Rethinking Anthropological Film Exhibition and Distribution (Part II)

Image by Sanderien Verstappen.

This post is part of a two-post series. See "Rethinking Anthropological Film Exhibition and Distribution (Part I)" for the first installment.

Structures of Recognition

A major responsibility of anthropological film distribution platforms, brought up by a co-editor of the Journal of Anthropological Films (JAF), Frode Storaas, is that of scholarly recognition. How are ethnographic films evaluated as a form of scholarship? And how do films get formally incorporated in evaluation procedures in the context of job applications, promotions, and tenure track agreements? Ethnographic film festivals have historically played an influential role in generating recognition for individual makers and in establishing a canon of ethnographic films through their function of selecting and awarding films (Friedman 2020; Vallejo and Peirano 2017; Varvantakis 2021). Recent initiatives in the field of digital publishing have supported the establishment of online film journals, in which films are subjected to a peer review process. JAF, for instance, draws from the American Anthropological Association (AAA) Guidelines for the Evaluation of Ethnographic Visual Media (2015) when reviewing films.

Storaas, also in his capacity as a representative of the Nordic Anthropological Film Association (NAFA), explained, “NAFA is an old organization, we started collecting films back in the mid-1970s. The first years we made 16mm copies of anthropological films available for teaching at universities who were members of NAFA, later on, films on VHS and DVD were mailed. Nowadays, the NAFA Collections is online and reaches NAFA members worldwide. When we launched JAF in 2017, the idea was that films based on research should be accepted within academia as a stand-alone academic publication. We have somehow achieved that. Films based on anthropological research can now be published on par with written articles, assessed by peers, and inscribed in international credential systems of academic publication.” Storaas is optimistic about the future of visual anthropology publications: “I think more peer-reviewed journals, like JAF, will come soon. The Journal of Video Ethnography (launched already in 2014) also publishes films, but [different from JAF] adds a text to the films to clarify the link with a body of academic literature. Moreover, now that many academic journals are online, and online only, another way of distributing moving images is to include films, film clips, or sound within written texts.”

An important theme that is currently on the agenda of the editorial board of JAF is the debate about Open Access in the broader field of publishing (something that resonates with the AAA as they currently consider their next steps with their publishing portfolio). JAF follows the principles of Plan S: the idea that “all scholarly publications on the results from research funded by public or private grants provided by national, regional and international research councils and funding bodies, must be published in Open Access journals” or other open access platforms. However, the decision to publish all films open access restrains some films to be submitted for JAF. This is not only deemed problematic by producers of films made for commercial purposes, but also sometimes for ethical reasons, when anthropologists and their collaborators do not want a film on display openly for the whole world. Such cases are rare as people involved in film projects do want their films to be seen. Still, due to certain circumstances protagonists may agree on allowing a film to be used for teaching, but not screened for a general public. Reasons for restricted screenings may include films addressing sensitive situations, such as certain health issues, a local conflict, or a ritual that should be kept partially secret. In the end, it will be the responsibility of the anthropologist/filmmaker to decide whether certain films should be password protected.

Storaas added that “for such films, we have the NAFA Film Collection, where we make films available for the members of NAFA only. When submitting a film to the NAFA film festival, the filmmakers are given the opportunity to allow the film to be watched either by members of NAFA only or for all the public as open access; or to not have the film online. When the selection committee for the NAFA film festival makes the list of films selected for the festival, they also have on their list additional films that they suggest for publication on Commercial distributors and filmmakers have their own online platforms for selling films addressed to academia (such as Alexander Street, Heritage Broadcasting Service, Documentary Educational Resources (DER), and Royal Anthropological Institute (RAI)). But many films don’t make it to the bigger distributors—such films can still find an audience through NAFA.”

In order to support the recognition of ethnographic films and media for purposes of promotion and career development, Gill and Storaas advocate that exhibition and distribution platforms consciously look for films that are produced outside of the established departments and programs in North America and Europe that have, thus far, defined the narrow genealogy of ethnographic film. Historically disenfranchised and underprivileged filmmakers, specifically BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) filmmakers, are less likely to find academic recognition and acclaim given that many are not trained in renowned visual anthropology programs and prestigious institutions even if they produce excellent, anthropologically relevant films. Films made by queer and BIPOC filmmakers often don’t fit conveniently into the already defined genres of ethnographic cinema, and as a result are often underrepresented and underserved by festival programmers and conference organizers. Gill noted: “As curators and programmers who are invested in diversifying and broadening the scope of visual anthropology, we constantly have to think about which films have been left out, whose voices have been excluded historically. We have to make sure that the films that are selected highlight diverse perspectives, including films made by queer, diasporic, transnational BIPOC filmmakers—whose films are rarely distributed through major film distribution networks or highlighted in premier ethnographic film festivals.”

This latter point is also a concern about decolonizing the canon of ethnographic films (Gill 2021). Here, the virtual space might in some ways compensate for the limited possibilities to screen films through conventional platforms. Reflecting on his experiences of having previously co-directed the Society for Visual Anthropology (SVA) Film and Media Festival from 2012-2014, Gill noted that “the time slots that we usually get in a (offline/conventional) film festival that often compete with academic presentations and panels are getting smaller and smaller. While programming SVA Film and Media Festival, there have been times when I was really frustrated because of the continual increase in the number of films submitted each year and the increasing quality of the films, while screening times shrunk steadily each year to make space for other programming at the annual American Anthropology Association Meetings. It was quite frustrating. Being a filmmaker myself, I want to give other filmmakers the opportunity to show their work—especially films that are produced with diverse perspectives and varying points of view; films we haven’t seen before. […] Unconstrained by the conventional limitations of putting together a film festival on site, virtual film festivals really allow us to play around with how to program films in a more accessible way, giving us the opportunity to be creative and think outside of the box.”

