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What it's like to make ethnographic films

July 30, 2013, 10:52 pm | This story has an Influence Score of 2514

By riazhussain

Ethnography is the scientific study of races, communities and cultures. Ethnographers directly observe social and cultural phenomena by spending time among people in their real-life settings. They try to capture the meanings by systematically recording the daily activities of people. They are interested in cultural values, cultural ethos, worldviews, tribes, races, people’s habits, behaviours, languages, social practices, rites, rituals, communicative gestures, people’s actions, symbols and other aspects of life.  Fieldwork, participation, observation, interviews, surveys, note-taking, audio/ video recordings are some of data collection methods employed by ethnographers. Ethnographies are regarded as recorded or written observational studies made about a particular aspect of a culture or community.   

Ethnographic footages, videos and films have their own importance in documenting the stream of actions of subjects in the field. They provide us with rich data about the participants or subjects (participants’ gestures, facial expressions, posture and clothing) and the context. We can get better understanding about the subjects by replaying the videos again and again. We may discover new things about subjects each time we replay an ethnographic recording. Ethnographic videos and films may come in the form of silent films (without voice-over) or they may contain text, intertitles and animation. The following story is about, Julian Vigo, an ethnographer and filmmaker.

Julian Vigo is a versatile genius. She is a philosopher, artist, dj, permaculturalist and activist. She holds expertise in diverse disciplines such as anthropology, cultural studies, comparative literature, media studies, performance studies postcolonial theory, postmodernism  and gender studies.  She has also authored two books entitled ‘Performative Bodies, Hybrid Tongues: Race, Gender, and Modernity in Latin America and the Maghreb’ and ‘Earthquake in Haiti: The Pornography of Poverty and the Politics of Development’.

In addition, she has also been making ethnographic films since 1988. As an ethnographer and filmmaker, she has been to distant and remote locales. She has visited more than half of the countries of the world. She has made ethnographic films and experimental videos about Latin America, the Middle East, Malaysia, Europe and the United States. 

Talking about her travels, she says, ‘I have travelled for work--research, filmmaking, working on farms, political interventions, and the like.  I have learned most of my languages in this way and have learned much about theses cultures and political strategies’.  Her films convey ethnographic stories. Her accounts focus on human rights, caged birds, love, public mourning of the death of the music icon,  urban lie and protests which go unattended by the media, as in her film 'Manifestacion en Madrid'. In this film, she tries to record the activities of protesters during the demonstrations in Spain (Madrid's Plaza del sol) in the summer of 2011. 

These peaceful protests went on for months but what shocked her was the little attention the media paid to theses rallies. 


She says, 'This video is a testament to the fact that indeed a manifestation did take place. Let this serve as a hopeful reminder to all of us paying taxes to wars/terrorism we do not support, to governments run by millionaires (and billionaires), that we can effect change'.

She further explains, ‘I enjoy capturing the contradictions of life.  For instance, "La hiper-mujer" deals with the construction of woman in Mexico from the transvestite club performer, to the Madonna, to the nun and housewife.  This film examines how being woman is not a monolithic, set-in-stone identity, but rather is a fluid space of absolute contradiction. "Scirocco" deals with the silent spaces of an olive harvest in southern Sicily, the visuals being this flowing peaceful collection of olives while the narrative betrays the visual with the story of this couple who are in the process of breaking up (hence, I was called in to help).  This film deals with two interconnected narratives that don’t really go together in theory, but in practice they do. Ultimately, my films attempt to deconstruct time, space and this sense of finitude which is in itself a fiction’.

In order to 'deconstruct time', she has to look beyond the rosy surface of things. She is a keen observer of people and things. She compares what people say and do. She gleans new questions through her interactions with people. Then, she goes out with her camera to record life and find out answers to her questions. She becomes familiar with the sites and subjects, secures their trust and tries to capture critical aspects and actions of subjects as they happen.

Giving us an explication of the foundation of her films, she says, ‘In my work as an ethnographer and filmmaker, I tend to unravel these individual narratives of personal ‘truths’ throughout the writing or production and seek out the spaces that are not so logical. I often go out in search of an answer to a question I pose myself often resulting from discussions with others. For instance,  "Butterflies are Free to Fly?" was made after too many discussions with people who claim to "love" their pets whom they keep locked up in flats all day whereby these animals have zero ability to roam freely, to urinate or to defecate. I found this contradiction of the individual’s loneliness (usually the reason for their having a pet in the first place) completely obtuse in rapport with the animal’s rights to freedom. Likewise the fashion of "owning" an animal struck me as completely terrorizing to the animal which is incidental in the life of this "owner".  In "Butterflies are Free to Fly?" I allow the images and intertitles tell the story whereby the spectator can witness what I see. If she agrees or disagrees with my vision of the world, that is altogether an entirely distinct issue. There were many defenders of slavery before it was abolished as well’. 

