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TIMOTHY ASCH, PATSY ASCH
FILM AS A RESEARCH TOOL
Discussion of ethnographic research film
has usually focused on the prod-
uct - either film for an archive or film for commercial distribution -
rather than emphasizing the anthropological research process and the place
fi[m might have in such a process.
Anthropologists collect information about the lives of specific people.
This information, usuaUy recorded in writing or held in memory, is ob-
tained through observation, listening or reading and through inquiry. An
unedited, unanalyzed ethnographic film record is also information. In con-
sidering the value of any information the question arises: what is the in-
formation about? In the case of ethnographic information are fieldnotes,
for example, information that is more about the people observed or more
1 Light-weight video equipment is available at reasonable prices that can be used to
record in color, even with minimal illumination. However, professional video equipment
is still fairly heavy, uses considerable power and requires professional training to use
and maintain effectively, particularly in remote locations. Film technology is universal,
whereas there are three incompatible international video systems and several different
formats. Super-8mm. film, even when transferred to videotape for analysis, has greater
resolution than most portable video equipment and 16mm. film is vastly superior. But
the gap is narrowing. For most ethnographic research, videotape is preferable because it
permits three hours of uninterrupted recording (instead of II minutes per film roll), can
be used in most situations without additional lighting, and can be viewed immediately,
both to check the quality of the recording and to share with the people filmed. Immediate
feedback allows one to become technically proficient fairly quickly and it can involve
participants in the research.
336 TIMOTHY ASCH. PATSY ASCII
about the observer? Is film more about the people filmed or more about
the filmmaker? How subjective or objective is the specific information? AU
ethnographic has an element of subjectivity if only because it
was selected as significant enough to record. What is important to consider
is how ethnographic film records compare with other kinds of ethnographic
Ethnographic analysis is based on data, data that have been selected
from the collected information
in relation to specific research questions ..
Texts are one form of data. Film texts could be created by selecting footage
from the film record, transcribing all conversation as one would a linguistic
text made from a sound recording, and annotating the visual images. We
refer to unedited footage plus synchronized sound (the information) as
the film record, and fllm that has been documented as the film text or
research film. H is film texts - either their own or texts prepared by
another ethnographer - that anthropologists would find most useful for
Analysis of texts highlights the relationship between the particular (what
is observed and recorded in the field) and the general (what is presented or
abstracted from specific events observed in the field). One of the features
of anthropology and perhaps of the social sciences generally, as distinct
from the physical sciences, is that data usually remain the personal posses-
sion of the recorder and are only shared in highly structured, interpretative
form as part of an argument. What anthropologists collect as information
or examine as data differs from what they present to others. But in film-
making the distinction between information or data on the one hand and
presentation or analysis on the other is rarely made clear (perhaps because
some people have mistakenly assumed that film images represent reaHty
and thus are not interpretative). Film texts could provide a means for shar-
ing data, but these texts must not be confused with most ethnographic films
in distribution today, which are highly interpretative products.
Ethnographers usually spend considerable time describing events they
have witnessed. Written descriptions are not tied to temporal or spatial re-
lationships and do not necessarily follow the chronological order in which
actions occur. All description is highly selecti1ve and interpretative. As BiU
Nichols points out (1981: 264), description is not the same as observation
because it labels and organizes information. Even though ethnographic film
is also selective, it can be closer to observation, in a spatial and, if con-
The recognition that theory and data arc 1 i nkcd and that data are only a "construction
of reality" may be one reason there has been a growing acceptance of genres such as lite
history, ethnographic fiction, texts created by informants, and even ethnographic film.
Film in Ethnographic Research 337
tinuous, temporal sense, than most other forms of recording information.
It is this feature of audiovisual recording that makes it of potential value
Recording instruments, cameras and tape-recorders, differ from human
perception on many dimensions. One is particularly significant: the capac-
ity of human beings to ignore most stimuli and to pay attention to specific
things of immediate interest, a capacity recording tools do not have. Un-
like human beings audiovisual tools are not themselves selective; they ·
record whatever light rays or sound waves are received within their range.
Whereas the human mind can focus on a tiny object, rendering everything
else around it out of focus but still part of a peripheral image, when a
camera lens focuses on an object all other objects equidistant from the
film plane (within the image frame) will also be in focus. For example,
an image of a distant tree must either be recorded as a close-up, using a
telephoto lens that isolates the tree, or it can be filmed with a normal or
wide-angle lens, in which case the tree win be one of many objects in the
frame, no sharper in focus than many others. Similarly human beings can
listen selectively, isolating certain sounds of interest to the listener, and
to some degree disregarding volume or even distance; whereas a micro-
phone and tape-recorder are responsive to all sound directly in relation to
frequency and volume.
Film images are often thought of as reflections of physical reality: the
image of a house, tree or person reflects its referent on a point-to-point
basis. An image is similar to a two-dimensional map in which objects
and/or people are iconicaUy represented within the constraints imposed by
the equipment used: size of film grain, focal length, range of tonal variation
from black to white or color, angle of lens,. distance recorded, etc.
Moving-picture film is simply 24 two-dimensional frames exposed per
second that can create the inusion of movement. But it is more fruitful
to think of film images as indexical signs rather than reflections of reality
because film images, like other indexical signs, imply a cultural system of
meaning. Audiovisual records may provide valuable observations but they
are not free of the personal and cultural biases of their creator.
Nonetheless, there is an unalterable connection between the image and
the event it represents. It cannot be entirely made over to our interpretative
purposes. Because there is always more in the image than any interpretation
can exhaust, this indexical quality, properly used, prevents having only our
translation (Myers 1988).
Sound synchronous film and videotape are unique and do not duplicate
other types of information. These technologies provide a way to collect
valuable observations, bearing in mind that the images recorded have been
338 TIMOTHY ASCH, PATSY ASCH
isolated from a larger context and may consequently distort what occurred ..
It is in the nature of film that each image is contained within a rigid, rectan-
gular frame and that each roll of film runs a set length of time (commonly
11 minutes). If continuous sound is recorded, one has a temporal record
against which to synchronize images for research, a temporal dimension
lacking in written accounts. Each medium imposes constraints and offers
It is the filmmaker and sound person who introduce selectivity: angling
the camera, choosing the frame, focus, time, placement of microphone, and
so on. What the camera describes is in large measure determined by the
filmmaker -- but not entirely. One can film things one did not intend to
film, particularly when filming spontaneously occurring social interaction.
