Ethnocine: An Introduction

From the Series: Ethnocine

Photo by Zau Ring Salaw.

This series is a collaboration between the Screening Room and Ethnocine Collective, whose members are Elena Guzman, Emily Hong, Miasarah Lai, Laura Menchaca Ruiz, Mariangela Mihai, and Natalie Nesvaderani. The series was envisioned by Mariangela, organized and produced by Elena and Natalie, and supported by Emily, Miasarah, and Laura.

Ethnocine is a feminist filmmaking collective whose name, in short, refers to ethnographic cinema. We are a group of women of color and queer filmmakers that came together as storytellers, poets, scholars, and activists hungry for spaces that affirmed our stories, perspectives, and experiences. In our early days, we sat in each other's living rooms and gave feedback on our ideas and works in progress, held each others’ cameras and boom mics, spent long hours in the editing studio together, watched films, collaborated, and had long conversations about what a decolonial and intersectional feminist filmmaking practice could look, sound, and feel like. Over time, our work grew beyond our living rooms and reached peers with shared interests through workshops, installations, panels, an artist residency on feminist ethnographic filmmaking, and a podcast.

The work we do is by no means new. We stand on the shoulders of filmmakers who have challenged the place of film in anthropology, theorized feminist ways of creating, and shifted the place of community in film, ultimately creating space to imagine alternative possibilities. Zora Neale Hurston was one of the first ethnographers to question early presumptions of filmmaker objectivity and did so by shifting dominant narratives through nuanced portraits of African American communities. Maya Deren’s performative, poetic, experimental self-portraits and films challenged the line between art and scholarship and nurtured future conversations about psychoanalysis and women’s identity in feminist filmmaking. Trinh T. Minh-ha’s filmic approach of “speaking nearby” challenged the enduring Western gaze in documentary films that still “others” indigenous and non-Western cultures (see Chen 1992). Our collective is in conversation with these scholar-artists and many more contemporary filmmakers who have changed the images we see, the way that we see them, and the methods we use to co-create them.

We craft alternative spaces for collaboration in academia, and challenge the conventions of the broader filmmaking industry with our allies, Brown Girls Doc Mafia, Asian American Documentary Network, and others active in the #DecolonizeDocs movement, which foregrounds media and storytelling from marginalized voices and perspectives. Ethnocine’s vision of feminist filmmaking responds to the #DecolonizeDocs movement by addressing the disparity of women of color both in the documentary filmmaking industry and in academia. Moving toward decolonization as a framework, we ask what a visual anthropology for liberation could look like (Harrison 2011). Through our media, we challenge dominant hegemonic gazes that privilege white, straight, able-bodied, upper-middle-class cis-gender men and instead, center "the subaltern, the indigenous, the indigenized and the minoritized . . . " (Faye V. Harrison, quoted in McGranahan, Roland, and Williams 2016).

As our collectivist organizing took shape, we identified our shared values for filmmaking. Ethnocine’s decolonial and anti-colonial vision centers two core concepts: intersectional feminism and collaboration. These concepts inform who is behind the camera, the kinds of stories that are told, the ways narratives are crafted, the potential that film has to mobilize for movement building, and the significance of narrative shifting. By bringing an intersectional lens to the fore, #DecolonizeDocs allows for emergent possibilities of multivocal storytelling that account for, rather than elide, differences of race, class, gender, and sexuality; this lens also illuminates our own complicity in the structures of power inherent to filmmaking. We decenter the assumed white male gaze of audiences and instead engage the audience as active participants who have the potential to take on what bell hooks (2014, 116) calls an “oppositional gaze.” We ask that audiences not only come to learn or empathize with “other” social worlds, but instead hold space for, act in solidarity with, and dare to reimagine our shared social worlds.

