Rethinking Anthropological Film Exhibition and Distribution (Part I)

Image by Sanderien Verstappen.

This post is part of a two-post series. See "Rethinking Anthropological Film Exhibition and Distribution (Part II)" to continue this conversation with us.


The COVID-19 pandemic set in motion a wave of digitization in the field of anthropological film exhibition and distribution. While some anthropology platforms had already started to exhibit and distribute films online prior to the pandemic, the lockdowns of 2020 forced many more existing ethnographic film festivals and distribution platforms to reconfigure their activities online. Film distributors (at Documentary Educational Resources (DER), the Nordic Anthropological Film Association (NAFA), and Journal of Anthropological Films (JAF)) and festival organizers (at RAI, Festival dei Popoli, and #Distribute2020 virtual film festival) present at the 2021 visual anthropology conference of the Royal Anthropological Institute Film Festival (RAI) engaged in a lively discussion over the implications of this development, and the ways in which it is reflective of the broader shifts towards multimodality within anthropology (Collins et al. 2017). The conversation at the 2021 RAI Film Festival presented here builds upon earlier online roundtable discussions during the virtual Vienna node of #Distribute2020, organized as part of the ethnocineca International Documentary Film Festival Vienna (Verstappen and Paar 2020).

We (the participants of the RAI roundtable discussion) see this piece as part of an ongoing conversation that will be carried forward by all of us. To do this, we pose the following questions: How might anthropologists shape the future of anthropological film exhibition and distribution? What are currently the most pressing questions or challenges in this field of film distribution? And how do current changes in technology and user access needs prompt us to revisit long-term questions about the relations between anthropologists and their audiences, interlocutors, and institutional structures? In this post, we discuss several initiatives in which we are involved and that aim to revitalize and transform available infrastructures of circulating, valuing, and archiving anthropological films. With that, we highlight here three affordances of digital technologies that emerged as central themes in our discussion: first, the potential of broadening the audiences of anthropological films, especially in the field of education; second, the role of digital distribution platforms in generating scholarly recognition for filmmakers; and third, the ways in which distribution platforms can contribute new digital tools that can potentially become part of projects of decolonizing anthropology, for example through more inclusive and participatory modes of catalogue indexing.

Audiences Lost and Found

Caterina Sartori directs the biennial Film Festival of the Royal Anthropological Institute (RAI) in the United Kingdom, together with co-director Stephen Hughes. For the RAI Film Festival, Sartori suggests, the first challenge is the audience. How audiences are being reconfigured with the shift to online film viewings is an open question. Sartori noted at the start of the conversation that: “the films that we [at the RAI Film Festival] are distributing are world expanding films. So, we think that they need to be seen by audiences that go well beyond academia. Our film festival is placed in a city, but now that we go online, things change quite dramatically. Who is our audience now? How do we reach them in a landscape so saturated with content? How do we create content around the films that helps them stand out?”

Through various efforts at digitization, festival organizers and film distributors are creating new opportunities for sharing ethnographic films in new contexts or with new audiences. Margot Mecca, representing the Festival dei Popoli, added to this insight by framing that their “festival was founded by a group of social scientists and since then it [has] maintained a really close relationship with anthropology. We have a public that is really interested and educated in films with anthropological content, so we really try to keep in touch with anthropological research centers and visual anthropologists in order to consider their films for selections. […] As you can imagine, COVID-19 changed abruptly our way of showing films. During the lockdown in 2020, we organized a streaming of films from our archive through collaboration with free Italian online platforms. When we held the festival online in November 2021, we discovered we were able to reach a wider (and more diversified) audience comprised of those who were not previously attending the festival. This pushes us to maintain online screenings as part of our future editions, also improving our collaboration with museums and other partners. This is a major challenge because it forces us to invest in online streaming platforms and in digital communication strategies, which represents a really massive challenge in terms of financial investment.” For example, the Festival dei Popoli is opening its film archive to the public, while at the same time working on the digitization of analogue films and developing digital tools for accessing and navigating their film archive. In addition, festival organizers held an online film program targeting different audiences and networks. For Mecca, this has been especially important during the pandemic, since the archive has not always been physically accessible for students and other people.

