Reflective Essay

Many problems face the contemporary visual ethnographer. The camera is a fantastic and powerful tool, however, with this power come many responsibilities. Marcus Banks says that filmmakers should always be conscious of the ‘ethnographicness’ of their own intent when representing others; this should be more important than the event or reaction of the film (Banks, 1992). Throughout the filming and editing process of my film, I knew I wanted to represent my subjects fairly and accurately. Thereby showing them in a way they themselves would like to be seen. With that in mind, I also had an experience to outline and explain. Ethnography prides itself in prioritising accurate representation over telling a good story and this is how I approached the process of making my film too. This was accomplished using several ethnographic technics; these were collaboration, observational cinema, and participatory Cinema. In the following essay I outline how I attempted to incorporate these components into my process and reflect on how they influenced the movie that came to be ‘Exploring 5Rhythms’.

Collaboration and negotiation

Collaboration and negotiation within the documentation of dance has been an on going issue. Due to the continuous nature of dance, having someone film it can be very disturbing to the dancers experience. Prost (1975) discusses the filming of the tour en l’air, a Western ballet. He says that during the performance he asked for the best performers to dance so he could film them. However, they would only allow so much interference with their regimes. The final arrangement had to be a compromise between some control of the environment and not disturbing the dancers and their rehearsal session.

Many parallels can be drawn between this and my own experience. Unlike the ballet I did not wish for the best performers. Indeed, the whole concept of 5Rhythms is that no one is dancing more correctly than anyone else. However, I did feel a compromise between what I wanted to do and what I was allowed to do. The dance group had been kind enough to let me come in and collect footage and I did not want to cause them any annoyance or discomfort. The session leader had kindly obliged and announced at the beginning anyone who was not comfortable being filmed should move to one end of the hall; consequently, I was only allowed to film down the other end. While this did allow me a lot of freedom, it did put restrictions on what and where I could film. This restricted my filming and as such limited the representation of 5Rhythms and my characters. This affect was close to negotiable but there were instances when I was told to move down the other end – often I found myself absentmindedly following one of my characters around the hall. Similar to Prost, the end footage was a compromise between what I wanted to film and what I was allowed to film. I only had one chance to capture each rhythm as it would have been ridiculous for me to ask them to stop or redo a dance.

Observational cinema

Prost (1975) argues visual aid films and documentary are films that illustrate rather than films that provide an accurate representation. These films acknowledge the viewer as the observer of what the cameraman and the editor prearrange. The alternative is film as primary data. Here the images faithfully capture the actual occurrences. These are kept in the recorded sequence and any editing destroys this record. Prost says that anything other than primary data is not true form of representation.

Young (1975) on the other hand, talks about observational cinema. This explores the nuances of using the camera as surveyor’s instrument and as a method of examining human behaviour and human relationships. Young says that for true representation of the latter, you cannot afford to just stand back and observe from a distant panorama. To truly understand what these relationships mean, you have to be up and close to the action and follow it intimately. For Young, films of this nature can still represent the event observed. However, instead of only letting ones pervious training as an anthropologist influences the end result, the rules of cinema are also allowed to influence which shots are chosen. This creates a film not just with a proper intention in mind, but also shot in the proper way.

I agree with Young; my film focused on the subtle interactions found between the dancers of 5Rhythms. I could have set up the camera in the corner and recoded the whole event in one long continuous shot. For some, such as Prost, this would be a more accurate way of representation. However, due to the theme chosen for this video, a recording of this nature would not do. In accordance with Young’s augment, a true representation of human relationships comes using cinematic devices such as getting up close and personal. Indeed, I found that the camera must be personal to observe the personal. Individuals spoke about how the dancing made them feel; moreover how interacting with other people made them feel. During the interview footage in which this was said, I superimposed footage of them clearly expressing the emotion they said they were feeling. I argue that while my editing has moved clips out of chronological order, a more accurate representation has been shown; only through connecting this footage can the viewer really begin to understand the intangible effect this dance has. Turner makes a strong point concerning representation; “Since we have no way of relating directly to objective reality, mediation by some form of representation is our only alternative to solipsism” (Turner, 1995:103). For my film and its message, it would only make sense for representation to come in the form of a cinematic reconstruction. I argue that this has not lost but enhanced the ethnographicness of the content.

The film ends with interview footage of how film could never truly capture the essence of 5Rhythms. It is true that the joy of 5Rhythms is a personal experience. However, using the power of film it is possible to give views a taste or at least an understanding of the experience. Kaeppler (2000) argues movement is like language; in the sense it is a construct of structure and meaning. Therefore, also like language, these can be recorded and as such repeated. A reader of a history book cannot experience times past, however, they can gain an understanding and possibly even a desire to experience it. Indeed, viewers of my film cannot experience 5Rhythms by watching it, they can however, come to appreciate it and hopefully desire to experience it.

Participatory Cinema

Due to the original size of cameras, filmmaking began within the realms of fiction. However, as the equipment became more compact film could be used to record real world occurrences. This left a residual effect however. As David MacDougall (1978) points out, the ethnographic filmmaker was still attempting to be an ‘invisible presence’ (p415). To some this was the path to recording people’s true nature. However, it became increasingly clear that the notion of authorial invisibility could lead to a false interpretation of what was on screen. As MacDougall explains, filmmakers came to believe that their film should be self-revelatory. By containing evidence of the effect observation had, this provides the viewer with a context of how the camera changed the behaviour it was recording.

The last scene in my film contains an explanation of the observational effect discussed by MacDougall. The girl in the scene talks about how the camera was actually useful. In her words, 5Rhythms is about getting out of ones head and noticing the camera actually brought a realisation that one was within their own head. To her, the camera enhanced her experience. This implies the filming process not just captured but produced a 5rhythms experience. If this is the case, it provides a unique platform of discussion. Is this then not an accurate representation? Or is it entering new boundaries into representation by helping individuals have a ‘truer’ experience? I think that a two-way interaction between the observer and the observed will always be present. Moreover, if this interaction can provide a positive influence for the observed then this is something to be welcomed. Indeed, if it acts as a catalyst for their own experience, lining up their behaviour with the behaviour they themselves feel is most appropriate, this would, in turn, provide the filmmaker with invaluable footage.

Banks, M., 1992. Which films are the ethnographic films. Film Ethnogr. 116–129.

Kaeppler, A.L., 2000. Dance ethnology and the anthropology of dance. Dance Res. J. 32, 116–125.

MacDougall, D., 1978. Ethnographic film: Failure and promise. Annu. Rev. Anthropol. 7, 405–425.

Prost, J.H., 1975. Filming body behavior. Princ. Vis. Anthropol. 325–363.

Turner, T., 1995. Representation, collaboration and mediation in contemporary ethnographic and indigenous media. Vis. Anthropol. Rev. 11, 102–106.

Young, C., 1975. Observational cinema. Princ. Vis. Anthropol. 65–80.