06. Ethnographic Film in the Decolonizing Third World (1970s-80s)

Media praxis within ethnographic film restructures many of anthropology‘s founding positions. The naming of unequal relations of power, difference, and knowledge production between the anthropologist (author) and the Third World or indigenous native (subject) is both subject and method of this tradition. Writes Jean Rouch, “every time a film is made there is cultural disruption.” One optimistic solution proposed to this structuring disequilibrium is a participatory ethnography, or “shared anthropology,” which “as idealistic as it may seem, appears to me to be the only morally and scientifically feasible anthropological attitude today,” according to Rouch.

While maintaining a commitment to inter-cultural communication, this tradition reveals how we can’t fully understand the “other” across our differences due to the social, structural, and technological impediments embedded in and between cultures. David MacDougall writes: “Both the language of distance and the language of proximity serve the filmmaker’s purpose, but the violence they do to the film subject is also a primary source of the filmmaker’s distress.” He also, then, proposes a participatory ethnography.

Another suggestion is to re-think the author, subject, and ethnographic film entirely, maintaining while also highlighting difference. “In its scientific ‘quest to make meaning,’ anthropology constantly reactivates the power relations embedded in the Master’s confident discourses on Himself and His Other, thereby aiding both the centripetal and centrifugal movement of their global spread,” writes Trinh T. Minh-ha. Fatimah Rony’s “third eye” raises not a sense of sharing but rather one of internal splitting or double consciousness, to describe living, and attempting to represent, between and across cultures. She writes: “What does one become when one sees that one is not fully recognized as Self by the wider society but can not fully identify as Other?”

Merging theories and practices of third cinema with the post-structuralist inspirations that first energized cineastes in post-68 France, an unstable self and other, as produced and known through film and filmmaking, results. Yet, given the situated claims made in this tradition from the specific position of self or other, native or scientist, about encounters across identity, history, place, nation, and science, an unstable but  rooted degree zero for cinema is also realized.

13 comments on “06. Ethnographic Film in the Decolonizing Third World (1970s-80s)

  1. On Trish T. Minh-ha video

    I chose ” A society that imposes a single way of thinking, a single way of perceiving life, cannot be a human society.”


    “What does one become when one sees that one is not fully recognized as Self by the wider society but can not fully identify as Other?”

    These two quotes are similar in my opinion. The top quote implies that if people are conditioned to think one way only that no one can become an individual to think for themselves. It is a sort of mental imprisonment. It is also a way to manipulate a group of people to behave the way or think in ways that only a powerful entity can control. Propaganda controlled by a government is a very good example of this sort of manipulation.
    The video is about feminist Vietnam. The music was of women singing and working and how women from the north and south got together and started talking. Once this happened they discovered similarities with each other and identified that both sides had the same struggles.

  2. Theory Post:

    Near the opening of the film Sur Name Viet, Given Name Nam, an elderly Vietnamese woman speaks in voice over and then directly to the camera about her stern unwavering feelings towards Capitalism and any societies that indulge in its ideologies. As we see close ups of her mouth, her lips and her worn hardened hands she speaks of how she ignores these diseased societies, whom she believes puts too much emphasis on singular, narrow minded methodologies and ideals. Seeing disjointed parts of her body rather than a full shot or close up on her face helps the viewer pay greater attention to her vital words rather than just her image. Though I do believe the shot showing her hands has some connotation to the immense labors both physical and emotional she has likely had to bare throughout her life, the words are what takes precedence here.
    The sentence from Trin T. Minh-ha’s article that I think best connects to this moment in the film is; “Meaning can therefore be political only when it does not let itself be easily stabilized, and when it does not rely on any single source of authority, but rather, empties it, or decentralizes it.” I interpreted it in connection to this opening scene as the reasoning behind the bizarre camera angles during her speech. The political implications of her words can only have significant political baring if they are destabilized, as in this case by the camera and the shots it chooses to show the audience of the subject on screen. She further decentralizes capitalism, stripping it of its authority by simply stating that she will ignore it, she will not take or consider any and all ideas from its beliefs or practices. She does not in any way rely on it as a single source of authority. To her singular sources of authority are not the way in which true human societies can flourish and grow. Meaning is fostered by radicalizing and breaking down the preconceived barriers of so called “reality.”