Furthermore, the eye may be focussing on one aspect of an i m a g ~ and not
realize that other things are within the frame. The very capacity of human
beings to exdude enormous amounts of information in order to concentrate
on certain things means filmmakers will not necessarily be attending to the
entire image being filmed. Likewise a sound recordist may not realize that
other sounds have intruded on his recordings because he was concentrating
on one somce, such as a conversation, and was not conscious of other
noises. Ethnographers willing to examine film sequences many times will
find data they did not know they had recorded. Bear in mind though that
the same process of selection occurs when we look at film images. We
read these "signs" through our individual and cultural biases.
So far we have emphasized the value of using film as an observational
tool, but it is naive and misleading to assume ethnographic data - be
they film, tape-recordings or fieldnotes - are a reflection of reality, rather
than the creation of a unique human being, from a particular culture, who
collected the data at a specific moment in time and usually collected it to
share with members of his or her own culture.
Jay Ruby, drawing on Thomas Kuhn and Clifford Geertz, cogently ar-
gues that film does not convey reality.
Employing attributions [e.g. a photograph of an oak tree is ascribed the attributes
of an oak tree] to understand an anthropological film leads viewers to meanings
antithetical to anthropology for two basic reasons; (I) the use of attributional sys-
tems is based on a theory of perception counter to the .idea that culture organizes
experience; and (2) the folk models underlying attributions are ethnocentric ....
The belief that film can be an unmediated record of the real world is based on the
idea that cameras, not people, take pictures and the naive empiricist notion that the
world is as it appears to be (Ruby 1982: 124-125).
As Sol Worth said: "Pictures are a way that we structure the world
around us. They are not a picture of it" (Worth 1981: 182).
Film in Ethnographic Research 339
We argue that such skepticism should be applied to an ethnographic
data, as would Ruby who has coHected a set of essays in his book on
reflexivity that indicates many anthropologists are concerned with trying
to convey how their questions and theoretical biases affected the data they
collected (Ruby 1982). Not only do our personal, theoretical and cultural
biases influence the information we collect, they shape our analysis.
A visual field can be the source for more than one set of empirical statements .... The
danger exists of assuming that only one set is obvious and natural and that the visible
furnishes absolute proof rather than confirmatory evidence in the form of facts that
are themselves constituted by the theory in question. Similarly, the danger exists of
thinking that a film transparently discloses the real rather than producing, through
a set of discourses, a particular reality (Nichols 1981: 263).
The capacity of film to be shared with participants (a topic we will
discuss at length) provides one safeguard against assuming one's analysis
is transparently obvious from one's footage.
Since the mid-1960s Colin Young has advocated ethnographic filmmak-
ers adopt an observational approach.
Young, among others, was reacting
to the didactic documentary film tradition in which a scripted story is pre-
sented through a montage of images selected to guide the viewer toward
the filmmaker's interpretation. As Young describes it, the difference be-
tween traditional documentaries and observational film is "The difference
between TELLING a story and SHOWING us something" (1975: 69).
What concerned Young was the final release film but stress on observa-
tional film inevitably affects how film is exposed.
In the field of documentaries you might think there would be an irresistible urge
to do with the camera what only the camera can do ... record actuality in a form
which, when replayed, allows a viewer elsewhere to have a sense of experiencing
the event. Instead, they play the game of being the artist or the scientist with the
camera (Young 1975: 70).
Young has suggested that films be comprised of a series of scenes, filmed
and edited to reflect "actuality". For Young meaning or interpretation is
created by the order and juxtaposition of the scenes that were selected to
comprise a finished film. This could be compared to an ethnographer who
describes (one hopes as faithfully as possible) a number of events that he
or she selected and juxtaposed to illustrate a particular thesis, a particular
"Observational Cinema", as Young uses the term, refers to the application of cinema
verite techniques. Chronicle of a Summer (Rouch and Morin 1960) is often referr·ed to
as the first cinema verite ethnographic film, although Young notes that Les Maitres fous
(Rouch 1957) and several of John Marshan's short !Kung films were recorded earlier.
340 TIMOTHY ASCH. PATSY ASCI-I
Ethnographers have rarely been natives of the communities they studied.
Their position as outsiders was supposed to ensure their objectivity. ~ o d a y
many ethnographers have shifted from the role of detached observer to that
of participant observer. Participation is believed to lead to greater acces.s
to people's thoughts, behavior, dreams, and behefs because through one's
attempts to gain linguistic, social and technical competence one has greater
and more varied contact with people and experiences what it feels like to
live in a particular social universe. However, when most anthropologists
write about their ethnographic experience they remove themse]ves and
their participation from the account. Likewise, in fact to an even greater
degree, most ethnographic filmmakers have eliminated from their films any
evidence of their own presence or their participation in the scenes filmed.
As David MacDougall noted, many observational filmmakers drew their
models from dramatic fiction films because these films were more obser-
vational than documentaries: "the images of the fiction film were largely
anecdotal. They were the pieces of evidence from which one deduced a
story." The audience "learned by observing" ( 1975: 112). But, as Mac-
Dougall goes on to write, in fictional films, "the camera observes ... not
as a participant but as an invisible presence" ( 1975: I J 3). This invisible,
omnipotent presence became the expected perspective of ethnographic film.
Jay Ruby has been a vocal supporter of what is being caHed "reflexiv-
ity" in ethnographic filmmaking (Ruby 1977, 1980, 1982). He has stress,ed
the importance of presenting visual evidence of the presence of the film-
maker(s) and of the relationship between the filmmaker(s) and those being
filmed. We agree with him in reference to completed, educational films
intended for distribution but we have found in our own filming, evidence
of our presence and that of our colleague(s) has depended on the particular
situation being filmed. Research film may or may not show the observers.
When we are filming we try to interact as we would in a similar situation
had we not been filming.
The only major difference is that the process
of filming requires considerable concentration on our part and this detracts
from our capacity to interact as spontaneously as we normally would.
