Insights: Helen de Witt on Ethnographic and Documentary Film


Ahead of the return of her evolving course ‘Investigations and Appropriations in the Ethnographic and Documentary Film‘, Helen de Witt introduces the thinking behind the course’s curation and the filmmakers selected for study. 

Film is image making, the territory of visual anthropology, the subfield of social anthropology that is concerned, in part, with the study and production of ethnographic photography, film and digital media. Visual Anthropology encompasses much more, including the anthropological study of all visual representations such as dance and other kinds of performance, all visual arts, and the production and reception of mass media – all of which in turn can be the subjects of film. 

When contemplating the inclusion or evaluation of the ethnographic film we are often faced with the dilemma of what specific criteria – such as subject, practice, intent, and reception by an audience – define ethnographic film. Debates that have raged since the beginning of filmed actuality.

Many film theorists have attempted categorisations of the documentary form and its many modes, including the ethnographic. Documentary often reaches for emotional engagement and is not merely the conveyance of information. Afterall, documentary’s claim to represent the real is subjective. It can never be truly objective, that it is always mediated by the subjectivity of the filmmaker and the viewer.

Experimental documentary, in turn, as the word implies, is a discursive term that’s meaning has changed over time. Now applied to some films that wouldn’t have initially been thought of as such. It can be applied any non-fiction film practice that challenges rules and tries to push boundaries in terms of its strategies for representation, its film form or filmmaking practice. It is a growing form today as filmmakers and artists seek new modes of cultural production adequate to our complex time, making it an exciting field of study.

Investigations and Appropriations in the Ethnographic and Documentary Film‘ starts October 29th 2018, final bookings are available this weekend.