EASA2018: Staying, Moving, Settling

(P075)
Grace: unexpected moments in ethnographic films
Location SO-F289
Date and Start Time 15 Aug, 2018 at 09:00
Sessions 2

Convenors

  • Christian Vium (Aarhus University) email
  • Florian Walter (Freie Universität Berlin) email
  • Christian Suhr (Aarhus University) email

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Short abstract

This panel invites anthropologists to explore moments of unexpected wonder in ethnographic film. We wish to understand how such moments are related to the specific modes of cultural critique that can be produced in film.

Long abstract

Those moments where a film exceeds its maker's control are among the most powerful ones. They relate to the concept of "grace" as proposed by Jean Rouch when describing the kind of unexpected disturbance or wonder that sometimes occurs while recording and editing a film (Rouch 2003; Henley 2009). Timothy Asch also describes how film may provide us with such unplanned or even unwanted gifts that we have no way of controlling or preparing for, and that often, we only later learn to appreciate. Such moments in films are, as he says: "a bit like a gargoyle at Chartres...one of those strange things that stick out and you say, what's this?" (Asch in Ruby 2000: 129). The specific kinds of cultural critique that we are able to produce with ethnographic films often derive from such unexpected moments, when suddenly we find that the camera shows us something that affects us as a resistance—a form of perceptual disturbance that we cannot quite understand.

This panel is dedicated to the exploration of such moments in film footage. We invite anthropologists who wish to share fragments of their own or other people's film footage. We want to understand what constitutes such rupturing moments? Are there ways to collaboratively provoke or facilitate the emergence of such moments? To whom are such moments perceivable or meaningful? How might we conceptualise creativity, authorship and the agency of humans and their cameras in relation to such moments?

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.

Papers

« 24 hours in Diane's daily life » (15mns) or the grace of interactions

Author: Corinne Fortier (Laboratoire d'Anthropologie Sociale) email
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Short abstract

The movie entitled "24 hours in Diane's daily life" follow Diane, a trans woman in her daily life without knowing in advance what she was going to do and to tell. Meaningful unexpected moments full of grace occured in this day which are related to her personality and to our close interaction.

Long abstract

As an anthropologist, I conduct numerous interviews with Diane, the character of the movie, on the subject of her transidentity, but I did not want to realize a movie where she will tell her story from childhood to adulthood. I prefered to show her mooving in her new woman's body.

The movie is entitled "24 hours in Diane's daily life" in hommage to the photographic work of Michel Journiac "24 hours in the life of an ordinary woman" (1974). And the theme and the temporality of my film are similar to Journiac's one. I gave no indication to Diane, having followed her in the morning till evening without knowing in advance what she was going to tell and to do. When I arrive to her home, Diane was taking a shower and told me that I could start to shoot, I followed her invitation and this unexpected moment was meaningful. The spectator hear at first her tenor voice singing under the shower before discovering when she opens the shower curtain that she has a feminine body. After, I followed her out of her home in public space to observed her interactions with others and how people that she met accidentally during the day react to her body transformation and I collecte the grace of these furtive interactions. And the result shows that this film is related to her personality, my gaze on her our interrelation. I will be able to show the entire film or some fragments.

'Creative Accidents': Memory and the Automated Machine

Authors: Alyssa Grossman (University of Gothenburg) email
Arine Høgel email
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Short abstract

In this paper we discuss how Surrealist techniques of automatism, geared toward unlocking the unconscious, can be combined with the supervised machine learning of Artificial Intelligence, to excavate and generate 'creative accidents' within a collection of archival, amateur, found-film footage.

Long abstract

In her classic text 'Melancholy Objects' (1973), Susan Sontag describes how the French surrealists viewed photographic technology as 'liberating' because of the automated machine's unique capacity to manufacture images transcending mere personal expression. Pre-modern visual technology, Sontag writes, is particularly interesting, because its automatic, electronic qualities provide fertile ground for the unexpected and unintentional 'creative accident.' No matter how much control a photographer possesses over the machine, certain elements of the image-making process invariably slip through their fingers; the optical/chemical/electronic impulse gives rise to a new relationship between images and reality.

Our presentation takes as its starting point a collection of found, amateur, archival film footage originally belonging to a family of Eastern-European Jewish immigrants to New York in the 1920s and '30s. In our collaborative work of revisiting and re-editing this material into a new film, we draw upon Surrealist ideas of the 'quasi-magical, quasi-accidental' qualities of photographic images that are mediated by both human and automated forces to produce meaning and memory.

