Are personal documentaries also ethnographic films?

review by Sharon R. Sherman

Scott MacDonald, American Ethnographic Film and Personal Documentary: The Cambridge Turn (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013), 415 pages.

How might one conceptualize ethnographic documentaries and personal documentaries in the same genre? In his book, American Ethnographic Film and Personal Documentary: The Cambridge Turn, author Scott MacDonald provides a viewpoint and examples that demonstrate just how personal ethnographic films become for those who make them. How were these filmmakers affected from being in the field and how did ethnographers recognize that they were documenting themselves at the same time they were documenting “Others?”

Supposedly focusing on “primitive” or “pre-industrial” cultures, early ethnographic filmmakers went outside their own borders to bring us a window into a world relatively hidden from modernization, a world they believed was in a process of transition. “Get it quickly, before it’s gone” was the underlying premise. Margaret Mead fueled the idea that learning about other cultures, documenting them before they disappeared, was a worthy and urgent task that would teach us to learn more about ourselves and the human condition. MacDonald echoes that sentiment:

“Going to a new and different environment tells us as much about our ‘normal’ environment as about the new and different place, and exploring our personal lives can be a way of discovering the complexity and strangeness of our own lives and culture.”

MacDonald begins the first section of his book addressing the films of three well-known ethnographic documentarians who conducted what became “salvage ethnography” and acquired filmic notoriety in the process. These influential filmmakers are John Marshall, Robert Gardner and Tim Asch. Their overlapping careers extended from the 1950s to the 2000s (Asch died in 1994). They worked on each other’s films (sometimes for sound, other times for editing) and were part of a close-knit circle whose most active work occurred during the 1960s and '70s. Almost all of the filmmakers MacDonald discusses have worked in Cambridge, Massachusetts, either at MIT’s Film Section or Harvard’s Film Study Center (and its Sensory Ethnography Lab).

MacDonald also mentions other filmmakers if the connection to Cambridge exists. For example, two other well-known Cambridge film teams who receive some recognition are Frederik Wiseman, famed for his documentation of institutions and his use of observational cinema; and the Drew Associates, a group initially put together by Drew to document the Democratic party’s Wisconsin campaign between Hubert Humphrey and John F. Kennedy for President of the United States for the ground-breaking verité film Primary (1960).

Historically, these filmmakers cannot be ignored because of their significance in the development of cinema verité, direct cinema, or observational cinema (all terms dependent upon the viewer, theorist, or filmmaker). MacDonald uses the term “observational cinema,” following that chosen by Bill Nichols. One could argue about these terms, insisting that cinema verité refers to the filmic style of Jean Rouch, direct cinema to North American films, and observational cinema to a term used most often by Colin Young at UCLA; but MacDonald makes it clear that these differences are minimal and semantic. The irony is that many of the first ethnographic films do not fall into any verité category.

For MacDonald, the films of those in Cambridge, prior to the personal documentary, do not merit the in-depth analysis and description he gives to the films of those who documented non-Western cultures. Such films are often not verité in any way. For example, Dead Birds (1963) by Robert Gardner is not in sync sound, one of the hallmarks of the new cinema style, but it is certainly ethnographic. In addition, U.S. projects coming out of Los Angeles from UCLA’s ethnographic film program or USC’s Center for Visual Anthropology are also rarely part of MacDonald’s story. For example, Tim Asch conducted work in Cambridge and then from 1983 to 1994 went on to teach numerous students who worked with him at USC. Of course, all of these developments occurred later. The creation of the Film Study Center at Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology was established early in academia, in 1958. Thus MacDonald’s focus seems quite appropriate. Today, programs in Visual Anthropology exist in institutions from Temple University to New York University to San Diego State, among many others in the U.S., and also internationally in such locations as Australia, Berlin, Peru, Barcelona and the University of British Columbia.