We understand that it is not enough to simply shift the narrative, but we must also work so that our narratives build solidarity and collective power. We work alongside communities to co-construct impact goals through media for political organizing, mobilizing new allies, and challenging harmful social, political, and economic structures. We not only document the communities in our films, but we collaborate with them. Our collaborations use resources at hand to empower people in front of and behind the camera. The people in our films are more than just passive subjects; they are active participants whose artistic and political contributions are foundational to our projects. Regardless of the chosen positionality of the ethnographer or filmmaker, the goal of our collaborative projects is to create spaces of autonomy, multivocality, and intersubjective learning.

The curation of our Screening Room series offers resources and opportunities for reflection on our mission and vision over the coming months. Each of these creative works highlights a different perspective and method for #DecolonizeDocs.

Bad Feminist Making Films is a podcast produced in collaboration with Rhiza Collective that features conversations with feminist filmmakers who are changing the industry. Bridging the academic and filmmaking worlds, our series embraces Roxane Gay’s (2014) idea of the “bad feminist” by acknowledging that we are flawed human beings doing work that is necessarily imperfect, collaborative, and processual. Rather than expecting to have all the answers, we build community with other filmmakers, lift up their personal stories, and reflect together on the mistakes and the hard-earned successes of our work. The BFMF episodes curated for this Screening Room series will focus on strategies for using the podcast as a teaching tool, outlining episode themes and teaching methods that instructors can use to foster dialogue about doing decolonial film work in educational settings.

Nobel Nok Dah, an experimental ethnographic documentary, offers an intimate view into the lives of three refugee women from Myanmar whose migratory paths cross in Thailand and later in Central New York. Nobel Nok Dah breaks away from the single story about refugees to center diverse women’s narratives of self, place, and belonging. Directed by Emily Hong, Miasarah Lai, and Mariangela Mihai, the film abandons documentary realism for experimental visuals, drawing from feminist oral history and ethno-fiction methods to visualize the textures of everyday life.

Get By is a character-driven ethnographic film directed by Emily Hong which follows two recycling workers in central New York and their fight for a living wage. The film is a multivocal exploration of the everyday experiences of Stanley and Milton, worker-activists on the front lines of a community campaign in which the filmmaker is also deeply involved. The film raises key questions about the public value of increasingly privatized work, the challenges of worker-community solidarity across lines of race, class, and gender, and the complexities of collaboration involved in both filmic subject matter and methodology.

Hay Betl7em is a social media–based docuseries created by Laura Menchaca Ruiz and Khader Handal that highlights stories of everyday people in Bethlehem, Palestine. Rooted in the belief that the ordinary is extraordinary, the docuseries moves beyond the hypervisibility of Palestine as “violent and dangerous” and beyond the liberal rhetoric of Palestine as a site of romantic resistance. Hay Betl7em breathes nuance into the narrative realities of Palestine through the lens of docuseries subjects, who serve as producers on each episode. The series creates space for the complexity of everyday narratives of Palestinians within and outside the framework of Israeli occupation.

These projects are united in their common commitment to intersectional feminism and collaboration. They build relationships with cultural producers, visual artists, workers, activists, and fellow filmmakers, and envision new futures beyond ideological and physical borders. It is our hope that this curated series will deepen reflections, as well as offer inspiration for the practice and pedagogy of decolonizing filmmaking, a process that will never be complete.


Chen, Nancy N. 1992. "'Speaking Nearby': A Conversation with Trinh T. Minh-ha." Visual Anthropology Review 8, no. 1: 82–91.

Gay, Roxane. 2014. Bad Feminist: Essays. New York: Harper.

Harrison, Faye V., ed. 2011. Decolonizing Anthropology: Moving Further toward an Anthropology for Liberation. Arlington, Va.: American Anthropological Association.

hooks, bell. 2014. Black Looks: Race and Representation. New York, N.Y.: Routledge.

McGranahan, Carole, Kaifa Roland, and Bianca C. Williams. 2016. "Decolonizing Anthropology: A Conversation with Faye V. Harrison, Part I." Savage Minds, May 2.