International Ethnographic Film Festival of Quebec: Comments

On Saturday, January 26, 2008, I was invited to present an address at the 5th annual International Ethnographic Film Festival of Quebec (website), at Concordia University (schedule). What I present below are extracts from that address, with reference to two ethnographic videos:

Roman Postcards
Silvia Gigliodoro, 21 min, 2007, Italy.
This film was shot entirely at night in the Monte Caprino park, located in the heart of Rome, which is used as a meeting place by members of the gay community. This film tries to uncover the mysteries of this park and the clandestine activities that take place there.
[watch the video online]

and

Room 11, Ethiopia Hotel
Itsushi Kawase, 23 min, 2007, Japan.
This film was filmed entirely in the filmmaker’s hotel room. Through the film the filmmaker tries to present the life of the street kids in Gondar, Ethiopia. The film is based on the personal accounts of the children and a hybrid recording technique is used throughout.
[website] [director]


It’s thanks to the great organizers of this wonderful event, and especially thanks to Marlee MacGuire and Katherine Romanow, that I had the pleasure of reviewing and analyzing in private almost all of the videos submitted for the festival this year. I cannot do a proper commentary on each one, so I instead opted to offer a number of observations and to share some of my preliminary thoughts about two videos that in certain respects stood out for me and seemed to share some subtle elements in common. The two videos I want to comment on are Roman Postcards by Silvia Gigliodoro and Room 11, Ethiopia Hotel by Itsushi Kawase, both of which I found were engaging on many different fronts.

First, let me begin with a brief and general set of observations on the context of contemporary ethnographic videos. There seems to be a strong desire by new and/or young ethno-videographers to transcend received conventions and constraints that came out of discussions in the past about what makes a film an ethnographic film. The rebellion against narration is almost totally complete. In fact, we can call it a revolution, and say that the revolutionaries are firmly in power now. Today, an ethnographic video that is narrated by the videographer is one that is forced to explain itself, if not apologize for itself. This is for good reason too. Narration in many subtle ways tied in with the coloniality and the positivism of the discipline of anthropology: we were to essentially treat the Kung San, the Inuit, the Yanomamo, as if they were the subjects of a National Geographic film, their every little move subjected to a kind of sportscaster commentary, their bizarre ways rendered amenable to the understandings of Western audiences. It’s as if we were translating the animals for their captors, as if we were all in effect zoologists, as if the old ethnographic spectacles of the World Fairs of the 19th century had simply found a new format.

Secondly, the issue of holism. Videos such as the two I am commenting on represent a radical departure from any attempt to explain a culture as a whole, and from any attempt to provide details of social and historical context. We do not know how many gays there are in Rome, how many people pass through Monte Caprini park, how it came to be a gay cruising park, what the wider Roman society says about the park, and so forth. In Room 11, we do not know why Gondar was chosen as a location, what it is about Gondar that we should know, how many street children live in Ethiopia and Gondar in particular, how the state deals with homeless children, their role in the overall economy, or even from where they obtain their goods to trade. We are immediately thrust into a particular scene.

Thirdly, and related to the last points, there is little evidence of an attempt to obey commands that ethnographic video should contribute to the development of anthropological theory, the holy grail of institutionalized and especially print anthropology. These videos seem to represent a view of knowledge as incomplete, fragmentary, in process, limited, local, and personally experienced, open to questions and reinterpretations. There is no definitive beginning and no definitive end to either video, apart from the digital start and finish points.

From what I read of the video descriptions, as written by the respective authors of these two videos, they are both self-consciously presenting these videos as experimental videos. One can assume, therefore, that they know something about past conventions, and that they have an interest in doing something different, and I think they have certainly produced something different. Others will remain sceptical of course, to indirectly paraphrase a colleague: we need to know where and when expression ends and explanation begins, unless we are to remain stuck within a stylistic play of metaphors and vignettes, shadows and dreams. The word “experiment” can bring back visions of science in a lab coat for some people, and even people who would prefer to wear the lab coat may ask: so what is the experiment about? What is the hypothesis? What are the results? What are you trying to prove? What I am signalling here is that as much as I may be personally enthusiastic about such videos, many hard questions will be asked by others. Even with respect to such a seemingly innocent choice of whether to narrate a video or not, your decision will be taken as representative of a stance in a series of very heated debates, debates that ultimately go to the core of the professional identity of anthropology, its historical and current social position, and its prospects for engagement with a changing world. So what you will all understand, thanks in part to ethnographic video, is that style is not superficial after all.

Roman Postcards. Roman Postcards is Silvia Gigliodoro’s first film, having just finished her MA in visual anthropology at Goldsmiths College, in London. I reviewed this film three times: once as a whole, as you saw it; once without looking at it but just listening to the dialogues (my being a Roman obviously helped); and a third time with the sound muted, focusing just on what unfolded on the computer screen. Why I became convinced that this was cleverly planned film was due to the fact that in each instance I came away with a different experience of the central conceptual point of the film: an open secret. Gigliodoro makes reference to the films of Pier Paolo Pasolini. She could also have paid homage to Roberto Rossellini and Federico Fellini’s Rome: Open City and called her film: Monte Caprini, Open Secret. An open secret is a paradox and it comes across well in both the visual and spoken components of the film. The visual element exudes anonymity: darkness, no faces, seemingly empty shots of pavement, the video almost reaching a complete visual stand still at one point, looking away as always. Shame, darkness, privacy, secrecy all come out in the dialogues as well. This is an experimental video in another way as well, beyond the three points I mentioned before, in that it is a video made without pre-negotiated terms of entry, with rapport gained, if at all, in the process of making the video itself. “Respect our privacy” someone shouts the filmmaker. There is a constant sense of caution, of almost apologizing for being there. So much, by the way, so much for the notion that anthropology at home means being too familiar with a place, that too much is taken for granted, that nothing is alien enough. Confidentiality is defensive and protective, “you’re not recording me are you?”, “no, just your hands, I can show you”. What a difference a camera can make. The camera itself is the subject of some hostility and confrontation within the video itself, and one must note how the videographer maintains herself in a constant state of cool. The video is conversational, it seems to float from one random passerby to the next, it preaches nothing, and it offers no conclusions. It can compete with documentaries as shown on various documentary channels on cable television, but probably not as a teaching film except in very specialized courses that allow ample room for discussion.

