This post builds on the research article “The Bellwether Ewe: Recent Developments in Ethnographic Filmmaking and the Aesthetics of Anthropological Inquiry,” which was published in the May 2011 issue of the Society’s peer-reviewed journal, Cultural Anthropology.
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.