Because this book concentrates on Cambridge filmmakers, MacDonald begins his tale with that of John Marshall, rather than the usual device of documentary film historians opening with Flaherty. Marshall and his family went to the Kalahari Desert on numerous expeditions, most of which were sponsored by the Peabody Museum of Harvard University, and the Smithsonian. Family members documented aspects of San, aka !Kung Bushmen, aka Ju/’hoansi life in various forms. John’s mother, Lorna, created First Film (1951), edited by John; and both Lorna and Elizabeth, John’s sister, wrote ethnographies. Their overall objective was to document one of the last remaining groups of hunter-gather societies. One of their underlying premises, unstated, is that of cultural evolution. To discover what one’s own society was like in an earlier age, study other people living a more primitive life (Tylor, 1871). What might we learn from societies considered to be living our past in the present? Once in such cultures, anthropologists quickly discarded this notion, recognizing that people are more similar than different and each society is unique unto itself. Nevertheless, in her film Lorna explains that the people of the Kalahari are living a Stone Age existence.

The films produced by the Marshalls, especially those created by John, are now famous examples of the documentation of one culture in depth. The most notable of these films is The Hunters (1957). Four hunters embark upon a two-week journey to kill a giraffe for food. Seen as ethnographic “truth,” the story unfolds in the editing room. The footage was shot on several forays and edited to appear as one hunt. Robert Gardner, who assisted with editing, said he wanted to select “the major emphasis and outline for any culture” in his films, especially, in this society of “men as hunters” (1957:351). The romanticized notion of people who had to hunt to survive was not actually true since the !Kung had become gatherers. The film’s representation of hunting as an activity is accurate, although its emphasis on hunting as subsistence is not. Karl Heider declared, “although the film is ethnographically faulty of the role of hunting in Bushmen life, its portrayal of the hunting itself remains unimpeached” (1976:32). Thus the narration and editing display a distortion of representing a “disappearing culture.”

Unlike MacDonald, I find the narration irritating. MacDonald explains that Marshall is initially following the “voice of G-d” narrators of his time period, but then transforms into evocative description:

“Once he has provided some context for what will become his focus on the hunters—the distinction between women’s gathering work and men’s hunting, the process through which boys become hunters, the poison that allows the !Kung arrows to kill large animals—the nature of Marshall’s narration turns increasingly literary and evocative not merely of earlier films and Nanook but of epic literature.” (25)

The narration is sometimes “mythic” for MacDonald. Other viewers have a different impression. Because the film was shot without sync sound, it relies on a narration that overemphasizes the obvious. Thus statements such as “they ate and ate and ate” spoken over visuals of the men eating insult the viewers’ intelligence (Sherman 1998:37).

That John Marshall’s films are significant is unquestionable. Marshall’s own sense of The Hunters as “artistic” (an approach which Marshall’s father did not like) led him to revisit the large quantity of footage he had originally shot. In his films that followed, he presented close-ups of interactions and, along with Tim Asch, created “sequence filming.” One overarching theme, such as hunting, could not be emblematic of an entire culture. Small sequences allow us to see the people as individuals and learn how they cope with life’s complexities. The films become windows into aspects of people’s lives rather than displays of so-called “primitive” or “exotic” people. MacDonald handles this saga well, describing other films and TV shows about the people of the Kalahari, as well as Marshall’s production of eleven films with the Pittsburgh police department and his role as the cameraman for Wiseman’s Titicut Follies (1967), a portrayal of the horrific conditions at the State Hospital for the Criminally Insane in Bridgewater, Massachusetts.

Those familiar with Marshall’s films may not have read Marshall’s written materials or interviews. MacDonald presents the backstory of the Marshalls’ awareness of the impact they had on the society they studied. Constructing roads to get into the San area, the Marshalls inadvertently led others to find and eventually destroy a way of life. The Bushmen become known by their representation in the fictional feature film The Gods Must Be Crazy (1984). Marshall includes a segment of the filmmakers telling the Bushmen how to act like themselves in N!ai: The Story of a !Kung Woman (1980), a film that includes footage of N!ai from childhood to the present. As MacDonald explains, Marshall’s view of the Kalahari lifestyle is Edenic, and this film is perhaps one of Marshall’s greatest accomplishments.