Experimenting with integrating new techniques of Artificial Intelligence into our editing process, we are interested in excavating and perpetuating 'creative accidents' within this footage. As the Surrealists sought to examine the social and psychological effects of mechanical and commodified orders (Foster 1991), we are mobilizing contemporary forms of machinic sensitivity to explore the significance of this archival material, not for its specific historical or personal narratives, but for the light it can potentially shed on the haptic, sensorial fragility of memory itself.

"Sangharsh": filming the Dalit Panthers' struggle and its' grace.

Author: Nicolas Jaoul (CNRS) email
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Short abstract

My film on the Dalit Panthers in North India follows three young idealists spreading political consciousness in slums and villages. Focusing on poetic moments of grace that create breaches in the propaganda, I'll reflect on their importance for the film and on their heuristic value for anthropology

Long abstract

A teenager's denunciation of communal riots ends with a romantic song.

An elderly peasant forgets the words of an Ambedkar song, leaves the village gathering to work in the fields and sings a father's farewell song to a little girl who'll soon be married.

A statue of Ambedkar seems to have witnessed events of caste violence in the previous sequence. Her melancholic facial expression takes us on a musical road trip during the monsoon…

These are some of the unexpected poetic sequences of my film Sangharsh (105 minutes, 2018). Shot in direct cinema in the late 1990s during my Phd fieldwork, its editing process took place some twenty years later and recreates the emotional texture of the "ethnographic encounter".

While some of these gracious sequences were staged spontaneously by the people themselves, others were artificially created or simply emphasized during the editing process with the help of music. These sequences impose themselves as emotional landmarks, delivering open-ended messages. Although not incorporated with any precise intentions, they seem to retrospectively suggest that people's lives and aspirations cannot be contained by conventional political mobilization and that the deeper emancipatory horizons of humanity could remain beyond the reach of politics. The beauty of the characters' vulnerable lives nevertheless justifies the need for self-defence and assertion against oppressive forces, as advocated by the Dalit Panthers.

While these examples highlight the heuristic value of ethnographic cinema for anthropology, they also question the status of artistic practise in relation to the disciplinary framework of social sciences.

Unexpected proximities: poetics of the everyday in ethnographic film

Author: Domitilla Olivieri (Utrecht University) email
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Short abstract

This paper explores a tradition of ethnographic films that focuses on the everyday and that renegotiate the genre of observational cinema. It argues that these films affect a sudden, unexpected, yet slow-paced sense of spatial and embodied proximity to the subjects and objects represented.

Long abstract

This paper traces and explores a tradition of ethnographic (documentary) films that emphasise the prosaic, uneventful details of everyday lives, and renegotiate the genre of observational cinema.

Through a study of the films, especially in their editing strategies - with special attention to sounds and speeds - the paper argues that the way these films are edited creates a sudden, unexpected, yet slow-paced sense of spatial and embodied proximity to the subjects and objects represented: a "feeling of being there."

The focus is on documentaries from different traditions, namely: ethnographic films, such as those by Francesco de Melis (e.g.: Porto dei Suoni) and David MacDougall (e.g.: Schoolscapes), in relation to other films with similar filmic strategies and poetics (e.g.: ¡Vivan las Antipodas! by Victor Kossakovsky, El Cielo Gira by Mercedes Álvarez, Forgetting Vietnam by Trinh T. Minh-ha ).

The paper elaborates how these films, through an ethnographic and observational cinema's approach, perform a poetics of the everyday that works to open spaces of encounter with 'other' subjectivities: people of the harbour, fishermen, those who repeat "traditional" gestures seemingly connected to a forgotten past, the inhabitants of liminal and remote places...

In tracing a tradition of ethnographic and documentary style, the focus is on how these films are composed, as well as to what these films can do: their poetics and politics. The broader aim of this paper is to articulate the political potential of these films to affecting alternative imaginaries of a shared everyday lived space.

A tripod and a strange sound

Author: Christian Suhr (Aarhus University) email
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Short abstract

I this paper I discuss the appearance of a tripod and a strange sound in the footage that was used for the opening scene of the film "Descending with Angels" (Suhr 2013) in which a jinn is being exorcised from an Iraqi man.

