Making the Rounds: Ethnographic Film in Circulation

In April 2017, Melissa Lefkowitz and Alia Ayman invited five anthropologists, filmmakers, and industry professionals whose work is integral to thinking about ethnographic film today to discuss their perspectives on the genre: Alice Apley, Executive Director of Documentary Educational Resources; Rachel Chanoff, Director of THE OFFICE performing arts + film; Faye Ginsburg, David B. Kriser Professor and Director of the Center for Media, Culture, and History at New York University; Toby Lee, Assistant Professor in the Department of Cinema Studies at New York University; and Pegi Vail, Associate Director of the Center for Media, Culture and History.

What follows is an edited transcript of the ensuing panel discussion. As a genre of filmmaking whose definition is often contested, ethnographic film is at times stabilized by particular practices that aim to mark it as a recognizable category of cultural production. Instead of focusing on the genre’s history, though, we wanted to locate the reproduction of the genre in its afterlife. Specifically, we turned our attention to infrastructures of distribution and exhibition in order to ask the following questions: How does ethnographic film travel? Who are the actors involved? How is the category itself being produced and redefined through festivals, distribution companies, scholarly production, and educational institutions?

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From left to right, Rachel Chanoff, Pegi Vail, Alice Apley, Faye Ginsburg, Toby Lee, Melissa Lefkowitz, and Alia Ayman. Photo courtesy of the Center for Media, Culture and History.

Melissa Lefkowitz and Alia Ayman: We thought we should start with one of the most pressing questions for us, and probably for other people in the room as well, which is: how would you define an ethnographic film?

Rachel Chanoff: I had never heard of visual anthropology until I started working on the Margaret Mead Film Festival as one of a team of curators. I worked at Sundance for twenty-seven years and the Jewish Film Festival for twenty years and I had never thought about ethnographic film or what it might be, because when we are curating film we are mainly looking for stories that dig deep into an experience or community. I have since learned that there is such a multiplicity of experiences bound up in the term ethnographic film. What makes it one thing? Nothing does. I really don’t know what it means. I am so interested in what everybody has to say.

Pegi Vail: Well, if you look at the etymology—ethnos from Greek—it means people and sometimes race or nation. It has come to mean different things. In graduate school, I understood the term to mean films about people or a community or a culture, but at the time I did not know how it was tied to the academy and what the issues were around its representational practices. Ethnographic film has transformed. Increasingly, there are films by people about their own communities, so it now has a much broader definition than it did before. I think it’s really being resuscitated and revived.

Alice Apley: When I asked what I should prepare for the panel discussion, I was told to think about how we [Documentary Educational Resources] select films. We don’t actually ask whether a film is ethnographic when we select it; I think about ethnographic film more in terms of the identity of the organization because that’s part of our history. But then I struggle with this definition because of the issues around what it means. I think what was considered ethnographic film has now blurred with any kind of social documentary, because everybody is making films about cultures and communities.

Pegi Vail: What we tell our students is that it might be the difference between ethics and responsibility. Because I think there is an ethics and a responsibility to the community or to the culture one is filming that is very much a part of what was formerly called ethnographic film.

Alice Apley: We do talk about the relationship of the filmmaker to the subjects and how long they spent making the film. When I go to film festivals to scout films, beyond people making the assumption that ethnographic films have to be about some exotic other, there is also the assumption that we are only interested in observational films that have to be this sort of pure vérité. And that’s not a criterion at all when we curate films. I do find that one of the criteria is how deep they go into a community or culture, as well as how focused the film is on a question or an issue. There are a lot of films at festivals that are these very engaging, character-driven documentaries but they are not really about anything. They are a charming story of a quirky personality, and we are not so interested in that.

Melissa Lefkowitz: When you are looking at films, what stands out to you as something you are not going to take? Or, how do you know what you don’t want and what would that look like?

Rachel Chanoff: When you program a lot of different kinds of festivals and you want the programming to illuminate the mission of that particular festival or institution, your set of criteria really varies. There are films that we would never in a million years show at the Margaret Mead Festival. For example, the hero’s journey is something we are not interested in. White talking heads’ observations about a situation is not something we will show. But in different contexts, in different festivals and at different museums where I have worked, it’s different.