Of course, whether one films or not, the presence of observers affects, to
varying degrees, the social interactions of the people observed. We agree
In Bali. for example, when Linda Connor and Timothy Asch filmed a trance seance,
they did so as observers. Had they not been 11lming, they would have sat quiet]y and
observed without imeracting with either the medium or the people who had come to
contact their ancestors. However, when they were filming a healing session, held in the
same courtyard by the same healer, Connor talked frecliy with the participants as she
recorded sound. Asch included her in the film frame whenever it was appropriate.
Film in Ethnographic Research 341
with Ruby that it is important to acknowledge this and to try to reveal the
bias of the filmmakers. Young, MacDougall and Ruby are concerned with
films for an audience and with the importance of actively engaging that
audience whh the people being filmed and with the process of filming. It
is even more important to try to assess the effects of filming and of the
presence of the observers on one's data when one is examining film for
Most ethnographic films have been composed of a montage of images
about another, preferably isolated, unacculturated society, a montage that
illustrated a particular thesis. As we have turned toward observational film-
ing some filmmakers have tried to film "events".
John Marshall and Emilie
de Brigard refer to events in relation to "sequence" filming:
A sequence may be thought of as a verifiable film record of a small event. Sequence
filming replaces the ordinary process of shooting and editing a thematic film, or
overview, with the attempt to report the events themselves in as much detail for as
long as possible ... Films can follow small events closely, letting them take their
own time and produce their own content. The result is a sequence notable for the
lack of conceptual and contextual framework which other forms of film attempt to
supply (Marshall and de Brigard 1975: 133-134).
Filming a sequence implies, to us, more-or-less continuous filming of an
interaction, ideally from its inception through a natural progression to its
conclusion; whereas filming an "event" implies filming something that has
socially recognized significance. We might adopt an arbitrary distinction
and can an event something that is named by the participants (be it a
funeral, football game or cocktail party); and a sequence a continuous
interaction, of limited duration, that can be bracketed (i.e. a beginning and
ending can be identified) but often is not. We cite two examples to clarify
In 1980 we attended a funeral on Flores in eastern Indonesia. The fu-
neral, beginning when people gathered after a man's death and continuing
5 See particularly John Marshall's short films on !Kung and on Pittsburg police, and
Timothy Asch's and Napoleon Chagnon's shorter films on Y ~ n o m a m o .
6 Marshall and de Brigard are concerned with a method of filming. Their definition of
sequence differs from Sol Worth's because he was interested in the way edited fi]ms are
constructed: "Sequence is a deliberately employed series used for the purpose of giving
meaning rather than order to more than one imag,e-event and having the property of
conveying meaning through the sequence :itself as well as through the elements in the
sequence. "Man imposes a sequence upon a set of images to imply meaning" (Worth
1968: 18). What we found valuable about Worth's definition is the emphasis he places
on meaning. Sequence filming implies, to us, an active search for meaning but meaning
within a scene, not just between scenes.
342 TIMOTHY ASCH. PATSY ASCH
until they departed after he was buried, was a named event, a kubur. With
minimal variation, most of the people who attended probably agreed on the
spatial, temporal and social boundaries of the funeral. E. Douglas Lewis.,
with whom we were working, was interested in a particular set of actions
that occurred at the foot of the grave immediately after a body was buried.
He had observed many funera.ls but the actions at the foot of the grave
were so quick that he did not understand what was happening. T. Asch
videotaped the burial (itself only a part of the funeral), but we selected the
sequence recorded at the foot of the grave to show to informants in order
to elicit their interpretations. In this case we chose a sequence beginning
when people clustered at the foot of the grave and ending when peopiDe left
the area. Infonnants did not seem to find this an odd selection because they
said all the actions recorded at the foot of the grave were related: goods
had to be prepared for the dead, for it was explained, "What is whole to
the living is broken to the dead; and what is whole to the dead is broken
to the living." Everything was reversed: baskets were slashed, pots were
turned upside down and rice poured onto their bottoms, fires were sym-
bolically lit after food was cooked, and finally food was thrown beyond
the clearing. By bracketing this short sequence of actions, which we had
videotaped in one continuous shot, and by showing it to participants, we
were able to get closer to understanding the actions and conceptions of the
people being filmed.
Adam Kendon, a well-known ethologist, filmed an American birthday
party - also a named event. Kendon did not try to film the entire party;
what interested him was how people came together and dispersed. He
filmed sequences that began when he thought two people recognized one
another and signalled their intent to meet and ended when they separated.
He bracketed these sequences for his own analytical purposes.
Events are often too long and too dispersed to observe, let alone film
in detail. In filming a major ritual, for example, many sequences of social
interaction will occur, often simultaneously. One cannot film or observe
all of them: one has to select those sequences one hopes wil.l il]ustrate key
aspects of the ritual and the relationships of the people involved.
Subjects in a film may be able to designate a beginning and end of
a particular sequence (or small event), as Marshall and de Brigard claim
(1975: 141), but to assume that this will coincide with the film record made
by an outside observer is unwise. One concern in using film for research
is to try to find ways to get closer to filming events designated by the
subjects. This depends on extensive knowledge about a group prior to the
Film in Ethnographic Research 343
Anthropologists, while themselves bracketing certain sequences for an-
alytical purposes during the analysis and presentation of their data, are also
interested in apprehending the boundaries imposed by the people they are
studying and in trying to ascertain the degree to which these boundaries
are commonly identified. Boundaries, of course, are but one example of
the conceptual categories people use that are of interest to anthropologists.
Sol Worth and John Adair made an important contribution toward de-
veloping ways to get film that illustrates the perspective of subjects when
they gave cameras and film to Navaho who had no cinema training. More
and more people now are using videotape to record events in their own
lives. In Java as well as in the United States, for example, many people
videotape weddings. These kinds of tapes provide important sociological
data but could also be used, as were the Navaho films, to contribute to the
development of a semiotic of visual communication.
Research filming rarely should begin before the ethnographer is familiar
with a community and fluent in the local language because filming has a
tendency to distance the filmmaker(s) from the people being filmed. By
the time filming is undertaken, the ethnographer should have completed
a period of fieldwork in which, among other things, she or he has estab-
lished a style of interacting with people that includes a style of inquiry.