Long abstract

Just before the exorcism the possessed man's wife, who is a trained wedding photographer, set up her large Manfrotto tripod for me. She placed it just beside her husband's head, to the right of their large television set. I thanked her for providing this tripod, but it annoyed me. I wanted to be able to move, to be free to make close-ups and full shots, to get into the action, to get the feel of the situation. While I was occupied with cinematic drama, the woman wanted a stable, birds-eye, tripod shot of the entire exorcism from beginning to end. The particular exposure that she wanted of the jinn within her husband was not simply a matter of aesthetic preference, but was a part of her ongoing attempts to fight and contain the jinn. This emerging insight came to me thanks to the persistant appearance of her tripod in my footage, which I first regarded simply as matter out of place and attempted not to film. In this paper I discuss how the camera and the tripod exposed the limits of my understanding and opened my analysis to a better appreciation of what it means to live with madness. I addition I discuss the appearance of a strange sound immediately after the exorcism.

Provoking Ethnographic Epiphany: realising moments of flow on the ethnographic stage and screen

Author: Johannes Sjöberg (The University of Manchester) email
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Short abstract

Showing rare moments in ethnographic film-making where the pace of recorded life was syncronised to encompass moments of ethnographic epiphany, I will suggest how performance studies informs an understanding of ethnographic film-making as dependent on moments of 'flow' as defined by Csíkszentmihályi

Long abstract

This paper will trace the moments of Rouchian 'grace' in ethnographic film to an understanding of ethnographic film-making as dependent on moments of 'flow' in improvisation. Rouch's focus on improvisation in cinéma vérité originated from his early interest in surrealist art. He would use the camera to provoke the unexpected to occur with his collaborators, inspired by surrealist art techniques such as rencontre and bricolage. I will argue that the openly inter-subjective act of ethnographic film-making has much in common with improvised theatre. Judging from my own experience of improvised acting, it is equally dependent on moments of grace. Rouch used the camera as a catalyst to provoke these moments, comparing his film-making to the process of rituals. Like improvised film-making the improvised theatre scene develops in the tension between risk of failure and chance of success. The theatre stage serves the same function as Rouch's camera lense, as it provokes a focus of increased concentration where 'being here and now', aware yet unaware, becomes the prerequisite of perceived authenticity. The stage and lense offer 'a frame' (Bateson 1979), a 'magic circle' (Huizinga 1938), a 'liminal space' betwixt and between (Turner 1964). Making parallels to the rare moments in my own ethnographic film-making where the rhythm and pace of recorded life happened to be syncronised to encompass a moment of ethnographic epiphany, I hope to show how performance studies can inform an understanding of ethnographic film-making as dependent on moments of flow as defined by Csíkszentmihályi (1975).

Random Encounters between Anthropology and Cinema

Author: Amaya Sumpsi (Universidade Nova de Lisboa) email
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Short abstract

As I was filming my field work during 7 years, in a fisherman community in Azores Islands, planning interviews and focusing in observational frameworks, I realized that were the unexpected an unplanned moments that made the point of my documentary work, "O fisherman , my Oldman!" (2013).

Long abstract

In March 2018, as a member of NAVA (Núcleo de Antropologia Visual e das aArtes- CRIA center of investigation) , I coordinated a work session under the title "Random Encounters between Cinema and Anthropology".

http://cria.org.pt/wp/event/workshop-dia-n-encontros-fortuitos-entre-a-antropologia-e-o-cinema/

In this session, my purpose was to talk about these random moments that many times break up when we are filming and researching, and how they, given enough space to grow, can become a precious moment of enlightment. As an example, I showed a little fragment of my film "o fisherman, my oldman" (2013), where through 7 years of filming observational frames and deep in interviews with several members of a fishermen community in Azores Islands, some random and informal moments happened in front of the camera that opened new and essential gaps in the community representation. The unexpected character of the moment was reflected in the way the camera (and myself) moved, disoriented, forgetting the importance of the light and the framework so to focus on the encounter´s essence. Despite the sequences' low image quality, they appear in the final documentary as some of the most significant moments, avoiding me a narrative based mainly in interviews.

For this work session, I invited Glaura Cardoso Vale (Forumdoc.bh, Brasil), Catarina Alves Costa, former coordinator of NAVA, and Rodrigo Lacerda, NAVA PHD student, to bring some examples of these "random encounters" from different ethnographic films. Some of the thoughts brought up during this session will also be present in my paper.

The grace of ungraceful moments: subtle discord in ethnographic filmmaking

Author: Angela Torresan (University of Manchester) email
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Short abstract

Drawing on footage from my fieldwork in a gentrifying favela in Rio de Janeiro, I explore what is possible to learn about mutual trust and ethics when film production elicits reciprocal moments of wonder, discomfort and joy.