  3. “Reality runs away, reality denies reality. Filmmaking is after all a question of ‘framing’ reality in its course”

    The framing of the film making is what you belief to be a reality, doesn’t matter what the real of the reality is, on an everyday basis but what is happening within the context of the screen.

    The short video is about how the Vietnamese government had “control” of the country which controlled their people and how some people especially women were standing up against it which in parts of the videos its shows that the women are basically feminists.

  4. With the documentary approach the film gets back to its fundamentals… By selection, elimination, and coordination of natural elements, a film form evolves which is original and not bound by theatrical or literary tradition… The documentary film is an original art form. It has come to grips with facts – on its own original level. It covers the rational side of our lives, from the scientific experiment to the poetic landscape-study, but never moves away from the factual (Hans Richter)

    Trin T. Minh-ha’s film Surname Viet Given Name Nam embodies this quote by being non-narrative, yet still presenting reality by including and excluding very specific images and voices, giving the speaker’s ideas context, evoking the feeling of pride, of distrust, understanding, work and exhaustion, with only one interview and what appears to be archival footage.

  5. Theory Post
    “Reality runs away, reality denies reality. Filmmaking is, after all, a question of “framing” reality in its course. However, it can also be the very place where the referential function of the film image/sounds is not simply negated, but reflected upon its own operative principles and questioned in its authoritative identification with the phenomenal world.”

    I know this is more than one sentence, but I believe Trin T. Minh-ha manifests these sentences in her film. She doesn’t use normal framing to get her point across. In the beginning of the video, she shows the Vietnamese women dancing. You can notice that in some of the framing the women’s heads get cut off. She then has the pictures start off small, and then get larger. She also has extreme close-ups and pans the camera around. For sounds, she has the sound of water and a storm when the women are dancing. She also overlays music with the dialogue and footage. My favorite was how she edited the visuals to go with the music. When thinking of a documentary you wouldn’t usually think to do this, but this is her own operative principles on how to view this world. For me, how she used images and sound was not inefficient, but gave me a different and entertaining way to view this world.

  6. Theory Post:

    “The documentary can easily become a “style” : it no longer consitutes a mode of production or an attitude toward life, but proves to be only an element of aesthetics (or anti-aesthetics) which at best and without acknowledging it, it tends to be in any case, within its own factual limits, it reduces itself to a mere category, or a set of persuasive techniques.”

    Here, I like to think that Minh. Ha is warning documentary films that focus too much on a pretty presentation or a professional and classic way of filming, would actually take away from the film rather than contributing to it or the cause itself. She, herself, does things like not capturing the subjects fully, either leaving out their head and focusing on other parts of their body or extreme slow motion in a scene to emphasize a moment and allow ourselves to indulge in what is going on. The scene of the women soldiers is a perfect example, when she begins with a shot of only their faces and their reactions and then to a shot of the rest of their body and it is revealed they have weapons on them. It is my favorite part and it is truly touching.

  7. Theory Post:
    “A documentary aware of its own artifice is one that remains sensitive to the flow between fact and fiction.” pg.41

    At one point in the clip, a photograph of a group of women’s heads is shown. But then, in the next shot, it is revealed that the picture before was cropped, and that the group of women are actually holding what appear to be guns in their hands. Trin T. Minh-ha is drawing the audience’s attention to the fact that she could have easily misled them, had she not shown the full picture. However, in revealing all the facts, she shows that she is not interested in trying to create her own fiction, and that she refuses to shy away from the truth.

  8. “The silent common people…are constantly summoned to signify the real world. They are the fundamental referent of the social, hence it suffices to the point of the camera at them, to show their (industrialized) poverty, or to contextualize and package their unfamiliar lifestyles for the ever-buying and donating general audience “back here,” in order to enter the sanctified realm of the morally right, or the social.”

