Ethnography Photography of the Wild West [PHOTOBLOG]

Check out this gallery of photographs by photojournalist Timothy O’Sullivan, who documented the interactions among settlers and Native Americans in the Old West. O’Sullivan’s ethnographic style and eye for detail are impressive, and most importantly, he made an important effect to be authentic:

O’Sullivan was famous for not trying to romanticise the native American plight or way of life in his photographs and instead of asking them to wear tribal dress was happy to photograph them wearing denim jeans.

Image from
via The American West as you’ve never seen it before: Amazing 19th century pictures show the landscape as it was chartered for the first time | Mail Online.


The Truth of Illusion and the Illusion of Truth

Adapted from notes and essays for a graduate section of the Ethnographic and Documentary Film course at UF.

Jean-Luc Godard observed that in filmmaking, “you can start with fiction or documentary. But whichever you start with you inevitably find the other.” How true. From the latest simpering inspirational movie “based on a true story” or shocking horror-action movie “inspired by real events” (notice the semantic difference?) to the (often necessary) addition of artifice or narrative construction to documentaries, it sometimes seems pointless to label a film as fiction or non-fiction. In the interest of making documentaries palatable or perhaps more plausible, filmmakers slap an improvised story or Hollywood trope on top of it, as James Marsh did with Man On Wire. In the interest of making horror films more intriguing, the scripts are drawn from reported events and even fleshed out by directors through extensive research with the real persons involved, as Ole Bernadal did with The Possession.

As Picasso observed, art is a lie that tells the truth. Artifice simply smoothes the truth-telling process for documentary and fictional filmmakers alike. Of course, documentaries may include misrepresentation, or their level of fiction is high enough that the narrative supersedes the on-screen evidence. In short, the impact of a documentary lies in its execution more than its ratio of pretense to corroboration.

On the other side of the coin, docudramas or “truth-inspired” fiction films are much more likely to shoehorn the real-world persons and events into the archetypes and tropes time-tested by the consuming society. Because of studios’ marketing interests and screenwriters’ need for linearity, beautiful people step into the historical roles and a confluence of events that informed the inspiring event is streamlined into a smooth narrative for the script. Some films attempt to redeem themselves by drawing in real-world footage, but overall, true-story dramas’ tendency towards misrepresentation seems to detract from the truth-telling potential of the lie.

What’s more interesting is the capacity of fiction films to effectively tell the truth or border on documentary in terms of social impact. Films such as Sometimes in April, Hotel Rwanda, Babel, and The Help tackle enduring social concerns, important events in history, or world events underreported by U.S. media, without any traditional elements of documentary film. Instead, honest characterizations, serious or violent portrayals of events, and lack of an explicit message allow the viewer an immersion into a situation, or shades thereof, that the interrupted and dictated format of a documentary precludes. Fiction films like these have the effect of a documentary and fulfill Godard’s maxim, despite being “just a story.”

But “just a story” means very little when one considers the pre-printing press importance of oral tradition, in which stories efficiently transmitted a wealth of cultural information and left the listener with a sense of truth. This changed in Western culture with the advancements in visual technology: first photography, then films, then films with synchronized sound, then digital video. The ever-individualized forms of audiovisual storytelling seem to generate a higher level of truth: isn’t it more authentic and more real if there isn’t all that corrupted industry BS, FX distortion, and acting? In fact, the opposite is true because truth is less about authenticity and more about the social construction of what is true. The power given by the words “real,” “true,” “honest,” and the like carries an exceptional weight in Western culture. Why, I don’t know. But our obsession with it is the operative factor in what we constitute as true. We’ve ignored Picasso’s observation in favor of constructing truth as a social experience, and deliberately applying those key words to things that defy their definition: hello, reality TV.