Participatory Indexing as a Possible Tool of Decolonizing Film Distribution

A shared concern for the future of film distribution is accessibility, searchability, and community engagement. There are several new initiatives under development that aim to give audiences more opportunities to appropriate film archives, and, especially, to interact with filmed people and their descendants. These initiatives aim to contribute digital means of decolonizing visual anthropology, by developing specialized software and other digital tools to make processes of indexing catalogues more relevant and accessible to Indigenous groups and other people who appear in ethnographic films.

As part of the effort to decolonize and indigenize its film catalog, the DER has started preliminary work to increase the searchability and accessibility of films of interest to Indigenous audiences, and this project is supported by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). Apley commented: “we will be integrating contemporary ‘tribal’ names—that is the preferred nomenclature used by the different Indigenous communities—into the film descriptions and create search tools integrating ‘Indigenous studies subject areas’ (informed by the National Film Board of Canada's portal for Indigenous audiences). We've just hired an Indigenous Studies Outreach Coordinator/Archivist and are beginning work on this.”

In Italy, in a joint research project called PH remix (led by the University of Pisa, the Festival dei Popoli, and the Fondazione Sistema Toscana), artificial intelligence (AI) software is being developed to create new methods to investigate film archives. The AI tools will be developed by a public research institution (the University of Pisa), considering the archive as a common heritage to be reappropriated and reinterpreted by a wide audience, including professionals, researchers, and those entities and societies who were in the past “observed” by documentary cinema. At this moment, the project coordinators are still evaluating and discussing different issues related to this subject, such as copyright, user accessibility, and ethical issues connected to the use of AI in society. Mecca clarified that: “the software will be able to detect languages, phrases, objects and shapes, colors and other elements that are present in video files; to process a large number of films in a short lapse of time in search of elements that are usually absent from traditional metadata and even to identify elements that were not intentionally captured by the camera.” Such initiatives aim to change the ways in which film archives can be explored and used, in unexpected ways and by a variety of researchers in different fields.

Cinepedia Ethnographica (CE), a project for a collaboratively edited open access union catalog of ethnographic, folkloric and related films—ideally encompassing the over one-hundred-year legacy of encounters between filmmakers, film subjects, and film audiences—is another front on which DER is working to decolonize access and scholarship. The project brings Apley’s leadership in digital strategies for DER together with Jennifer Cool’s call in American Anthropologist for “a cross between Wikipedia and IMDb for ethnographic film” (Cool 2014, 175). Apley and Cool co-directed National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH)-funded Foundations research from 2017 to 2019, and they developed a metadata schema specifically for ethnographic film to support the archiving of contextual information essential to ensuring the ongoing value of these films for both scholars and source communities. Among the goals of CE is increasing the visibility of this cinematic record of human history and creating spaces for source communities to offer counter-narratives through community-based annotations and interpretations of archival works. The CE project builds on and deepens links between festivals and anthropological research centers, and among festivals, distributors, and classrooms. Besides addressing essential questions of scholarly recognition and peer review (as raised by Storaas), it also provides social-technical infrastructure for diverse stakeholders to create and maintain a union catalog—not as a static resource but as a living enterprise sustained through many institutional and individual collaborations. Apley noted: “As an online catalog available to anyone with access to the internet, Cinepedia Ethnographica will make films visible to users outside of archives and academia. Further, through opportunities for annotating a film’s metadata, the project will engage people who were the participants in the films, adding their reflections and voices to the film archive. There is a huge role for anthropologists here.”

The Challenges Are Our Opportunities Moving Forward

What can be perceived as challenges of sustainability, equity, access, and distribution, Fiona P. McDonald suggests, can also be seen as sites of opportunities within the virtual experiment to create more equitable and innovative engagements. While the speakers report a scarcity of screening platforms for anthropological films and even a shrinking of conventional screening opportunities alongside funding limitations, they highlight growing opportunities for scholarly recognition and new forms of audience engagement. While projects of digitalization require considerable financial investment and intellectual commitment, they also offer potential for decolonizing anthropology, for example through the diversification of film selections on virtual screening platforms or through the involvement of filmed people and their descendants in the online distribution of information.


This piece grew out of the round table “Rethinking Anthropological Film Distribution: Radical Sharing Beyond the Crisis” at the Royal Anthropological Institute Film Festival 2021. We thank Viktoria Paar for making a transcription of the discussion.


Cool, Jennifer. 2014. “Gardening Metadata in the New Media Ecology: A Manifesto (of Sorts) for Ethnographic Film.” American Anthropologist 116, no. 1: 173–178.

Friedman, P. Kerim. 2020. “Defining Ethnographic Film.” In The Routledge International Handbook of Ethnographic Film and Video, edited by Phillip Vannini, 15–29. London: Routledge.

Gill, Harjant S. 2021. “Decolonizing Visual Anthropology: Locating Transnational Diasporic Queers-of-Color Voices in Ethnographic Cinema.” American Anthropologist 123, no. 1: 36–49.

Vallejo, Aida, and María Paz Peirano, eds. 2017. Film Festivals and Anthropology. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

Varvantakis, Christos. 2021. “Ethnographic Film at the Crossroads.” AllegraLab, July 29.