Cultural theory and Documentary film

Cumbersome cameras

Our first film in the course was “Nanook in the North”. The viewing made the debate in late ninetenth century more clear for me. Because I thought of the antropological value of the film afterwards, already as I sat viewing I felt that very little was explained about life and ways of the eskimo/innuit people. Clearly very interesting footage but not accompanied by a really  instructive text.

Then reading Alison Griffiths book, “Wondrous difference…” gave insight to the discussion among anthropologists about the value of films to anthropology. It is clear why they did consider carefully written studies more important than film to document original peoples life. It´s easier to describe structures, values and forms and causes to certain behavior in text than to display by cinemafootage. You could have thought that field antropologists would consider film as a important way to document things. But then again reading about the cumbersome technical standard you had to use, makes it easy to understand why most avoided it all together.  The cameras of the time was big objects and they had to be mounted on likewise sturdy tripods adding to a luggage that already was a logistical problem in itself without cinematographic equipment. And the handling of the negativefilm wasn´t easy either. Then you would have all these things to actually work on place.  One example given was of a camera that stopped erratically on any given moment. If the camera worked there is the issue of getting your studied subjects to actually do something before the camera. It could easily be like one example, when the camera was set up in a blazing hot desert on a tripod with a fixed head, the dancing group suddenly just danced out of picture without returning for the few minutes that a filmroll lasts…

It´s hard enough to get good footage when can speak with your actors, but to accomplish that with indogenous people driven by motive´s that doesn´t translate trough the small portions of language you deal with, to make yourself understood and most often are told to by some translating helper.

It´s naturally understandable that the interest in cinematic adventures  didn´t have many followers, though those films that was made hade sometimes huge popularity in the public or by the scientific viewers. And as mentioned before it also cooks down to the question of the scientific usefulness of the film. Antropologists of the time was  interested in studying genealogy and structures, aspects that cinema could do very little for to enlighten. More  use was taken by still photographing, even if the technique was cumbersome with glassplates and so on, it was very much more affordable and easier to use than the moving film. For photos the same debate exists about it´s scientific usefulness, it was seen as a compliment to collection of real artifacts and drawings done by the researchers.

Though it existed a thorough use of photos and cinema by some researchers specially in the field of antropologists interested in measuring and documenting people to  find racial differences.