We recommend that this style of interaction continue when filming. If a
researcher tends to join activities and to talk with people during events,
that interaction should be included in the film. Were the ethnographer sud-
denly to adopt a new style of interacting, it would encourage the people
being filmed also to adopt a new style whenever the camera was brought
out, thus contributing to the tendency for a camera to increase formality
When an ethnographer is handling the camera it should be used as
an extension of his or her own observations. The ethnographer should
be able to "sit around" with the camera as she or he sits around with a
note pad. In fact, we have found that by setting a video camera on wide
angle and guessing at distances, we can videotape by holding the camera
at waist height while we go on observing or interacting freely. This is
what T. Asch did when he videotaped the funeral in Flores. Many of the
participants did not realize he was taping and he was free to observe the
whole event and occasionally whisper notes into a tiny tape-recorder in
his shirt pocket. We prefer the flexibility of holding the camera rather than
using a tripod which is stationary and formal. The main problem is that
most ethnographers do not feel comfortable and confident with a camera.
344 TIMOTHY ASCH. PATSY ASCII
They tend to place themselves in a filming mode, adopting new behaviors
that make everyone feel uneasy.
There are ways to film that maximize the research value of one's footage.
Sequence filming is one such technique. Not only does it seem to provide
the most useful footage for ethnographic research, it permits the broadest
future use of the footage, even for instruction or television. We outline
below the method we try to follow.
We have found that the longer we have spent in the field before begin-
ning to film the better our footage. If one is filming with an anthropologi.st
who has spent several years in a community, a minimum of three months
is advisable; if not, much longer is required. Once we have identified the
kinds of sequences we want to film, we have found it important to obseiVe
as many examples of them as possible. This helps us to predict how inter-
actions will proceed so that we can be in the best position to follow what
occurs. And if we have taken the time to get to know the people involved,
our presence during the filming is less disturbing. It is also important t:or
the film crew, even if it consists only of an anthropologist and a film-·
maker, to learn to coordinate their actions so that they can concentrate on
the ethnographic content rather than on co-operation or technology.
We try to predict when a group of people are going to ]nteract and to
tum on our camera when the interaction begins and try to film continuously
until it ends. We usually try to focus on one or two people throughout the
sequence, or we try to film from the perspective of one of the participants.
We treat the camera as an extension of our eye and try to follow the
sequence as though we were observers. We try to move the camera only
when the movement is motivated. If we are too far away to make out what
is happening dear1y, we move closer or use a more telephoto focal length.
If we want to see how people are reacting to one another,. we move back
or zoom to a wider focall length to include more people in the frame. If
our view is obstructed, we walk around the obstacle. But if we can see
dearly, we try to remain stationary because camera movement interrupts
concentration. We always try to get at least one distant shot to show the
social and physical context of an interaction.
Later we transfer aH sound to cassette tape and try to get someone
from the community where we filmed to transcribe all dialogue because
This is not unlike some of the awkwardness ethnographers experience taking notes.
Years ago, when we were in Trinidad, Timothy went to visit one of his students. A family
took him aside to ask about the student's health. It transpired the student had rushed off
to the bathroom every time he wanted to jot down a note because it was the only private
place he could find.
Film in Ethnographic Research 345
that person will recognize the voices of the speakers,. can often understand
overlapping comments and background conversations and will be familiar
with the local argot. It is far more efficient to work with written transcrip-
tions because it is difficult to locate or compare specific dialogue with only
a sound recording.
Our bias is most evident in our choice of sequences to film. We choose
on the basis of research needs. Random filming will not eliminate the bias
of the observer because the very notion of a "random sample" represents
bias. The frequency of an activity in itself says little about its significance
because the human construction of meaning is usually based on different
We have worked closely with anthropologists fluent in the language be-
ing spoken, who have lived for several years among the people we will
film. They have guided our filming, selecting which events they think wHI
be significant. But ethnographers who gain the technical skills and confi-
dence necessary to handle a camera themselves will probably get the best
footage for their research because they should be able to predict more accu-
rately and quickly what is about to occur. And they will know what aspects
of a sequence should be filmed in order to get the data they want. Ethnog-
raphers should certainly be encouraged to become filmmakers themselves,
by using small format equipment (portable videotape recorders or super-
16mm. filming is only justified if we envisage footage
having multiple uses: research, education, entertainment and preservation
in an archive. Only 16mm. and professional video recording require so-
phisticated technical expertise.
The theories and interests guiding current anthropological research are
unlikely to be those of people a decade later or of people who live in
a different society. ParadoxicaUy, however, it is not effective to adopt a
methodology that tries to randomize one's focus in an attempt to overcome
the bias inherent in a given selection nor to adopt a "god's eye view" that
takes in the entire social group throughout an event, even if that were
We recommend detailed coverage of events of interest
to the researcher. This view stems from our experiences: film that is not
supplemented by other ethnographic information tends to have minimal
value in research. The more background one brings to a viewing, the more
8 Six of our colleagues at the Australian National University used super-8mm. film or
videotape in their research. We have found that super-8mm. film transferred to U-matic
cass,ettes is excellent for conversational analysis and the analysis of such things as small
rituals, court cases and children's play.
9 See Feld and Williams (1975) for a critical evaluation of this approach.
346 TIMOTHY ASCH. PATSY .ASCI-I
one is likely to sec in a fllm. In amassing materials for others to use in
research, the value of the work will depend, in part, on the
ability to reveal his or her own bias and to distinguish between observation
and interpretation, not in attempting to remove himself, or herself, from
Steven Feld and Caroll Williams emphasized the importance of "using
film in some way to solve a problem".
Film is neither a research rnetho<.l nor a technique - hut an epistemology; it is a
design for how to think about and hence create the working conditions for exp]oring
the particular problem involved ... For us. researchable fllm means maximizing the
research potentials of a problem, in terms of both its "knowns" and "unknowns''
by using the film observation/translation process as a creative input related to the
research film. For a film to be researchable one must be able to look at it; being
able to look at it means being able to sec in it what was seen in the event itse]f by
the researcher (Feld and Will.iams 1975: 28).