She began to take interest in ethnography in 1987. She recalls, ‘I was living in West Palm Beach, Florida in 1987 and bought a super-8 film camera in a garage sale in Palm Beach.  In the following weeks, I began shooting my neighbours who were Haitian immigrants and very open to the camera. This footage sadly was lost when I moved to New York City’. 

She learned from her own shooting experiences and from films produced by others. She recalls , ‘ I watched loads of old movies from my studies as an undergraduate (French new wave, Bergman and film noir) and then in the years following I grew obsessed with early cinema.  I began this obsession by watching these old films in a movie house on the Dixie Highway in West Palm Beach and then later in New York in what was then Howard Otway’s Theatre 80 on St Mark’s, the Thalia Soho, and Anthology Film Archives served as my crash course in cinema. I also read Vertov’s ‘Kino-Eye’ and Einstein’s ‘Film Sense and Film Form’. I started shooting as soon as I finished these three books.  One can continue to study technique forever and I learn from others constantly when working with crews, but in cinema it is essential to just get out there and shoot’.

These days people are fond of documentaries. But, at times, documentaries may be used as tools of propaganda. Therefore, she does not want to turn her ethnographic films into documentaries and the reason is that she does not want to give a particular direction to the viewers with voice-over. She says, ‘Some of my early films resemble more ‘talking head’ documentaries which I must still digitize and put online.  My work which is online is representative of most recent short films from the past ten years.  I have not yet decided to put any feature films online as yet.  But it is true that in the past ten years my style has moved towards more poetic and silent pieces -- if not silent in terms of having muted sound, they are silent in terms of a lack of forced directionality by a voice-over, as in the traditional sense of documentary film.  This change in narrative technique happened back in 1999 while shooting a series of four films between Tunisia, Sicily, Egypt and then northern Italy.  I started to discover the richness in making narrative cinema which borrowed from documentary and took much of its inspiration from installation art, notably influenced by Steve McQueen and Bill Viola, and likewise by filmmakers Raymond Depardon and Chantal Ackerman. I use a "less is more" approach in post-production intervention and oppressive editing techniques that distract the viewer from an organic flow of the visual material’.

If she deliberately avoids voice-over, she does use intertitles in some of her ethnographic films, as the following screenshots from her "Butterflies are Free to Fly?" show:

Explaining the presence of intertitles in some films and their absence in others, she clarifies, ’Every film is different but as a whole the intertitles work in my films as a means of getting the spectator to interact in a less passive manner. Personally I find voice-over, generally speaking, oppressive and more often than not terribly boring. While the written words of the intertitles are still giving the film a narrative direction, I find that having to read each piece forces the spectator to pause in the visual process and switch over, and then back again, and so forth. In this way, there is a connection made between her expectations as a viewer, the organic flow of the images and then this connection is broken by the words which shake her up, force her to re-examine these images and understand anew this story that is gradually unfolding. For Machsom, I was forced to use intertitles due to the nature of shooting under the gun -- literally -- and having the constant threat of being arrested by the IDF (Israeli Defence Forces). Intertitles give Machsom a sense of continuity for those who have no idea what a checkpoint is'. 

Talking about the audience of her films, she says, ‘My films are directed at everyone from the child to the student to the academic to anyone interested in watching them. Clearly some of my films and installations are more erudite than others, but there is always something communicated by the image, sound and even the silences'.

Our personal pain and suffering open our eyes to see the torment of other people. Julian has herself gone through hardships. She remembers that once she was involved an accident in Montreal, Canada. She recounts, ‘This incident of being hit by a car when seven months pregnant and having the police come to the scene to say that I wasn’t ‘hurt enough’ to make a report and then the ensuing corruption and cove-rup of these officers’ actions opened my eyes to the wonder of civil liberties in a country where I have lived since the age of ten’. She is aware of conflicts and violence in the world. Giving a suggestion for worldwide intercultural harmony she says, ‘Personally, I advocate that people stop taking vacations altogether and use their vacation time to participate in other cultures. People can volunteer their skills or better yet, they can do exchanges and actually learn from those people in far away places while perhaps giving something back. Vacations are the last vestige of our colonial heritage’. Pain and suffering in life have not made her pessimistic. She says ‘We must learn from sorrows or as the saying goes, ‘Make lemonade from lemons.’ By her use of this common expression, Julian implies creativity in dealing with problems and sorrows and creativity is what is needed in finding happiness in life. She explains her view of finding happiness when she says, ‘I think happiness is a much overused word today in a world where so many people focus on ‘finding happiness.’ I have learned that happiness is simply not some ‘thing’ you find; it is a space you create'. So, she has really created a space of happiness in her life. Describing the ladder, she says, ‘My children, my family (to include my friends), and my work bring me great happiness’. She is not blind to the amount problems in human life but she takes life as a whole and maintains her faith in hope. She says, ‘I love this life despite immense tragedies and difficulties that do befall all of us’.

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