The development of a “constructed reality” in film began when artistic film did. American filmmakers might not like to admit this, but they owe much to the Russians. Soviet films of the 1920s were montages of recorded, re-created, and designed events, and based upon librettos, or guides, instead of screenplays—much like the docudramas and  found-footage films described above. Soviet-influenced newsreels and documentaries in Britain and the United States similarly involved montage, location shooting, and a higher aesthetic representation of social reality. John Grierson’s and Pare Lorentz’s films, commissioned by the Film Board of Canada and the U.S. Film Service, respectively, were stylistic and epistemological precursors to the docudrama genre, which, after the U.S. Film Service was dissolved in 1940, was developed by observational filmmaker Louis de Rochemont. Docudrama’s ontological analogy with the noir genre was based on an increasing occupation with matters of film reality in both fiction and semi-fiction films, and was hardly an accident. The importance of photographs in finding the truth in criminal matters, as seen in many noir films, was a reflection of the authenticating power of photographs. The shady witness could lie; the camera could not!

But increasingly savvy filmgoers have realized the illusion and control of the audiovisual medium. Before, filmgoers strongly identified with the reality of the medium; film’s immersive method, drawn from its emphasis on visual information, the removal of artificial division, and the re-presentation of “authentic” photographic “data,” was escapist (or at least purportedly so)—and had to rely on the reproduction of conventional ideology to be both accessible and salient. Now, with more people having access to even simple moviemaking equipment (even iPhones!), and following the postmodernist zeitgeist, films’ illusory methods are almost too explicit. The sense of unreal knocks us over the heads. However, an apparent removal of the director, and especially of the film editor, heightens the immersiveness to a new level while undoing the sense of illusion. The found-footage genre restores this because actors are often presented in whole, unshaped and unimproved form. To control for the apparent artificiality, the found footage is usually presented as an ethnographic or autobiographical project; thus found-footage films often operate on a meta-level. This technological self-awareness often has the effect of social commentary on the Western paradigm: namely, its obsession with the real and the separation of the real from the ideal.

Recommended Docudramas:


United 93

Recommended Found-Footage Films:


Zero Day

Recommended Reading:

The Cinematic Society: The Voyeur’s Gaze (Published in association with Theory, Culture & Society)
Principles of Visual Anthropology

Cultural Exchange through the Movies (LINK)

Americans may feel privileged to have such access to films and television. Indeed, we’ve reached (perhaps even surpassed) a saturation point in entertainment media. What we forget is that audiovisual media is a major cultural conduit—or rather a network of connective fibers that generate and shape our social consciousness—and its immersive qualities are well suited to cultural exchange. A few months ago, I attended a screening on campus of a film about HIV, filmed and produced by the Datoga in partnership with anthropologists. The film is particularly ethnographic in a grassroots sort of way, in that its target audience elected its own informants, those the community deemed trustworthy, and used prevailing cultural symbols and expressions to communicate the often Western-centric rhetoric of HIV/AIDS awareness. (The film is here.) The idea of a shared cultural consciousness permeating its works was a hallmark of Straussian structuralist anthropology, but in a post-postmodernist age, the understanding of the lattice effect of structure, ritual, symbol, and ethos has proved particularly fruitful in applied visual anthropology. While the Datoga project was an example of applied visual ethnography, with an explicit educational purpose, a recent NYTimes article discussed the approach from a different standpoint: culturally applied filmmaking.

What [the Iraqi filmmakers] definitely don’t have at home is a film industry, something being addressed, at least to a degree, by the nonprofit International Film Exchange. The exchange brought the students over from Baghdad where, several weeks before, the filmmaker Bill Megalos of Los Angeles had conducted a 10-day workshop on storytelling and editing. The exchange is devoted primarily to cultural give and take and international understanding. But in the case of the Iraqis, it may help create a base of knowledgeable filmmakers, a “crew” as the young men themselves called it. Since the economic sanctions imposed after the first gulf war, making films in Iraq has become all but impossible.

“It was my family business,” said the bearish Salam S. Mazeel, 35, whose mother was a sound designer, and who wants to be a cinematographer like his father. “But in the ’90s, everything stopped. We go to the hard times. No money, no hope.”

