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Candomble is a branch of Santeria, an Afro-Carribbean religion which evolved among African slaves from the Yoruba religion. Historically, when slaves were brought to the Caribbean they were forced to take on the religion of their masters; in the Caribbean and South America it was predominantly Roman Catholic. Yoruban decedents kept their religion alive in part by continuing to worship the African deities in the guise of Christian saints; from this tradition evolved Voodoo in Haiti, Macumba in Brazil and Candomble in Brazil and along the Northern Coasts of South America. In Brazil today, police still raid Candomble ceremonies and until recently Candomble celebrants were required to obtain permits. However in a country that is 90 percent Roman Catholic many of the faithful attend both Candomble ceremonies and Catholic mass. Currently a movement for social and political acceptance is forming in Bahia, the state with Brazil’s highest percentage of African-Brazilians. This movement needs to be documented and would make a highly intriguing subject of an ethnographic film .
The film I would be interested in making may sound more like a documentary than an ethnographic film; typically when people think of ethnographic films images of peculiar-looking, half-naked “primitive” people come to mind. However few cultures still exist totally untouched by the 19th and 20th century phenomena of colonization and economic globalization. The questions then arise: what is legitimate as the subject of an ethnographic film, and what is acceptable in ethnographic film making?
In (creatively titled) Ethnographic Film, Karl G. Heider attempts to answer these questions, but first attempts to clarify and create a framework for what the questions should be. Heider suggests that instead of trying to squarely categorize films as ethnographic or un-ethnographic, critics and anthropologists should judge films based on their ethnographic merit. That is, if ethnography is a way of making a detailed description and analysis of human behaviors and cultures, films should be judged on how successfully they achieve these ends. Heider outlines several attributes, or scales, of ethnographicness in film; here I will discuss five films, their relation to some of Heider’s attributes and their overall success in serving an ethnographic purpose.
Nanook of the North (1922)
The first important thing to understand about Nanook is that Robert Flaherty’s intended audience was a general theater and he probably did not foresee that it would one day be shown almost exclusively in classrooms. That said, we may then evaluate the film from an ethnographic perspective, keeping in mind that a judgment of the film’s ethnographic merit is not the same as and bears no relation to a judgment of the film itself as good or bad.
Heider articulates the concept of ethnographic basis as an attribute of ethnographic film. Ethnographic basis according to him is the most important attribute determining a film’s ethnographicness and is defined as the degree to which a film is informed by ethnographic or anthropological understanding (p. 105). Robert Flaherty had no training in anthropology or ethnography, so it would seem that the degree to which Nanook was informed by ethnographic understanding must have been minimal. Amazingly though the way the film turned out overall would not point to that conclusion; several ethnographic principles are apparent throughout, and in fact in Nanook Flaherty actually set the precedent for many later ethnographic films.
Nanook of the North has been criticized on several ethnographic grounds. First, the film can be criticized for its use of staged behavior. Not only was the behavior of the subjects not spontaneous, but the entire story line was fictional; the familial relationships described were fabricated and the events were all acted out. Heider suggests that staged behavior should not be written off too quickly as un-ethnographic; instead the conditions surrounding it should be investigated (p. 56). There are two relevant questions that should be asked in evaluating staged behavior in ethnographic film; first, what was the role of the filmmaker? Here, Flaherty paid participants to act out parts not representative of themselves and to act out aspects of their culture as if they were in a situation which they were not really in. The second question is, if the events were instigated by the filmmaker, were they events in the current cultural repertory or were they revived after more or less long abeyance? By the time
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Topics Related to Anthropology
Film genres, Visual anthropology, Ethnography, English-language films, Ethnographic film, Dead Birds, Nanook of the North, Robert J. Flaherty, Documentary film, Dani people, Robert Gardner, Karl G. Heider
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