The primacy Feld and Williams place on beginning with a research
problem is precisely what has been lacking both at the stage of filming
and (as we will later argue) in preparing archival film texts.
Ethnographic fieldwork is characterized by inquiry. But the search with
film has rarely been an active search for information. David MacDougall
argues that it is necessary to move beyond observation to exploit the pres-
ence of the filmmaker in order to get footage of behavior that would not
have occurred spontaneously:
Most anthropological fieldwork involves, in addition to observation, an active search
for information among informants. In the laboratory sciences, knowledge comes
primarily from events that the scientist hi.mself provokes. Thus the observational
filmmaker finds himself cut off from many of the channels that normally characterize
human inquiry. He is dependent for his understanding (or for the understanding of
his audience) upon the unprovoked ways in which his subjects manifest the patterns
of their lives during the moments he is filming them. He is denied access to anything
they know but take for granted, anything latent in their culture which events do not
bring to the surface (MacDougall 1975: 118).
We agree with MacDougall: there are times when anthropologists and
filmmakers may want to intervene. Interrogation is a classic ethnographic
method and one used frequently in films. Less common are attempts to
influence behavior by such techniques as asking an informant to do some-
thing in a future interaction; thereby making an informant a conspirator
MacDougall lists several films that he feels go beyond observational cinema; among
them Chronicle of a Summer (Rouch an<.! Morin), Ja;.:uar (Rouch), Kenya Baran (Mac-
Dougall and Blue), and The Thin;.:s I Cannot (Ballantyne).
Film in Ethnographic Research 347
in the ethnographic filmmaking process.
This kind of intervention may
produce valuable footage but one must remain critical about the effects of
such intervention on one's research data.
]tis in the area of inquiry, though, that film adds a dimension to research
that has largely been overlooked: that of feedback. ]t is common for an
anthropologist to observe an event and either take notes during the event or
make them later from memory. These notes and memories often become the
basis of hours of inquiry with informants, aimed at trying to get accurate
information about people's actions and ascribed motivations and beliefs
and insights into how they think about the event.
Videotape permits immediate viewing of a recording with informants.
Bruce Kapferer used a portable videotape recorder to tape rites of exorcism
in Sri Lanka (Kapferer 1 983).
He used his recordings with informants
in order to obtain a score: the sequential order in which informants said
actions must occur. After analyzing his material, Kapferer said he arrived
at what he thought was the appropriate sequence. When he returned to
Sri Lanka several years later, he observed an exorcism in which the order
was quite different. This intrigued him because the particular performance
was fraught with tension and argument. An interesting thing to examine is
the degree of rigidity with which ritual is performed and the consequences
of certain variations in different societies. Film or tape would facilitate
studies of this kind.
Another of Kapferer' s hypotheses was that the rite acted on all the
senses. By using videotape he did not have to reduce the experience to
words in order to link informants' comments to ritual actions. A first step
in "feedback" with film is often to listen and analyze the spontaneous
reactions of the participants as they view the film. The phrases that they
use to explicate what is happening can then be used by the ethnographer
in forming questions.
11 In the Kenya Boran filming, MacDougall and James Blue apparently asked an infor-
mant to raise a particular topic with others; this helped to insure that the conversation
they filmed dealt with issues that they wanted to cover. David and Judith MacDougall
presumably asked Lorang to tell them about his compound and to show it to them as they
filmed Lorang's Way. In both these cases the filmmakers intervened to make something
happen that they wanted to film.
In a similar way Stephanie Krebs (1975) and Elizabeth Young (1980) used film and
videotape to analyze dramatic performances in Thailand and Bali. Each worked with
informants in order to gloss both the speech and movement of the performers and to
get native interpretations of plots and characterizations. As Krebs notes, motion picture
films are an excellent way to "elicit conceptual categories from members of the filmed
society" (1975: 283).
348 TIMOTHY ASCH, PATSY ASCH
Ideas emphasized by informants provide insights into their view of an
event. Linda Connor and T. Asch filmed a spirit medium during a trance
seance in Bali. Later, we showed a subtitled print to several groups of
students and then to the medium. We filmed some of her reactions as she
watched the film and we tape-recorded all her comments. The spontaneous
comments of Australian and American students indicated skepticism about
the faith of the medium, whereas no student questioned the appropriateness
of a poor peasant becoming a medium. The medium's comments as she
watched the film showed no awareness that anyone might question her sin-
cerity or whether she really was possessed by ancestral spirits and deities ..
She was concerned with different issues: she spoke repeatedly about ber
own ignorance, her status as a commoner. expressing humility at being
chosen as a vehicle by the spirits and deities. Audiences' comments, par-
ticularly those of the participants in the film, may indicate aspects of an
interaction that they find problematic ..
However, the spontaneous reactions of viewers, particularly of partic-
ipants (or subjects in a film) are limited. An interaction is embedded in
a social and historical context. Much is left unsaid that is essential to an
outsider who is trying to understand an interaction. An ethnographer and a
participant in a film may look at the same recording but see qu]te different
things. The things that the participants take for granted are often the very
things that would be of interest to anthropologists. The ethnographer must
find ways to bridge personal and cultural difference but ways that minimize
influencing the resulting data. To get at subtle aspects of an interaction, it
is important that the ethnographer study the tilm material very carefully
and work out a protocol consisting of lines of inquiry that will build on
participant responses and provide ways to juxtapose the comments of in-
formants. It is not sufficient to show footage to participants and wait for
them to respond.
Videotape is an excellent mnemonic device. Kapferer's first video-
recorder was a poor, amateur machine. The ambiguity inherent in poor
resolution has certain advantages: informants arc forced to draw more on
their own memory and conception of what occurred; they are less in-
Lewis carefully studied the videotape of the Flores funeral. The actions at the foot
of the grave appeared to be a rite of reversal hut he wanted data on the participants,'
interpretation. When he showed the videotape to one of his most articulate informants,
the man only made a few superficial comments. It was necessary for Lewis to isolate a
set of behaviors and inquire about their relationship hefon: he got any useful information.
To his informant it was so ohvious that people were preparing goods for the dead and
therefore that actions must be reversed that he apparently had not thought of mentioning
it (Lewis 1988).