After a twenty-year absence (caused by the government of South Africa who refused him a visa), Marshall returns to find that his friends have been overrun by a reservation. They were taken from their lands as forced labor; some joined the army to earn a living. Starvation and thirst have decimated those trying to return to their homeland areas. Both N!ai and Marshall explain the present day situation. Marshall realizes that his youth and the beauty recorded in the 1950s are another Eden now lost. Marshall goes back to his earlier footage, creates a number of films or re-uses footage to see what might have already begun to occur in the earlier decades. Both he and the !Kung Bushmen have evolved, for better or worse. To the Marshall family’s great credit, they try to make life better for those now living in a squalid and difficult situation by creating a foundation that not only puts in place a water pump, but also convinces people to return to their own lands to learn to farm and raise cattle.

The five-part TV series, A Kalahari Family (2002), recalls many of the changes, and Marshall incorporates his own experiences as part of the story. MacDonald explains,

“For Marshall, filmmaking was an ongoing pragmatic process that went well beyond learning enough to produce films that audiences might feel they were learning from. He himself continued to engage the people he had filmed and had made films about, and as his awareness expanded, he rethought the earlier conclusions about them that were evident in those films and demonstrated this revised understanding in new work.” (59)

A five-part, six-hour series, A Kalahari Family, covers 50 years of change in the Ju/’hoansi society. But it also illuminates the experiences of the filmmakers. At an early point in the history of ethnographic film, reflexivity allows us to see how the filmmakers present the material.

Many viewers, especially students, see only the iconic films, The Hunters and N!ai: The Story of a !Kung Woman. The larger story remains generally untold. Those studying Marshall’s film collection will learn much from MacDonald’s carefully detailed account of the other films:

“Marshall’s achievement as a film artist is fully evident only to those who have experienced films and videos about the Ju/’hoansi and have understood them as a single ever-evolving meta-work.” (59)

Pragmatism underscores MacDonald’s discussion throughout the book. All films are presented on multiple levels: the experiences filmed, the filmmakers’ process, and the audience’s spectatorship. Rather than presenting “facts” to viewers, the filmmakers’ commitment to “lived experience” includes the shooting and editing of the film, so that we, as the viewers, respond to what we see the subjects experiencing. As MacDonald points out, the filmmaker’s experience may be left implicit or made explicit. For Marshall, the “lived experience” of both the San and the Marshall family demonstrates how filmmakers learn from filmmaking and how we perceive what they present to us. If we were to only see Gardner’s Dead Birds or Marshall’s The Hunters, that premise is lost. Because MacDonald provides the links to this lived experience, the reader is privy to seeing beyond the frame.

MacDonald’s chapter on Gardner is similar to his presentation of the Marshalls’ films. Unlike the Marshalls’ concentration on one culture, Gardner filmed in many different locations. He wanted to express the artistry of film and of culture. Gardner made some short films in the Pacific Northwest, but these films are less well known than his later ones. Dead Birds (1963) was shot in a watershed period before portable sync sound and color film became commonplace in documentary. It is a feature-length film about the Dani of New Guinea that became Gardner’s signature film for many years. He was part of an expedition, from which various materials emerged, including the book Under the Garden Wall by Peter Matthiessen (1962), and another film about the Dani produced by Karl Heider. Dead Birds was later studied along with these supplementary materials.

Shown over and over in anthropology classes, Dead Birds became the subject of much controversy. Because it was not in sync sound, Gardner narrated. What viewers and academics found presumptuous was Gardner’s voice telling audiences what some of the people in the film were thinking, especially the two main characters whose lives become symbolic of the whole. These persons, Wejak, a warrior, and Pua, a young swineherd, become Gardner’s biographical models, much like Flaherty’s use of Nanook. In Dead Birds’ narrative structure, ritual warfare is the “essential” theme Gardner chooses, and the events in the film underscore that premise. Gardner uses montage, much like Vertov, to build emotion. Like Marshall’s The Hunters, Dead Birds is structured and edited to make audiences reach Gardner’s conclusions. Gardner has explained,

“I seized the opportunity of speaking to certain fundamental issues in human life. The Dani were then less important to me than those issues” (1972:34).