After his father died, his mother quit the business to raise her children; there was no cinema anyway. “That’s how it was,” Mr. Mazeel said. “Now, maybe something is different and we come to America and there are a few things in our minds. Like how to apply American rules to Iraqi movies.”

The article goes on to discuss how Iraqi films could take a cue from Hollywood movies and move away from the previous emphasis on style that European cinema demonstrates:

Years ago, Iraqi filmmakers would regularly attend VGIK, the Moscow film school; Iraqi film was influenced far more by European than American cinema. In Los Angeles, the Iraqi visitors were being advised by almost everyone to make their stories clear, to emphasize narrative over style.

That’s an interesting thing, considering the woefully incomplete or slapdash plots seen in much Hollywood fare. But truth be told, the expressionistic, avant-garde philosophy, seen in Soviet cinema and developed in later German and French films, has been relegated to the indie circuit in the U.S., the fortress of solitude for disillusioned American film buffs. The interest in plot in the United States derives partly from the well-made tradition that was popular in Britain and the U.S. around the same time the film industry was developing, and partly, I believe, from a capitalist ethos. But that’s a topic for another blog.

What’s intriguing about Megalos’ workshop for Iraqi filmmakers is its prescriptive purpose. It is a shade of the cultural imperialism the U.S. holds around the world. Are our films successful overseas because of their effective narratives, as the article suggests? Or because of the corollary economic influence? And films are products, as we know. Moreover, after congratulating ourselves on bringing democracy and peace to Iraq (at least for a moment or two), it seems an echo to claim artistic benefits to them as well.

However, the infusion of the Iraqi filmmakers’ films with their distinctive ethos, under the auspices of Hollywood economic,  political, and aesthetic structures, is not only the product, but the method, of cultural exchange. It is a new kind of ethnographic filmmaking, in which the individuals’ culture is writ large through collaborative works, nestled within a historical portrait of fluctuating, overlapping sociocultural conditions. It is why films are of interest to anthropologists, and why anthropologists continue to use films to communicate ideas. It is probably clear to the International Film Exchange; thanks to the U.S.’s economic power, Hollywood has the tools of the trade to empower all filmmaking cultures, with the end goal being understanding of humanity, not imperialism.


Related: Activist Filmmaking

The Impossible: How Important Is Ethnicity in “True Story” Films? (LINK)

The Oscar-nominated The Impossible has received a lot of flak for casting white British actors in the story of a Spanish family who experienced the 2004 tsunami while on vacation in Thailand. Accusations of racism, disinterest, and simply lack of trying have been hurled at the (Spanish) production team. According to this article on HuffPost,

Though perhaps seemingly a bit harsh, the real answer might not be that far off. When asked by the Spanish daily El Mundo about the reason why he didn’t cast Spanish actors for his film, Bayona admits it all came down to one factor: money.

“I would have loved to tell this story with Spanish actors. We tried, but it proved impossible to raise funding without international actors. The first version of the screenplay was written in Spanish and then we realized that 80% of the dialogue was also in English. So it was natural that we chose European actors who speak English. But, without revealing the nationality of the protagonists. This is not a film of nationality, race or social class. All that was swept by the wave,” the director said.

Once again we see the conflict between marketing needs and cultural realism. Is the film dishonest or harmful for using white actors, in particular British actors, considering that the tsunami affected areas formerly part of the British Empire? How different would the film have been if Spanish actors had been cast? Is it possibly to successfully promote a film in an international market using unknown (read:non-white) actors? I would note that The Life of Pi did not turn its main character white.

‘The Art Guys Marry A Plant’ Removed From Menil Collection Under Mysterious Circumstances (LINK)

Fascinating example of the interaction of social biases, art, and politics.