Film in Ethnographic Research 349
fluenced by the filmmaker's selection. The recording acts as a stimulus,
reminding them of what happened (or should have happened) rather than
forcing informants to limit their comments to the video text.
The view that one person has of what was going on in a sequence
or event is likely to differ from that of someone else who participated,
particularly if their roles differed. Feedback with film could reveal these
differences. Feedback immediately following an event may also differ from
that derived from the perspective of several years. The immediacy of film
images permits one to transform a past sequence into a present experience,
albeit a very different experience than the original one, in order to get
people to reflect on their lives in an unusual way.
Jean Rouch stated a further value in feedback (or as he calls it "audio-
visual reciprocity") when he wrote:
The anthropologist has at his disposal the only tool (the "participating camera")
which offers him the extraordinary possibility of direct communication with the
group he studies - the film he has made about them ... Film is the only means I
have to show someone else how I see him (Rouch 1974: 43).
Few anthropologists work with people with whom they can share their
written publications but many of us can share our films. This allows us to
get valuable feedback on our interpretation.
Feedback is one of the most
significant contributions film could make to ethnographic research and yet,
to date, few ethnographers have used film in this way.
We have not attempted to identify here the kinds of studies in which
film could be employed effectively. Obviously film is appropriate in the
anthropology of visual communication, including any micro-analysis of
conversation. It is also valuable in studying complex rituals that an ethno-
grapher may observe only once, largely because tUm can be used for feed-
back with participants to identify specific actions and develop a score, to
stimulate interpretation and to compare participant views and the views of
people who live in neighboring communities. Ethnographic film is partic-
ularly useful in case studies because detailed observations in the form of
sequence films can be viewed repeatedly and shared with informants and
]n this first section we have recommended that one begin with a re-
search problem and use film to collect observations on sequences of in-
In her discussion of the place of empathy in collecting life histories, Gelya Frank
argues that sharing one's view of others with them is one of the most direct ways to
refine that view and to test interpretations, as well as strengthen relationships (1985). We
certainly found that to be the case on Bali and Flores when we showed people videotapes
350 TIMOTHY ASCH. PATSY ASCII
teraction. and then to use these sequence films to stimulate feedback from
participants and other informants native to the community in whkh the
film was recorded. From this film record, one should create texts -·- se-
lected footage, transcriptions. lranslati.ons and annotations - and these
texts should become an integral part of the data that one analyzes and
shares with colleagues. In the second section we turn to the prob]ems of
how to make research film texts from existing footage, footage that in all
likelihood was not collected with research in mind.
CREATION OF RESEARCH FILMS FROM EXISTING FOOTAGE
There are three main stages in the creation of research films for archival
preservation and future research:
(I) presen1ation: the location and selection of ethnographic footage that
scho.lars think should be preserved and, as a minimum, placement of
this footage in storage under favorable conditions;
(2) creation of research films, or film texts- film plus documentation-
that will increase the research value of archival footage, and
(3) research: encouragement of research that is based on analysis of
film texts, research that is valuable in its own right but also may be
promoted as a way to evaluate film texts in order to develop better
ways to make research films.
h is difficult to locate and select films that shouid be preserved. Commit-
tees, composed of anthropologists, hi:storians and perhaps archivists, should
be established: both regional groups who try to locate material within their
own area and groups who share a common research interest. Even national
centers, such as those affiliated with the International Federation of Film
Archives, could caH on these groups to evaluate and recommend potential
Ideally, all ethnographic film should be stored at low temperatures in a
dry vault, but this is not always feasible.
Film that anthropologists select
for preservation should be divided into two groups: the most valuable
The Kodak Company discovered lhrough lesti:ng !hat Eastman Color Negative, the
most common stock used by 16mm. filmmakers today, dclcriorates markedly in ei.ght
years if stored at 70"F. The same stock will l'ast 25 years al 50°F, but if stored just
above freezing shows no obvious signs of dclcriorarion in thai period of lime.
Film in Ethnographic Research 351
footage to be sent to existing archives with cold storage facilities, the
remainder stored regionally in whatever locations can be found, even if
this means thick-walled warehouses - any cool, dry environment where
the temperature does not change rapidly.
Central archives should set up criteria for selection that include evalua-
tion procedures using scholars who know the area in which a film was taken
and know whether or not footage can be documented. Furthermore, film
should be evaluated in relation to other existing materials. The National
Museum in Ottawa, for example, has hours of very old footage depicting
Indians standing in front of the camera. If it were not for hair blowing in
the wind, it would be difficult to distinguish some of these movies from
stiB photographs, photographs that may have greater research value be-
cause of their clarity and ease of handling. If stiU photographs do exist,
perhaps we need store only a sample of this footage. h is films rich in
unique ethnographic detail that should be preserved for future generations;
however the quality of the image must be clear enough to permit use as
Four categories of film are of potential interest to anthropologists and
may warrant preservation in an ethnographic film archive:
(I) Fictional films. All films are in some sense anthropologically interest-
ing as cultural products, but certain films, as Bateson demonstrated
in his analysis of Hitlerjunge Quex 1933 (1953) are of particular
interest. Variation in the perspective of anthropologists will affect
what is selected. For example,. we who are Americans would cer-
tainly recommend many of Yasujiro Ozu's films, such as Tokyo story
and Tokyo in twilight, but Japanese anthropologists might ignore Ozu
(who received less recognition in Japan than he did abroad) and
choose other Japanese filmmakers. Anthropologists should certainly
consider whether there are feature films of potential research value
from the country in which they worked that should be preserved in
an ethnographic film archive.
(2) Amateur footage. Footage taken by missionaries, travellers or govern-
ment officials, for example, may prove to have ethnographic value.
(3) Documentary films, particularly ethnographic films that may prove
valuable for future research. A]though these films may currently be
in distribution and therefore available forcontemporary research, it is
16 Such as the old armory in Cambridge, Massachusetts,. where for years DER has stored
over a million feet of film.
352 TIMOTHY ASCH. PATSY ASCI-I
important to investigate whether a print is being properly preserved
for future generations. It is also important to encourage written doc-
umentation to enhance the research value of these edited films.
