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06 Jan

Open-ended Realities

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The genealogies of both cinema and ethnography display some curious overlaps with both disciplines often involved in a race against time as though aspects of the human race could be lost forever, thus the need to register with images and words fragments of a world about to expire.

Both cinema and ethnology need an observer who will select images and objects of study, as well as a system of values toBoth cinema and ethnology need an observer who will select images and objects of study, as well as a system of values to interconnect the patches of narratives to be told interconnect the patches of narratives to be told. What will then take place between the observer and the one being observed will be captured by the third person of the triangle: the spectator, the latter also playing a part in the setting of the rules that need to be followed, for without the spectator, the whole exercise becomes pointless. The film genre commonly known as documentary, as well as one of its variations, the ethnographic film, lays out a very particular rule: the subject being observed belongs to the historical world, rather than to that of the imagination. This premise has been referred to as a ‘contract’, being understood that, should this pact be broken, the spectator would feel betrayed.

When, in 1922, Robert Flaherty showed the film Nanook, considered one of the earliest examples in the documentary genre, he declared that his desire was to show the Innuit  people ‘as they saw themselves’. In an attempt to retrieve a world that no longer existed, he constructed a way of life in Alaska which was romantic, rhetorical and anachronistic. Nowadays, this film is often shown as part of film course lectures, and the audience frequently feels equally betrayed, for the objectivity expected from a documentary disappears once the methods for constructing the narrative become known. Yet, what often occurs is that the director does not intend to present a mirror of reality. Besides, a work of art involves creation, interpretation and representation, so why is objectivity expected from a documentary seeing that it is commonly accepted that ‘news is only one interpretation of facts’? Because the documentary deals with real people, the question of ethics has a significant weight in the elaboration of the final product, and for many, this concern should keep the fictional element at bay, as much as possible. This is the second ethical question the documentary filmmaker will have to face, this time with regard to the subject being filmed, if we take the matter of the contract with the spectator mentioned above as the first one.

It could be argued that a documentary presents a broader scope for construction than its twin-brother, the ethnographic film, more associated to pure description, even if both categories have to face the ethical questions with regard From I speak about you to them to He/she and I speak about us to youto the observed and the spectator. A documentary registers and edits its images, making use of the grammar available for fictional filmmaking which helps to manipulate space and time. But this narrative structure which was once considered the differing element between documentary and ethnographic film is now permeating both genres leaving the boundaries between them more blurred than ever. The Brazilian film maker João Moreira Salles refers to the initial stage of documentary film making as one that obeyed the formula ‘I speak about you to them’ where the three pronouns correspond to the triad constituted by the observer, the observed and the spectator, and he goes on to suggest a new formula for contemporary documentaries: ‘He/she and I speak about us to you’. The suggestion being the production of films about encounters where the nature of the relationship is revealed and the conclusion is open-ended.

Following some precepts established by Dziga Vertov, the author of Man with a Movie Camera from 1929, Jean Rouch, an anthropologist mostly known for his work with ethnographic filmmaking, launched in the 1950s the concept of ‘fictional reality’. Inspired by Vertov’s concept of the cine-eye, engaging in ‘life as it unfolds itself’, and by the suggestion that the camera displayed a perceptiveness which the human eye lacked, Jean Rouch inaugurates the cinéma-vérité in an attempt to explore improvisation, chance, dream and fantasy. This filmmaker takes the act of narrating to its limits combining registering and creating while launching the philosophy of ‘as if’ in ethnographic film: the reality being shown is one possibility among many. The cinéma-vérité of Jean Rouch is like a game of mirrors where ‘I’ can become the ‘other’ in a multi-disciplinary encounter between cinema, theatre, anthropology and psychoanalysis. This kind of approach, in his own words,  marks a shift from the previous one of the filmmaker as a ‘fly on the wall’, to that where he is ‘inside the bath tub’.

Both observer and observed leave the comfort zone of their respective civilizations and become nomads in this polyphonic territoryWhilst deconstructing the model of truth laid out by the mainstream documentary genre, this type of ethnographic film creates truth: through the process of fable-making, what is lived in front of the camera is constantly transformed as part of an unfolding process of becoming. The character leaves the paradigm where real stands in opposition to fiction, for he is both. Both observer and observed leave the comfort zone of their respective civilizations and become nomads in this polyphonic territory; the final product is thus a result of the encounter. If most documentary filmmakers distance themselves from fiction for a question of ethics, Jean Rouch tackles the dilemma by using fiction as a working tool.

While ethnographic film today by no means restricts itself to exploring the ‘as if’ domain of relations, it has certainly been influenced by the permeability between true and false explored by cinéma-vérité; ‘the truth of cinema’ as opposed to a ‘cinema of truth’. 

Luciana Lang

Luciana Lang

After leaving Brazil, Luciana travelled widely before settling down in West Yorkshire where she worked as a potter with her own home studio and started raising her three Brazilian/English children. She then went on to study film and photography which eventually led her to Social Sciences. She is currently at the University of Manchester studying for a PhD in Social Anthropology and divides herself between Brazil and the UK, home countries to her family and friends.

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