The 2020 online edition of the Festival dei Popoli represented a challenging and difficult moment of adaptation for festival organizers, but with the new tools learned and tested, the festival is now better able to face the challenges of managing an online program in an efficient way. In fact, the festival decided to maintain its online version for the future editions, even if only with a selection of films (depending on rights issues). The decision was made because the 2020 edition showed the potential for reaching a wider audience, both at a local and national level, going beyond accessibility barriers such as mobility, income, or geographic location.

Pedagogical Implications

Building on this, several participants stressed the opportunities for using ethnographic films as part of online teaching material in education programs. Alice Apley, Executive Director of The Documentary Educational Resources (DER), explains, “the majority of the distribution work we do is in universities and schools. Moving to digital forms means that we work with streaming platforms; however, some schools have recently acquired the capability to host their own video, and we can return to working with them directly. The pandemic has accelerated a digitization process that was already in motion...but it also pushed us to embrace some new opportunities for exhibition online, such as our Watch From Home project in which we provide a selection of films available for free on the web for one to two months. We did this originally to help educators in the United States, who were scrambling to find resources to very quickly move their teaching online, so we made a decision to not have any entry barriers. We’ve continued to offer Watch From Home with some additional curated selections and have reached new, non-academic audiences. That is an upside of the pandemic.”

Visual anthropologists Fiona P. McDonald and Harjant Gill were co-curators of the #Distribute2020 and #Displacements2018 virtual film festivals, co-sponsored by the Society for Visual Anthropology (SVA) and the Society for Cultural Anthropology (SCA). They also highlighted the possibilities for untethering ethnographic film circulation from academic conferences, as well as making them more accessible and equitable in online formats that can be used as teaching material in anthropology classrooms. The films shown at #Distribute2020, for example, were viewed by a wide international audience, including those in higher education as well as those in elementary and primary schools. This experience has led McDonald and Gill to discuss what the future looks like if we consider actively programming festivals so that films can most effectively be used within the classroom and with pedagogical considerations. Limitations imposed by a global pandemic, such as restricted in-person teaching and conferences, have opened new opportunities for virtual engagement and viewership. Whereas McDonald and Gill had already developed an infrastructure for virtual engagement and dissemination of ethnographic media in preparation for #Displacements2018, several other more established ethnographic film festivals, including the RAI festival and SVA Film and Media Festival, modeled their virtual platforms after #Displacements2018 and #Distribute2020.

New digital technologies have enabled a variety of innovative strategies for reaching audiences around the globe. These are shaped, in part, by the mission and resources of the host institution. For Apley, she noted that “there is a difference between exhibition, which is represented by the film festivals, and distribution, which entails a unique set of activities. Distribution involves making films available not just for one-time viewing during an event, but providing on-going access to a title so that it can be shown in the classroom or accessible as a resource for researchers according to the scholar and/or institution’s scheduling needs.” DER is one of a handful of non-profit (501(c)(3)) film distributors established in the 1960s and 1970s specifically serving educational institutions. To provision a catalog of film via physical and digital means, and to market the films (for instance, promoting films at academic conferences and submitting films for journal reviews), DER distributes ethnographic films on a fee-basis with the revenues shared by the filmmakers and DER. As for DER’s portion, Apley explained, “I have staff to pay, and there are real costs involved in making films accessible on a variety of formats (DVD, streaming platforms, etc), so we can’t just put everything online for free. That said, the internet has afforded us new opportunities for online viewing and promotion, and we are excited about the ability to reach new audiences.”


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.


Collins, Samuel Gerald, Matthew Durington, and Harjant Gill. 2017. “Multimodality: An Invitation.American Anthropologist 119, no. 1: 142–53.

Verstappen, Sanderien, and Viktoria Paar. 2020. “#Corona: Distributing Anthropological Films during the Pandemic.” AllegraLab, October 8.