( 4) Ethnographic footage, both footage taken by anthropologists for theiir
own research and teachimg and the unused footage when a film is
edited for commercial distribution. Many commercial ethnographic
film projects (either to gather footage for entertainment or instruc-
tional fi1lm) will take 40,000 to 60,000 feet of film in order to edit
a 2,000 foot film. The remaining footage, often fascinating material,
is never used. This footage could be an important source of data for
future research and a valuable heritage for descendants of the peopie
filmed, if it were saved. As we have discussed in the first se,ction,
footage ethnographers record for their own research could be valuable
others and also should be preserved.
As we are using the term, research film refers to footage with accompa-
nying documentation. For example, were Napoleon Chagnon to take aU
the data he collected about a YQnomamo shaman performance- a master
print of all his footage, a copy of the edited film Magical death, aU the
sound recorded, with his transcriptions, the polaroid pictures and colored
shdes of the performance, and his notes - and place these in an archive,
it would be an extremely valuable resource. It would be more valuable
if it were accompanied by all the footage Asch and Chagnon took of the
an additional 30 hours, plus the 39 edited films made from
the footage - and if all this footage were accompanied by relevant field-
notes, annotations (which we have), and transcriptions and translations,
along with all Chagnon's publications on the Y<Jnomamo research;. and
add to this the publications of other scholars who have worked in the area
and footage taken by other filmmakers. To document the entire corpus thor-
oughly would take several lifetimes, but the more data one can assemble
and the more insights one can provide, the richer the material is likely to
be for future scholars; bearing in mimi that additions, such as translations,
can have the effect of narrowing and shaping future interpretation, some-
times to the detriment of revealing the perspective of the people filmed. It
is essential that the documentation be of the highest qual:ity poss.ible.
We recommend that all' footage deposited in an archive be annotated,
with certain sequences selected for more thorough documentation, depend-
ing on the interests and knowledge of the pcrson(s) providing the annota-
Film in Ethnographic Research 353
tions. When Richard Sorenson was at the National Anthropological Film
Center (Human Studies Film Archives) in Washington, he suggested one
model for 16mm. research film which comprises workprint plus synchro-
nized soundtrack recorded in the field, with the addition of two other tracks,
also synchronized with the film: a translation track and a track with com-
mentary by the anthropologist and anyone else on the expedition. (The
original film is stored in the archive cooler.) Sorenson has demonstrated
this is feasible: it does not take an inordinate amount of time to complete.,
it is not too expensive and it links comments and translation to visual
images. But Sorenson's mode] has three main, drawbacks:
(1) Recorded sound is a very cumbersome way to handle information
even if it is carefully catalogued. Retrieval is slow - listening takes
much longer than reading, particularly when there are gaps between
utterances, and it is difficult to juxtapose two passages.
(2) The translations are, at best, rough approximations. There is no way
to know exactly which phrase in the translation corresponds to which
phrase in the original speech. Overlapping utterances often have to be
ignored. There may be no simple equivalent; if a translated passage
takes longer to say than the corresponding utterance or image., it
must be cut (or blank leader inserted in the film, which Sorenson
did not do). Pauses, repetitions, incomplete sentences, may all be
attempts to duplicate exactly the original utterance or may be the
hesitations of the translator as he or she searches for the appropriate
Furthermore, it is harder to check the accuracy of one's
own translation than if it were written so that one could listen to
the original while reading the translation. The most accurate method
is to work from a transcription and to translate phrase by phrase
or sentence by sentence. Admittedly this is very time-consuming and
one may only be able to handle sections of the footage in this detailed
way. Whenever possible it is desirable to have dialogue transcribed in
the field by native speakers who recognize particular voices and local
references. Such transcriptions provide an anthropologist with very
rich data and often can be used in the field to discuss both sociological
history relevant to making sense of the conversations transcribed, and
linguistic categories embedded in naturally occurring speech.
17 Bayatsid Hatsak's translation of the Pashtoon footage we took in Afghanistan is a
clear example of these problems. The fault is not Hatsak's but is inherent in Sorenson's
354 TIMOTHY ASCH. PATSY ASCI-I
(3) Limiting commentary to the exact length of the film causes two ma-
jor problems. Comments made at the head of a long sequence of
rolls, such as identification and relationship of participants, must be
repeated with each new shot (or at least roll) or a viewer may miss
them or forget- it is hard to nip back through a sound track. Th,e
anthropologist may have only a few comments to mak,e about a long
shot or several hours of background to provide on a short shot. Once
launched on a particular topic, the commentator may neglect to men-
tion something very important or may jump from subject to subject in
a superficial way . .It seems to us Sorenson's model is a good starting
place, a minimum, but it would be good to explore other models, es-
pecially ones involving written documentation linked to film through
Careful transcriptions are extremely valuable. A morpheme-by-mor-
pheme gloss of at least parts of the text and a free translation are ideaL
Some grammar of the language should be available; if none is published.
a rudimentary grammar should be provided by the ethnographer. At this
juncture in our attempts to create models for ethnographic research film,
it seems to us the best strategy is to support a variety of projects, all dedi-
cated to the scholady use of film in ethnographic research, projects limited
in scope and which can be evaluated.
Recording feedback with participants in the footage is another important
type of documentation that can be included in a research film. In Bali, for
example, when we showed three hours of our footage of a collective ham-
let cremation to many different groups who had participated, we recorded
aH their comments. At four showings we also filmed people's reactions to
a selected 15-minute segment in order to be able to contrast their inter-
pretations of the same sequence. Inclusion of this type of documentation
provides other scholars with alternative interpretations of events, not just
the comments of the anthropologist who worked on the film.
E. Douglas Lewis hired a native speaker to transcribe all the conversa-
tion we recorded on F]ores,. Indonesia. He has used our recordings and these
transcriptions to compile a dictionary in which words and their definitions
were derived from naturally occurring conversation rather than elicited in
fonnal sessions. Lewis is also working on a grammar of the local language.
