The Bellwether Ewe: Recent Developments in Ethnographic Filmmaking and the Aesthetics of Anthropological Inquiry

Peer Reviewed

"images and written texts not only tell us things

differently, they tell us different things."

David MacDougall


This article explores what might be called the “aesthetic” turn in ethnographic filmmaking. It seeks to move beyond the old debates about the legitimacy of nonliterary forms to offer a detailed examination of how selected camera, sound, and editing techniques are used to constitute a distinctive kind of anthropological inquiry. No longer approached as illustrative or preliminary to anthropology proper, recent trends in ethnographic filmmaking are suggestive as to the articulation of a new agenda. At its center are questions about art, the senses, knowledge, and the possibilities of a multispecies ethnography.

Editorial Overview

In this issue of Cultural Anthropology, Anna Grimshaw’s article examines what she coins “the recent aesthetic turn” in ethnographic film. She analyzes the ethnographic film Sweetgrass by Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Ilisa Barbash as an important model for understanding the ways in which formal and aesthetic qualities of documentary film can be used to explore anthropological concerns.

Historically, cinematic forms associated with anthropology, such as observational cinema, have not been understood within the discipline as serious modes of inquiry in their own right. Films like David McDougall’s To Live with Herds and Robert Gardner’s Forest of Bliss are examples of aestheticized ethnographic films that were not adopted by the anthropological community as knowledge producing forms capable of meaningful inquiry like that of textual forms.

Recent ethnographic films like Sweetgrass posit the view that, by drawing on formal and aesthetic properties of film and of other aesthetic mediums (e.g. visual arts), a space of serious anthropological inquiry is possible that is on par with textual forms of anthropological work. She explains “However, the fact that it is an inquiry pursued through the medium of film is crucial to understanding the particular intervention that it represents.” Thus, by carefully understanding how the filmmakers decisively incorporate and disregard cinematic and documentary conventions the aesthetic becomes an integral part of their anthropological endeavor. This article illustrates how “anthropological understandings of the world” can be transformed as we move with more fluidity between aesthetic forms and anthropology.

About the Author

Anna Grimshaw is an anthropologist and filmmaker at Emory University. Her research focuses on ethnographic cinema and practice-based experimental ethnography. Her work explores how visual techniques and technologies can be central to anthropological practice and inquiry. She was a founder and editor of the innovative Prickly Pear Pamphlet Series, and has collaborated with visual artists to investigate how art and anthropology are practices of “making do”(see video project Material Woman with artist Elspeth Owen). Her books include The Ethnographer’s Eye: Ways of Seeing in Modern Anthropology (2001), Observational Cinema: Anthropology, Film and the Exploration of Social Life (2009) coauthored with Amanda Ravetz, and was an editor for the book Visualizing Anthropology: Experiments in Image-based Practice (2005).


To Live With Herds- Interview with David MacDougall

"By working with rather than against the distinctive aesthetic qualities of the medium, To Live with Herds began to outline the contours of a new kind of anthropology". (Grimshaw on To Live With Herds)

Related Readings

Ethnographic Films from the Essay

Cultures in Webs: working in hypermedia with the documentary image. 2003. Roderick Coover. Watertown, Mass: Eastgate Systems. USA. CD-Rom.

The Language of Wine. 2005. Roderick Coover. Watertown, Mass: Eastgate Systems. USA. CD-Rom. 50 mins

Schoolscapes: scenes from a school in South India. 2007. David MacDougall. CCR Media Works/Fieldwork Films Australia. 77 mins.

First Person Rural: The New Nonfiction- Films being Presented alongside Sweetgrass

(Drawn from: Berkeley Art Musem & Pacific Film Archive Film Series and the 2010 Flaherty Film Seminar)

Agrarian Utopia. Uruphong Raksasad (Thailand, 2009).

The Sky Turns. Mercedes Álvarez (Spain, 2004).

Tropico de Cancer. Eugenio Polgovsky (Mexico, 2004).

Post a Comment

Please log in or register to comment