Ethnographic Film


In making ethnographic film ethnographers will inevitably be confronted with conflicting values and will be forced to choose to uphold some while neglecting others. The situation is complicated further when the films are intended for television screening and the audience is the general public; the ethnographic filmmaker then faces the task of producing something that is simultaneously ethnographically competent, entertaining, accessible to general audiences and ethical. Here I will examine two ethnographic made-for-TV programs: Masai Women and Kayapo Out of the Forest. In each of these programs the filmmakers were confronted with ethical decisions requiring them to uphold one value while excluding another. It is my intent to show that in ethnographic film making there can be no set formula for which filmmakers can prioritize ethnographic values and human ethics; each decision to uphold one value over another must be made in regard to the specific social and political context in which it is being made.


Masai Women’s filmmakers were confronted with two conflicting values when treating several aspects of Masai culture. On one hand the film was meant to be an ethnographic documentary and as such had its own set of ethnographic goals. These include portraying whole people and being as objective as possible. On the other hand, the filmmakers had to be cognizant of their audience, the general (British) public. Knowing that their audience was the general public had both advantages and disadvantages: while it gave them a unique opportunity to reach a wide range of people it also created a certain responsibility, since the film wasn’t being shown in the context of any anthropological discourse on the subject. This isn’t to say the filmmakers were limited because their audience were the ignorant masses but rather that they were dealing with a diverse audience. The film, to be successful, could assume neither that the viewers were educated nor uneducated; a successful television program appeals to many sensibilities.


While depicting Masai culture these values came into conflict in treating several subjects. First and most striking was the subject of female circumcision: the topic was completely glazed over. In narrating the topic Melissa Llewelyn-Davies describes female circumcision as a joyous occasion, a rite of passage for Masai women, “the equivalent to a white wedding in British society.” The filmmakers’ reasoning behind this decision to not dwell on the subject was essentially a decision to adhere to one of the values described above, to be responsible and respectful in portraying a culture to “open” audiences; ethnographic filmmakers certainly do not want to create disdain for a culture based on practices that may seem adverse to western society. In adhering to one value however they were forced to abandon another, ethnographic completeness. In a film about Masai women, a female-centered film about the lives of women, the issue of female circumcision seems to me to be very pertinent and an important topic to explore. For instance, the girl’s screams are edited out, clearly in violation of ethnographic principle. Lleweyn-Davies also says that “the practice is the female equivalent to male circumcision.” It most certainly is not. If practiced on men female circumcision would amount to one-half to three quarters removal of the penis. Here, the point is that the issue is glazed over and made benign for the purpose of not offending the “average” western viewer.


One topic more difficult to avoid in a discussion of Masai women’s experience is the practice of polygyny. Here, the same conflicting values were confronted as are discussed above: on one hand the filmmaker wants to produce a film that is ethnographically whole in its description of cultural institutions, yet on the other hand the filmmaker must keep in mind the composition of the audience. In this instance Melissa Llewelyn-Davies chose to explore the topic at length in favor of the former value. She does however explore the topic with great sensitivity, choosing to ask the subjects how they feel about the practice themselves, rather than narrating .


In making Kayapo: Out of the Forest, Terrence Turner faced a somewhat different dilemma, yet it was a dilemma of conflicting values nevertheless. The Kayapo project arose out of a relationship between the Kayapo and various anthropologists. Anthropologists introduced as early as the 1950’