We took all the footage (on video casseue) back to Flores and Lewis spent
several months recording spontaneous participant reactions and then sys-
tematically studying the video recording with informants. He is working on
a monograph that examines a major ritual that was the focus of more than
half our footage. The film and participant feedback have provided essen-
Film in Ethnographic Research 355
tial data for his research. We envisage the full corpus - film and written
documentation - being useful to other scholars as well, if available in an
We do not think the way to get the best results is to sponsor projects
whose primary aim is to explore a methodology for making archival re-
search films. Ethnographic filming needs to be guided by someone with
extensive fieldwork experience in the area, who is proficient in the local
language. When this is done the film becomes part of a larger resource
and, as such, can be evaluated. Much ethnographic filming has been pred-
icated on the grounds that we must "capture disappearing cultures". We
are convinced that a film record by itself is not sufficient as a resource for
research and certainly is too limited a way to "capture a culture", if that
is ever possible. "Salvage" film projects are only justifiable if the research
is viable on other scholarly grounds.
This brings us to our final topic. A number of archives have been set up
both to collect and preserve ethnographic film and to establish a center
where scholars can work. The Institute for Scientific Film in Gottingen,
Germany, is a perfect example. They have a huge collection of ethno-
graphic film and yet a few years ago we were told that over the past 25
years scarcely any publications have been based on research using their
films. How can we evaluate the research films we are creating, if no one
A center dedicated not only to the preservation of film but also to
its use in research, such as Gottingen, the Human Studies Film Archives
at the Smithsonian Institution, or the Australian Institute of Aboriginal
Studies, must provide facilities and small grants to support the research use
of their films, if only to evaluate their methods for making ethnographic
We need to experiment with retrieval systems,. with the
use of computers in cross-referencing footage and other kinds of data, with
new uses of videotape that will permit rapid, safe handling of footage,
synchronizing two soundtracks (three if we use the time-coding track) and
compact viewing and editing facilities permitting people to juxtapose two
18 The film collection at the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Straits Studies
has been used extensively by Aboriginal groups and by other scholars. Unedited as
well as edited films and viewing facilities are availabk to anyone with. a legitimate use.
However, Aboriginal communities h.ave placed restrictions on wh.o may view certain
fi[ms in the collection.
356 TIMOTHY ASCH. PATSY ASCI I
or more shots, using several screens. To experiment, scholars must use
the archive. fn other words, archives must derive technology and research
procedures from valid research projects rather than from hypothetical ones.
An active research center cannot wait for people to come to h. There
are at least three kinds of activities such an archive should be supporting:
documentation of old footage; usc of its facilities and f i l ~ m s for res,earcb;
and use of its facilities to create instructional materials (which would of
course require the permission of the authors of any film used).
An archive must seek qualified people to document old footage. An ex-
cellent option is to sponsor projects in which film (in the form of videotape)
is taken back to the community where it was recorded for documentation
by the people filmed and by their descendants, as well as by a contempo-
rary anthropologist if one is working in the area. Martha Macintyre, who
has been doing fieldwork on an i1sland in the Massim region of Papua-New
Guinea, took copies to Tubi Tubi of aU the old photographs from the region
that she could find. In response to looking at the photographs, information
poured out about the history of the people photographed, their relationship
to people alive today and about the history of some of the kula valuables
visible in the photographs. Film would probably have produced a similar
When we returned to Bali and showed our film to the petitioners in the
trance seance film, a lively and intimate discussion ensued about events
during the intervening two years. Anthropologist Connor, who knew the
medium in the film, had only met the petitioners twice before - at the
seance and two weeks later when she walked to their isolated village ..
Since the petitioners enjoyed seeing the film, they welcomed us and talked
openly with Connor about things of immediate concern to her research.
Had we been able to film these reactions, I think they would have been
as interesting as film of the medium's comments (Asch, Connor and Asch
In order to promote active use of an archive's fi.lms, it is important to
publicize the coHection, through yearly publications in professional jour-
nals and at annual meetings. It is also important to provide small grants
to people whose research would be enhanced by working with the film
coHection and to try to encourage publ.ication of their research findings ..
We mention only briefly the importance of sponsoring experimentation
in the use of film in curricula; it warrants a separate paper. New video tech-
nology permits inexpensive dubbing of !il.m material. Most ethnographic
films in distribution today are too long and complex to be incorporated in
a one-hour lecture. Furthermore, few ethnographic films were made with
anthropological instruction in mind. What teachers need is short excerpts,
Film in Ethnographic Research 357
often from unedited footage, to illustrate specific points - cross-cultural
comparisons, for example. Dubbing of short segments would permit teach-
ers to integrate film with lectures and with assigned readings. Eventually a
center could charge fees to cover the costs of this service but initial exper-
imentation should be sponsored by the center, which should also sponsor
sessions at the American Anthropological Association meetings, for exam-
ple, in which these ldnds of material could be presented. Scholars have to
learn to use film effectively in teaching and this learning will depend on
the opportunity to experiment through access to footage, through sharing
materials, and through discussion.
In research, as in teaching, we do not have definitive ways to use ethno-
graphic film. We have enough evidence to know film is a valuable tool but
we need to support experimentation, particularly projects with limited goals
that can be completed and evaluated.
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19'73 Magical death. Watertown: Documentary Educational Resources.
MACDOUGALL, DAVID, JIUDITH MACDOUGALL
19'78 Lorang's way. Berl!celey: Center for Media and Independent LeiEirttllllJI!r, •. ,
Uni1versity of California.
MACDOUGALL, DAVID, .JIAMES BLUE
19'74 Kenya Boran. Hanover, N.H.: American Universities Staff.
1952-1978 16mm. Films on the !Kung. Watertown, Mass.: Documentary
cational Resources; including
A curing ceremony. (Filmed in 1957)
A joking relation.rhip. (Filmed in 1957)
Debe's tantrum. (FHmed in 1957)
An argument about a marriage. (Filmed in 1957)
N!ai, the .rtory ofa !Kung woman. (Produced in 1980)
1956 Jaguar. Watertown, Mass.: Documentary Educational Resources.
1957 Les maftres fous. Watertown, Mass.: Documentary Educational
ROUCH, JEAN, EDGAR MORIN
1960 Chronicle of a .rummer/Chronique d'un ere. New York: Contemporary/
McGraw-Hil.l Films Inc.
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