
Dead Birds
(]963), how could oneknow
that
the thoughts attributed to the subjects
were
what they
might
really have
be,en
thinldng?Over the past
few
years ethnographic filmmakers have looked forsolutions to such problems,
and
the new approaches to filming withinour society have provided most
of
them.
By
focussing upon discreteevents rather than upon mental constructs or impressions, and
by
seekingto render faithfully the natural sounds, structure, and duration
of
events,the filmmaker hopes to provide the viewer with sufficient evidence
to
judge for himself the film's larger analysis. Films like Marshall's
An
Argument About a Marr.iage
(1969), Sandall's
Emu Ritual at Ruguri
(1969), and Asch's
The Feast
(1969')
are all attempts
of
this kind. Theyare "observational'' in their manner
of
filming, placing the viewer inthe role
of
an observer, a witness
of
events. They are essentially revelatoryrather than illustrative, for they explore substance before theory. Theyare, nevertheless, evidence
of
what the filmmaker finds significant.To those
of
us who began making ethnographic
films
at the time that
cinema verite
and American direct cinema were revolutionizing docu-
 
Beyond Observational Cinema
117
mentary filmmaking, this approach to filming other cultures seemedall but inevitable, Its promise for social science appeared
so
obviousthat it
was
difficult to understand the years of unrealized potential.Why,
we
often wondered, with time running out to document the world'svanishing cultures, had it not been anthropologists rather than journalists who had first fashioned such a
use
for the cinema and struggled forits perfection?The observational direction in ethnographic filmmaking had, after
aU,.
begun vigorously enough. The very invention
of
the cinema
was
inpart a response to the desire to observe the physical behavior
of
men andanimals (Muybridge 1887; Marey
1893).
Regnault and Baldwin Spencerquickly went beyond the popular interests
of
Lumiere,.
making essentiallyobservational film records
of
technology and ritual in traditional societies.Flaherty's work, for all its reflection
of
his
own idealism, was rooted inthe careful exploration
of
other people's
lives.
It
heralded the achievements
of
such diverse filmmakers
as
Cooper and Schoedsack among theBakhtiari
of
Iran, Stocker and Tindale in Australia, and Bateson andMead in Bali. From then on, the ethnographic
film fell
heir to the fragmentation
of
image that had originated in the Soviet cinema and thatbegan to dominat·e the documentary
film
with the coming
of
sound.
It
could
be
said that the notion
of
the synchronous-sound ethnographic
film
was
born
at
the moment Baldwin Spencer decided to take both anEdison cylinder recorder and a Warwick camera to Central Australiain
1901.
It
became a practical possibility in the late 1920's only to beneglected in documentary
films
until the
19·50's.
In
1935
Arthur Eltonand Edgar Anstey demonstrated what could have been done more widelyby taking sound cameras, bulky
as
they then were, into the slums
of
Stepney and documenting the lives
of
the inhabitants.
2
To say that theywere ahead
of
their time is only to note with regret that they should nothave been.When highly portable
synchronous~sound
cameras were finally
deve~
loped around
1960,
few
ethnographic filmmakers jumped
at
the chance
to
use
them
as
though long awaiting this event. Two exceptions wereJean Rouch in France and John Marshall in the United States. Indeed,Rouch's influence
was
to become a major force in European filmmaking.Marshall had already practised a makeshift kind
of
synchronous-soundfilming in the 1950's among the !Kung and Gwi
of
the Kalahari. Hisobservational approach foreshadowed the discoveries
of
the DrewAssociates group and the Canadian Film Board in North America,
2
Housing Problems,
made for the British Commercial Gas Association.
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