    Trin T. Minh-ha manifests this sentence in her film. She does so by having shots of common people in Vietnam in her film. From my understanding, she does this to bring the audience into the world they live in. To make it easier to understand. She also has the woman in the film speaking english. I think this shows that this wasn’t made for the common people in Vietnam, but rather for people who speak english. But this film also gives insight of the common people. There are multiple shots of people dancing and walking on the streets. Also stills of a baby and a dead or sleeping face. Those shots are important for Trin T. Minh-ha to have in her film to help the audience in understanding their lifestyle.

  9. Theory:

    In the article “When the Moon Waxes Red” by Trinh T. Minh-Ha I choose the sentence is ” The real world: so real that the Real world becomes the one basic referent-pure, concrete, fixed, visible, all too visible.”

    Trinh T. Minh-Ha expresses the idea of our reality becomes more and more authentic when we become more aware of our surrounds. Truth becomes more vivid when we see things for what they are instead of pretending. Seeing your reality is a part of our everyday lives. Minh-Ha also explains that in her short film Surname Viet. Which shows Viet women in their daily culture, and towards the end, a woman narrates the reason behind the Viet women sticking together because, in reality, they are all they have. The Viet woman once wasn’t as close as they were but when they realize their society and political environment was pulling them apart. And once they started talking to each other they became close and realized they need to stick together. Their reality became more vivid to them and their society.

  10. Theory Post:

    “A documentary aware of its own artifice is one that remains sensitive to the flow between fact and fiction. It does not work to conceal or exclude what is normalized as “non-factual”, for it understands the mutual dependence of realism and the “artificiality” of filmmaking …Documentary reduced to a mere vehicle of facts may be used to advocate a cause, but it does not constitute one in itself.”

    I think that these particular ideas of Trinh T. Minh-Ha and her film theory are really encapsulated in this film. For instance, her film making style does not follow a linear structure, and the footage is pieced together as a montage rather than a narrative. She tells us facts and truths about women in Vietnamese society and the political systems in place there, but she chooses to do this stylistically rather than just factually. It doesn’t make her work any less truthful; in fact she argues that without an element of artistic expression and a voice of its own, the effectiveness of documentary is not a given.

  11. “The event itself. Only the event; unaffected, unregulated by the eye recording it and the eye watching it.”

    Trinn T. Minh-Ha exemplifies this in her film by recording as if a fly on the wall. She does not direct her subjects and her subjects do not react to her. There is no commentary guiding the viewer with context in an effort to persuade. Minh-Ha simply shows her subjects as they are naturally, and the viewer can see them for what they are without that viewpoint being constructed for them.

  12. Theory post:

    “Film made about the common people are futhermore naturally promoted as films made for the same people […] In the desire to service the needs of the un-expressed, there is the urge to define them and their needs […] For example, when filmmakers find themselves in debates in which a film is criticized for its simplistic and reductive treatment of a subject, resulting in a maintenance of the very status quo which it sets out to challenge, their tendency is to dismiss the criticism by claiming that the film is not made for ‘sophisticated viewers like ourselves, but for a general audience,’ thereby situating themselves above and apart from the /real/ audience […]” – Trinh T. Minh Ha, When The Moon Waxes Red, 1991.

    What Trinh T. Minh Ha created in her film was a vision that was accessible by the viewers that she had made the movie for, women. The subjects and the exploration of the subjects were women and about women, and Trinh T. Minh Ha expressed here, that films made about the common people are promoted as films made for them as well, for their understanding of themselves and how they are portrayed by others. However, she noticed that there was a separation between those who made films for the common people, and those who made films for themselves. Filmmakers who dismissed criticism by claiming that their film was made for the simple-minded, were affected by their subjective views of their own film. Filmmakers who accepted or welcomed those criticisms were more likely to have portrayed “the real world.” She was part of the filmmakers group where she had portrayed “the real world” through her film, she had shots of distinct group of Vietnamese women acting upon their powers and she had footage of Vietnamese women performing a traditional dance, and those images, back then, were the true reflections of the Vietnamese woman, and Trinh T. Minh Ha believed that she had shown us what being a Vietnamese woman is about.

  13. The quote by Jean Rouch; “every time a film is made there’s a cultural disruption.” is politically correct because film does not always represent fully the cultural aspects of an society. After all it mimic reality.

Leave a Reply