When the Art Guys married their sapling, “the whole thing was an environmentalist gesture,” The Believer expressed in their profile of the duo. Yet critics of the work refused to see how the act could exist separate from the heated climate of the gay marriage debate, even though both artists were already married to women. Many accused the work of belittling gay marriage and encouraging homophobic logic, namely former Houston Chronicle art critic Douglas Britt. In his review, Britt, who himself is gay, argued the work “reinforces the ‘slippery slope’ argument that if we let gays wed, next we’ll allow people to marry animals, and so on.”

Britt was so offended by the work he created a performance piece of his own to show, in his words, “what really marrying for art, not pretending to, could look like.” For his piece, “The Art Gay Marries a Woman,” Britt found a straight woman he had never met via Twitter, married her at a gay strip club, and changed his last name to Britt-Darby.

via ‘The Art Guys Marry A Plant’ Removed From Menil Collection Under Mysterious Circumstances (PHOTO).

via ‘The Art Guys Marry A Plant’ Removed From Menil Collection Under Mysterious Circumstances (PHOTO).


Leading anti-censorship crusader George Carlin once said, “By and large, language is a tool for concealing the truth.” If so, attempts to conceal certain language, as well as certain visual content, is an attempt at double concealment. The United States’ reputation for prudishness among Europeans is not undeserved. After a year in which several horrific acts of violence occurred and the outcry began again against violence in the media and the decline of Western society, it seems appropriate to consider the history of this debate.

Film is probably the most seminal medium of cultural transmission. Its unprecedented combination of story, visuals, sound, and sociopolitical context means that it can interact with viewers on multiple levels. Film’s power was embraced by propagandists in the U.S. and abroad; its importance is attested to by scores of film journals, magazines, and academic departments across the U.S. and Europe. And despite the increasing availability of audiovisual media distributed through private channels, movie theaters continue to rake in millions of dollars in domestic gross.

As most Americans know, the Motion Pictures Association of America (MPAA) gives a rating to every film released in U.S. theaters. The rating is intended to measure and indicate the offensiveness of the film. This practice underscores the volatility of the film product, but, I argue, shapes the filmgoing experience and enforces the American conservatism against artistic excess.

The Production Code, also called the Hays Code after the studios’ consultant on indecency, Will H. Hays, more fairly ought to have been called the Breen Code, after Joseph Breen, who assumed control of the Production Code Administration devised by a Catholic interest group of the intimidating title The Legion of Decency. Their mission statement, which suggested the film industry involved “the dissemination of the false, atheistic and immoral doctrines repeatedly condemned by all accepted moral teachers,” encouraged the MPAA (then called the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, considering the studio monopolies) to control the content of their films rather than judging them afterwards. The Code abhorred all anti-religious, anti-family, pro-violence, pro-lust, and anti-American sentiment in films. The precedent was set for censorship of films, although the buck passed from studio head to director in the 1960s.

Since the Code was lifted in 1968, filmmakers could make films with any content (although certain classic films did not always abide by the Code, with little repercussion). The Code had already been weakened by the decision in U.S. vs. Paramount, which dismantled studios’ control of the theaters and thus allowed the distribution of independent (read: naughty) films. In addition, Catholic interest groups did not hold as much sway over the film industry. Without the selection being limited to studio-grown films that expressed the “American” values held by the Hays/Breen Office, and thanks to an influx of profanity and nudity in 60s films, it became necessary to classify films according to their level of offensive content. It is important to note that the ratings system was enacted by MPAA President Jack Valenti in an attempt to guide parents rather than enforce filmmaking values. In effect, though, the ratings reflected the ideologies of a conservative section of society, represented by the Classification and Ratings Administration, and solidified certain elements of content as “immoral” or “offensive.” The ratings system, although technically voluntary, is required for films released in theaters; moreover, distribution is limited for films with higher ratings.

Throughout the various incarnations of film censorship organization, four primary concerns remain constant: the depiction of sexual or lewd acts, the demonstration or justification of violence, the portrayal of minorities, and the construal of what the MPAA now vaguely refers to as “thematic content” and what the Hays Office blatantly called “blasphemy.” Unfortunately, the high ratings given to films that depict these types of content do not completely prevent the distribution of films, nor do they effectively tackle the social concerns that are often blamed upon film. The same problem applies to that endless scapegoat for teen violence, video games.