Alice Apley: For us, we also think about whether the film can be used in classrooms, what kinds of discussions it is going to provoke, and if there is some need for it. So, for example, the film can be a community profile but it still has to have content and some kind of critical edge.

Faye Ginsburg: During my graduate training, I took a summer course with Jean Rouch and it totally changed my life. His idea of what ethnographic film is was so not like The Last of the Headhunters or observational films. His work is wild, it’s crazy, it’s fictional, it’s surreal and incredibly collaborative. When I saw that body of work, I felt yes, that’s what I want to do. The problem with the term ethnographic film is that it has all these other connotations. Rouch, in one of his early articles, talked about ethnographic film as the handmaiden of colonialism, and yes, that’s what we would like to avoid here at NYU. So integrating work made by indigenous folks was one of the very first things we did to mix it up, to show that we were trying to do something different, trying to decolonize the genre of ethnographic film and look critically at its history.

But also, we try to understand how we could participate in collaborative work, working in great depth, showing cultural worlds with ethical care and detail in a dialogical fashion, rather than pointing the camera, making a film, and then leaving without showing our work to those with whom we made it. So we tried to incorporate that into the program and to get away from the somewhat toxic history of ethnographic film. I just felt that it was an effort to liberate the practice, and to embrace a sense of exploration and play by inviting a range of people into the conversation.

Toby Lee: I want to add to this question from a slightly different perspective. The term ethnographic film has quite a bit of currency beyond the ethnographic film festival circuit. At other kinds of film festivals, especially festivals that are aligned with the art world, there’s a kind of sexiness to the term ethnographic, not just in the film world but also in the contemporary art world, and that’s been going on for ten to fifteen years now. I agree with all of you in the sense that forms of nonfiction moving-image production are so varied now and there’s a wide variety of technologies that are available to a wide variety of people. So I think the line between whether something is ethnographic or not at this point is more of a strategic move that one makes, as opposed to a strict definition.

For me, there are certain things that count as ethnographic and that tie into what ethnography is as a practice apart from moving-image production. It usually involves time and accountability and intimacy. But I think that when people claim the term ethnographic to describe their moving-image practice, whether or not we think it’s merited, I think what they are doing is pointing to a different kind of industry or production context. So, for some reason or another, they want to remove themselves from the context of the documentary industry, which is very much an industry now. Especially now with Netflix and Amazon Prime and all of the various ways that documentary and nonfiction media circulate, by calling yourself an ethnographic filmmaker I think there is some cachet to be had there, whether you have earned it or not.

Alia Ayman: Toby, can you tell us about your experiences at the Sensory Ethnography Lab at Harvard University? 

Toby Lee: One of the things that was very much a part of our training was this connection to a kind of ethnographic impulse in the contemporary art world, the film world, and in the overlap between them. This was at the time when people like Pedro Costa were making the rounds at festivals and all of a sudden he was everyone’s favorite filmmaker and people were like, “There’s something about his work that’s so ethnographic, it’s kind of slow.” There was a kind of capital there.

I think so many of us have strange, Oedipal relationships to the programs in which we’re trained. I would say that I have been deeply shaped by that training and that it’s informed not only my moving-image practice but my thinking and my teaching and what I write. But the part of it that bothers me and that I’m currently in the process of trying to write about is the way in which that connection to the art world is not simply an aesthetic one. It’s an economic one, as well. If not capital precisely, there is an economy of prestige that is being entered into, which has positive and negative aspects. It’s not something that I want to disavow completely because it’s also something that I participate in. But it’s something that is a thorn and a very tricky question. Rather than embracing or disavowing it, I want to hold it in a middle space and to stay uncomfortable with it. 

Alia Ayman: Alice, what does the ethnographic film market look like today? At the end of the day these are films that are funded, sold, and screened, so there is a flow of capital. 

Alice Apley: Our market is slightly different from that of other distributors. Our specialty is really in universities. Our films are a lot of the classic films that continue to attract interest at universities, at museum screenings and retrospective screenings. Contemporary films do also get shown at festivals and campus screenings, as well as in classrooms. And then, secondary for us would be community groups and organizations. Sometimes we have, you know, a film about a traditional boat-building practice and there are people who are into building boats and they want to screen the film! So there are these kind of weird connections that people make. Weird and wonderful, really. That’s our market.