Room 11, Ethiopia Hotel. If I had been approached by a student who told me, “hey, I want to make an ethnographic video, but without leaving my hotel room, we just sort of sit there and talk and stuff”, I probably would have said, if feeling blunt enough, “look, kid, you really need to figure out what the heck you’re doing because you seem to be totally clueless here. We don’t do ethnographies in hotel rooms, for chrissakes”. And instead, contrary to my prejudice, this videographer makes it all work. I was amazed by this film, and enchanted by it. For wholly unrelated reasons, this video was interesting to me simply because it was made by a Japanese anthropologist in Ethiopia. I am not normally exposed to Japanese anthropology, but it’s great, even if in superficial terms, to see ethnography without the classic Westerner as one of the key players. Moreover, I did not know of experimental trends in Japanese ethnography: some have argued that post-modernism and self-doubt are the pathologies of Western de-hegemonization, as if in Asia it is instead modernization full steam ahead. The author of the film, Itsushi Kawase, specifically stated in his written precis for this film that it is meant as a sensitive testimony and not a scientific documentary, with his interest being in new trends in visual anthropology, experimenting with intimacy and subjectivity. Of course, his two young Gondar friends do a lot to make this video vivid, and I don’t think I will forget those two for a long time. From an experimental point of view, Room 11 also plays with boundaries. Is this a room as we understand it? Of course it’s a room, but the point is that he shows how porous a room can be, that being in a room does not mean being secluded and sealed away from the world. The videographer drips onto the street, hanging outside his window, taking in the everyday scenes of street life in the immediate vicinity of the hotel. The street itself seems to pour into his room: his friends wink and smile at him from a distance, the noises of the street flood inwards, he can’t hide. I am starting to wonder now if Room 11 is meant as a metaphor for anthropology itself, or as a symbol of the video camera, I am not sure if either is the case, I have not yet had enough time to think about this.

To sum up, I think there is something about both of these videos that speaks to a kind of quiet depression, maybe even a desperation. They may not speak directly of social and historical contexts, but this sense of desperation gives an emotional sense of context I think. I liked how in both films the camera seems to be idle, not busy, not constantly lurching for new angles, with cuts upon cuts upon cuts. As with some of the experimental trends of the 1960s, and here I am speaking specifically of the work of Jean Rouch, these cameras dwell, they pause, they give a sense of stillness, stillness which can be critical to reflection if you believe what people say of the interpretative superiority of still versus moving images. These are moving images, but hardly frenetic. And it’s the idleness of the camera that is, I think, best suited for conveying everydayness.

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4 thoughts on “International Ethnographic Film Festival of Quebec: Comments

  1. I first would like to thank you for your thoughtful and brilliant comments. There are quite a few very
    Important issues have been brought up here but I would like to clarify my position of filmmaking regarding to “holism”.

    I guess holistic approach in terms of classic ethnographical sense cannot be considered as some special method illuminating the whole aspect of the subject. You just catch a glimpse of the slice of reality which belongs to the vast universe. Rather than getting caught in the obsessive holistic approach, an ethnographic filmmaker could explore the “thickness” of communication with informants (aimed to understand each other) which can dwell within the very edge of interaction between you and your informants. Camera can be a witness of the communication and collaboration in this sense. Of course, you are one of the actors sharing the cultural context. But right in this point, you need to perform “anthropological” enough with your camera. What makes your performance anthropological? Maybe, you need the deep understanding of the culture you have been filmming, code of communication to the depth of implicit argument, sensitivity that can review your performance self-reflectively, etc. I and my colleagues in Kyoto have been exploring the anthropological improvisation (but still with some conceptual keys to approach the subject…just imagine a jazz impro within certain scales, not a complete free jazz sort of chaos…) with a camera and discussing how we could transmit and exchange anthropological knowledge through the film. I hope those films also will be shown in academic film festivals in Canada soon. We could have debates on our experiments in much broader perspectives.

    Thanks

    Itsushi Kawase

  2. Reading the above comments was really enlightening for me. I’ll have to watch the film again with these new insights. I agree very much with all the commentor said and enjoyed reading about how these qualities of the film relate to current trends in ethnography, etc.

    When I watched Room 11, Ethiopia Hotel, the first time in September, I remember being excited just to have a new resource available in English (subtitles) about Ethiopia and filmed in Ethiopia. I was a little sad to not get to see any of the beautiful country in the film (as it never leaves the Hotel room). But a new perspective I could give on that could be to relate it to the Ethiopian Church’s special devotion to frequent fasting. In a way, watching Room 11 is like fasting from the gratification of the beauty and wonder of the Holy country outside the hotel, and very much for a holistic purpose of having compassion for these homeless boys, being charitable, and facing reality. So much more to say, so little time.

    I’m thankful that I am part of this conversation and for Kawase’s blessed work.

  3. Hi Silvia, sono Simona Rosati, ti ricordi di me? Spero di aver trovato la persona giusta. Ti mando un salutone…

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