This construction of the offensive film is inextricably tied to the pejorative social context of certain “swear words.” These words are deliberately and effectively negative, and have such a neurological effect upon utterance as to divert from other pain. As with all types of symbols, there is nothing inherently volatile or negatory about these words. In fact, they’re used quite commonly* (more if you’re a character on premium television), despite their “taboo” label. Most swear words in English are of Germanic origin. As Latin was not only the language of the church but the language of the learned classes, it’s understandable that the Germanic words in English would come to be regarded as common and profane (itself a Latinate meaning “outside the temple”). Ultimately, the social construction of swear words is largely influenced by class divisions. Moreover, the psychosocial impact of swearing is entirely shaped by our level of rejection to them (hence why people who swear more often experience less of an analgesic effect from swearing). Should we discourage children from swearing? Perhaps, but it provides them little benefit to make the words taboo. On the other hand, teaching the children total acceptance of the words deprives them of an instant painkiller.

Since the portrayal of minorities and women in film is something I’d like to write in a future post building off of this one, for now I will conclude by reviewing the prudish tendencies of CARA. According to the documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated, CARA allows films with proportionately more violent content than sexual content to pass with a PG-13, while films with proportionately more sexual content are given an R or NC-17. Moreover, films with some sexual content but no violent content are more likely to be given an R. Filmmakers Kirby Dick and Eddie Schmidt argue that this reflects a latent bias against sexuality that does not occur within conservative-minded frameworks of romance and heteronormativity. The film controversially features an exposé of CARA members (some of whom are not eligible to keep their seats according to CARA’s own by-laws) and a montage of rape scenes from PG-13 movies. Although the documentary’s thesis could be said to be overly deductive, it is interesting to consider the gender divisions, heteronormativity, and relative offensiveness of sexual acts portrayed in film. We know, for example, that a certain film with a nude painting scene, followed by adulterous sex, had a PG-13 rating despite a high on-screen body count and general terror. But Blue Valentine, featuring a loving straight couple engaged in oral sex, was slapped with an NC-17, while Gods and Monsters, featuring nude art scenes and a homosexual central character, was given an R rating. Zoolander evaded its R rating for its orgy scene only by omitting the goat who was scripted to be involved. Admittedly, it’s easier for a child to ignore the shot of two sweaty heads backlit by candlelight that adults decode as “lovemaking,” than the more explicit shot required to show oral sex. But this defense cannot extend to homosexuality, and cannot explain the excessive violence, in particular sexual violence, deemed suitable for teenagers. While I do not attribute teen violence entirely to media consumption, one can only deduce, based on the explicit function of the MPAA, that violence is simply considered less offensive than sex. It is more easily coded as an extension of the character’s personality; it may even be justified by the committing character’s reasons, be they national defense, lover’s avenge, or speciesist superiority. Sex is also coded, but is hidden within character archetypes. Thus sex is acceptable for the leather-clad female action hero, but not for a gay woman. It is acceptable for the heterosexual Prince Charming, but not for the teenage sex hound. There are exceptions (hello, Grease). But if an MPAA rating is a measure of the offensive potential of a film, we must question the cultural source of those conclusions, and what might actually happen if a child sees two men kissing. Would it be so different from seeing a man and a woman kissing? And of a sex scene and a slaughter scene, which is more likely to shape a child’s view of her social world—or give her nightmares?