Also, I think that things are shifting considerably right now with streaming. The buying patterns of universities have changed. It used to be that media librarians really curated the collection for their schools and now it’s sort of all over the place. A lot of these large packages, like Kanopy, have moved into the role of curating a collection from high art to educational. I think that there are films getting lost in this transition.

Rachel Chanoff: Working on so many different festivals, I speak to a lot of filmmakers, and when I’m giving them honest advice, I tell them that if you have a film you are thinking of for the New York Jewish Festival or even the Margaret Mead Film Festival, don’t screen it at the Jewish Film Festival for your premiere. Because that is going to mark your film as an “ethnic film.” People often say, “OK, we have an offer from DOC NYC, and we have an offer from Margaret Mead. What would you do?” You have to have a thoughtful conversation about it, because if you premiere at the Margaret Mead Film Festival it’s going to be categorized in a certain way. And do you want that as a filmmaker? Is that going to serve you well? We just did a big study at Sundance about this, and if you break down what a filmmaker makes per hour on the film they made, you’re way in the negative. It’s a really sad thing because artists deserve to make a living with their art. And so, often it’s a detriment if your film is marketed as an ethnographic film. It’s a real challenge to break out of that ghettoization into general distribution. You have to think carefully about how you’re framing your film or how your film is being framed by others.

Faye Ginsburg: I want to stress that here at NYU, at least in the pedagogy and programming, we embrace not only the great diversity of approaches to looking at culture and cultural worlds, but the many different ways that people all over the earth are picking up easily available media technologies, making them their own, and telling important stories. And that economy isn’t entirely a capitalist one. It is also about the significance of circulating stories and building community activist work. I like to use the example of a group that I’ve known forever and done a lot of writing about and research on: Isuma, the Inuit production company that made Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner. This film broke the mold for indigenous film by showing its incredible capacity to make beautiful work that shows on the world stage and is also significant to the communities from which the story comes. It won the Caméra d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 2001. It had a really long theatrical release here in the United States and in Europe and Asia.

So I was interviewing them and I asked: “So, OK, how did you do economically?” They said, “the take from theatrical release stinks. We didn’t see much money at all.” But they said what it did get them, in addition to the joy of doing that, was that the whole community participated in it. It had an incredibly revivifying effect. Just to have the prestige of that kind of circulation brought to the community was huge. So, there are all of these other forms of profit, if you will, that come out of this. They didn’t make any money, but what they got was cultural capital so that they could make their next films.

If we think like anthropologists, we have to get out of the dominant models of the West. One of the things that we are trying to do is to make our thinking more cosmopolitan about what circulation means, to decolonize that thinking, because we’re so attuned to the fact that most prestigious and dominant institutions run through capitalist circuits. I just want to underscore the point that there are a lot of other models of circulation out there.

Melissa Lefkowitz: It’s interesting to think about filmmakers strategically choosing to put their films on the ethnographic film festival circuit. Pegi, we see the opposite with your film Gringo Trails. Your film came to circulate as an ethnographic film, although you didn’t necessarily plan to have it labeled as such. Can you talk more about the life of your film?

Pegi Vail: I started it a long time ago. At that time, I was thinking that it would be an ethnographic look at travel, at backpacker culture. But because it changed by the time I came back to it and finished it in 2013, that made a difference in terms of the considerations that Rachel was talking about. I didn’t send it to DOC NYC, and when the Margaret Mead Film Festival came up as a possibility and it was accepted, I felt like that made so much more sense, because the film is so tied to the history of anthropology and storytelling and museums and travel and expedition, all of which have been tied together over time. I thought that Mead was the perfect place for it to premiere because of all of those connections. But it surprisingly didn’t end up going on to the ethnographic film festival circuit. We did three more general film festivals, plus environmental film festivals. We did screen in a number of museums and I think that connection was made.

Melissa Lefkowitz: Would you label your film anything? Would you put it into a certain category?

Pegi Vail: I say documentary. I’ve never called it an ethnographic documentary. But I do say that it’s through an anthropological lens.

Faye Ginsburg: But, according to Toby, now you can be more sexy if you call it ethnographic!