Long abstract

Zuzah, a rich foreign entrepreneur asks a resident of Vidigal, a gentrifying favela in Rio de Janeiro, how he could invest in the area. The subtle tension this question provoked - as I was filming the chance encounter - evoked the essence of the favela residents' predicament and of my research. There was discord in in Vidigal about whether gentrification would benefit long-term residents or not, which touched on important moral issues for those involved. The resident in case was my friend and collaborator Ninho, with whom I often explored the alleyways and streets of Vidigal. As Zuzah addressed him, Ninho looked at me with an uneasy smile, seemingly indicating I should stop filming, which I did. When Ninho and I reviewed the footage, he pointed out that although my own questions had provoked the situation, his reaction conjured up an important intangible element of his experience. "Why did you stop filming?" Ninho asked me. "- Because you wanted me to... - Well, I'm glad you caught it."

This paper will explore issues of mutual (mis)understandings, trust, and ethics arising from fleeting moments of 'grace' (Rouch 2003) in 'ungraceful' situations that transpire when one uses a camera as a research tool. An audience may not catch these fragmented gifts. The full richness of their meaning may require more background information than moving images can offer. However, they extend multiple layers of ethnographic wonder and knowledge that can carry on unfolding long after their moment of genesis. The presentation involves a talk and fragments of a 10-minute film.

Invisible put provoking: The camera facilitating a plunge into reflexive reality.

Author: Vanessa Wijngaarden (University of Johannesburg) email
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Short abstract

In a moment of 'grace', a participant turns around to criticize the researcher's camera, and the plunge into ciné-reality gets a reflexive layer. How does simultaneous presence and invisibility affect agency and creativity, and how does it influence the dialogue between filmmaker and participants?

Long abstract

The film Eliamani's Homestead presents some of the dilemmas of tourism, showing Europeans visiting a hungry Maasai family, the contrast stressing the latter's socio-economic and physical immobility. It consists of an unbroken 20-minute shot originally recorded for research purposes, but became internationally acknowledged due to several, partly interrelated, moments of 'grace' unfolding when the camera follows the village visit in real-time. The most important moment illuminates the cinematic tension between being at once present and invisible; film as a 'plunge into reality' as well as subjective and authored. The film has been commented on as 'most honest' and 'hyperreal', because in contrast to the tourists' cameras, the researcher's (much bigger) camera apparently operates un-obtrusively, even seemingly unnoticed, adhering to the low-key methods of direct or observational cinema.

However, when Eliamani suddenly turns around to look straight into the researcher's lens, criticizing the invasiveness of its gaze, we become aware that the anthropologist's filming is a catalyst after all. Firstly, it creates a reality on the Tanzanian savannah in the Rouchian sense, provoking the participants to reveal more about their inner sentiments with regard to the encounter. Secondly, the participants' interactions with the camera immerse researcher and public to reflect upon what they (want to) accomplish by recording and viewing other people, and how recording devices (and wider presence as an observant or researcher) can facilitate as well as challenge relationships. Can ciné-trance only take place in harmonious cooperation or also in situations of resistance and opposition between filmmaker and participants?

When protagonist becomes co-director, and how a moment of grace completed the scene

Author: Christian Vium (Aarhus University) email
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Short abstract

In this paper, I present a scene from the film 'Jew-Man Business', and discuss how the scene came about and how a particular moment of grace made the narrative of the scene even stronger than what the protagonist, Junior, who to a large degree led the way, had imagined.

Long abstract

In 2009, I was filming an ethnographic documentary film in Freetown, Sierra Leone, on a commission from fellow anthropological researchers. The film followed three young men who had been involved in the civil war and who were now trying to create a new life for themselves and their families in the wake of the atrocities the experienced and were part of.

In this paper, I present a scene from the film 'Jew-Man Business', and discuss how the scene came about and how a particular moment of grace made the narrative of the scene even stronger than what the protagonist, Junior, who to a large degree led the way, had imagined. The scene was composed of footage recorded in a single day and is largely chronological. While recording the material, it was evident that Junior was attempting to his personal version of a particular, dramatic story that has largely formed his life. In a cunning and discrete way, he would lead our conversation to certain topics and use specific gestures and glances to identify the parts of the story that were most important to him. At a certain point, his small daughter enters the scene and this intensifies the scene by reinforcing Junior's narrative dramatically.

In this paper, I want to discuss how I worked together with an editor to flesh out the protagonists' visions while at the same time nurturing the moments of grace that appeared along the way.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.