The American Film Industry, ed. Tino Balio

Breaking the Studios: Antitrust and the Motion Picture Industry (PDF)

A History of the Cinema, Eric Rhode

Jack Valenti’s pamphlet on the ratings system


Inherited Discrimination

Recently I Facebooked this post from Bunnika discussing the relative vs. actual progress for women’s rights, and the rhetorical strategies of men’s rights advocates. She demonstrates how men’s rights rebuttals often depend upon the vary ideologies and stereotypes that enforce gender inequality. Almost immediately, I got a comment from a gentleman calling out the “poison” and “inequality” of the post. If you read Bunnika’s blog, you’ll know this is hardly the most “fightin’ words” of her repertoire. The commentator argued that society is full of institutions like feminism, and because feminism is now so ingrained, it’s difficult for men to fight it when their rights are being infringed upon. He urged me to consider both sides rather than hiding from discussions like most feminists he’s encountered. Well, I have, and even talked with him, and he’s the one who didn’t respond. The truth is, movements like feminism and MRA are both in response to perceived inequality. Our learned definition of our gender identities inform every sex-based argument we have.

That said, there is clear sex discrimination against women in the workforce, in the legislatures, and in culture. I’m not going to post statistics because as my commentator pointed out, fighting statistic against statistic is time-consuming and ultimately pointless. As a theatre techie, a gamer, a writer, a (former) retail worker, a student, a political activist, and a sexual partner, I have in every one of those vocations been demeaned, ignored, ridiculed, or undermined based on my sex. Do I perceive myself to be underprivileged? Yes, in the sense that I must remain aware of the challenges, of the odds against me. I learned that I could rarely grab a screw gun or pick up a large package without some man rushing up to me with concern. This “helpfulness” is based upon an assumption that women should not be strained, physically or otherwise. Every election season we have politicians expressing concern over whether or not a female politician can balance her career with her family. And when even sex symbol Beyonce calls out the gender pay gap, we realize that even women in power can feel relatively lesser. MRA may argue that men are increasingly diminished in American society, but are they reacting to ideological shifts in gender perceptions or to practical shifts in, say, Congressional seats? As an anthropologist, I cannot declare which side is “right,” but I can ask how both movements are impacted by their culturally-learned assumptions, and how the hegemonic ideologies inherited by both inform the agency of social actors.

It’s not just sexism and sex-related movements that are driven by these psychosocial processes.  Rep. Walter Jones (R-NC) recently

criticized the grant money that will soon be coming to eastern North Carolina for one reason: it will be used to buy books about Muslim culture. […] Jones protested that the money was unfairly benefiting Muslims and harming Christians, as he explained in a local TV interview. […] Jones told WITN he wrote a letter in response to the grant to a local Christian organization, asking for them to provide an equal number of Judeo-Christian items to offset the new Muslim culture books in the library’s collection.

This equation of inclusion with promotion is a part of white Western ethos that seriously impacts institutional equality. By the same token, feminists’ ideology of inclusion has led many men to criticize feminism for its promotion of women. As I once tried in vain to explain to a conservative ex-boyfriend, if the scales are uneven, one must add a little more weight to the lesser side, and that was the goal of political feminism. Unfortunately, no amount of logic can sway some men who grew up with a historically learned idea of male superiority.

In a similar case, a documentary I just watched about the battle in Tucson, AZ over Raza classes in Tucson High showed that the program’s opponents were horrified that students were engaged in “non-white” learning. The Hispanic students and teachers in the program were accused of communism, sedition, racism, and anarchism, among other things. The program, which had increased the graduation rate of Hispanic students, was ultimately dismanted by Gov. Jan Brewer, under recommending of the state school board’s findings that the classes “indoctrinated” Hispanic students into “non-American” ways. The teachers’ lesson plans? Mexican history and culture, the Spanish language, and discussion of Hispanic culture in the United States. That a non-white approach was included in the public schools was a cause for outrage among conservative white Arizonans.

As was the case with the civil rights movement, and as we see with continued work for gender, racial, LGBT, and ethnic equality, social movements are ultimately won by the force of the actors’ argument and their manipulation of prevailing ideologies to their benefit. As a certain dialectic must occur for change to do so, we can hardly condemn any movement for their explicit intent, but only their methods.

See also:

Male Jurors More Likely to Find Fat Female Defendents Guilty