Sunday, January 08, 2006

Considerations of Visual Anthropology

I have some real concerns. Before I get to them, I should frame my thoughts in a couple recent experiences I've had.

I sent an email to my friend Ben at NYU yesterday with some questions about DVD authoring. But it had been a while since I'd talked to him at any length - my fault, really - so my simple technical question grew to a sizable update of my whole recent life. Though he's not in NYU's Culture and Media grad program, he hopes to work with one professor who is in fact the program's director and is taking several of the program's core courses. I informed Ben that, for better or for worse, I was planning on pursuing grad work in visual anthro, and that NYU was a pretty clear #1 on my list (though a couple other programs have caught my eye).

Ben's reply was affirming and still full of thoughtful reservation - both characteristics that I've come to appreciate (and should expect by now) in him. First, I guess I should (have) know(n), "visual anthropology" may be a dead or dying phrase. From an earlier communication with Ben I remember his telling me that anthropology itself is facing a sort of crossroads of identity. Also, some wind seems to be going out of "culture and media" (NYU's replacement label for "visual anthropology") programs' sails at institutions across the country. It wasn't clear, but I thought Ben was hinting that it was because some great people had been heading up these programs, people who have grown old and passed away. I'm not sure if it's really a question of the discipline's vigor or intrinsic worth. It may just be that its defenders and champions aren't being replaced by individuals of the same caliber. If that's so, I can understand how its strength might wane.

Also this week, I saw three films that have made an impact on my thinking. The first, which I saw with my friend Molly (music fan and film major) in Park City Thursday night was angry monk - reflections on india. The next night I went back to Park City with Molly and our buddy Rick. We failed to get locals-only Sundance ticket privileges, but we did see George Clooney's Good Night, And Good Luck. Then Saturday, after the date with my nurse, I came home and watched the first film on my new Netflix membership, Born Into Brothels (and please do take the time to follow that link).

The first, angry monk - reflections on tibet, promised to be everything I was looking to do with visual anthro - research on important aspects of cultures, presented in the form of motion picture. I appreciated the efforts to take a close look at an important figure in Tibetan history, and the filmmakers' efforts for creativity and quality of cinematography were not overlooked. However, I was distressed to find the Swiss director credited under nothing (that I found at the screening, at least) except direction. Research, interviews, writing, camerawork, and editing, from what I saw, were all done by others. I wondered if this was what anthropological filmmaking was. Was he even in Tibet and India? Or was he just being generous in crediting everyone else involved and not hogging the spotlight? This is, of course, probably a false dichotomy. In any case, if detached filmmaking is what he did on this project, it created a work containing significant content, the presentation of which was overarchingly flawed. The thesis and final purpose were unclear, the filmmaker's motive hazy, the messages taken away lacking any important affect. All in all, it was worth the drive and the free screening, but not much more.

I wondered if I would do better. Moreover, I wondered if there was better work to be done at all.

The next two films, you'll see, though far better, provided me with a deeper fear. Our return to Park City found us at a five-dollar screening of Good Night, And Good Luck., and on the way back we three found ourselves in as involved a discussion as I'd had in recent weeks, one about the cinematography and the writing and acting, and then about messages, media, and politics. In the middle of it we took a break for a metaconversation and pointed out that Clooney's film had done what it was probably supposed to, that is, getting the audience talking. And the next morning I woke up and in the shower (where I do all my best thinking) had some fun theorizing about the film and how its shots present and represent truth through negotiation of narrative levels. We had been uplifted, challenged, and propelled toward thought. In short, our boy George had given us a masterpiece.

Finally, there was Born Into Brothels. Follow the preceding link and the one above to find out more. (Please. This may not be because I want you to be wrapped up in these kids' lives, though that of course wouldn't be a bad thing. I'm just hoping to raise awareness about these kinds of things in general. Maybe I'm preaching to the choir.) To sum up, the brothels spoken of are in Kolkata, India, and the subjects of the film are children born into brothels, as indicated by the title, and have a photography class with a very kind English woman, also credited with directing the film. She becomes highly involved in the kids' (as they are referred to throughout) lives, and the audience can't help but find itself doing the same. I was shocked at how little I initially liked the cinematography, especially since I thought much of it was shot by the same woman, of course a photographer. (One other man is credited.) But as the film progressed I gave up my ideas of what the pictures "should" look like, and having embraced what I was seeing, I even began to love it. By film's end I was so enthralled that the next morning - this morning - found me unable to get those pictures out of my mind. The colors and people and objects and places kept racing around my brain, and I didn't really want them to leave. It was a moving film not only in its concept and execution, but also in its honesty as the photography teacher dedicated every energy she had to the kids' welfare.

Here are four photos taken by the film's kids, from the official website: 1 2 3 4 All

By the end of these two films,
I wondered if I could do as well.

Rick, who saw Good Night, And Good Luck. with me, told me that I was not only setting an unfair mark for myself, but that I was also doing prematurely, having as yet never really ventured into these things. I'll grant him that, for now. But those doubts and anxieties still exist.

Do I have a real voice here? Do I have it in me to put together the kind of quality found in those last two films, or is there only film like angry monk - reflections on tibet in my future? And moreover, if my work is more academic, if it distances itself from the social and political, does any of that matter? If it's meant to inform and not to persuade or to entertain or make (or raise) money, does any of that matter? (I doubt I've been entertaining enough to keep you reading up to this point!)

To me it does matter. I know myself well enough to know that I won't be happy unless people are happy watching my work. I don't want to simply produce entertainment - Clooney's film addresses that issue. But purely heady film doesn't work either. I do believe in the intrinsic value of education and learning, and strongly at that, but I know that folks want to like what they're reading or watching, and if I'm hoping to help people think, I hope I'm also helping them to feel and to love. Engaging entertainment , I think, can do just that.

Maybe important work that does entertain necessarily invites social change. Maybe I can't avoid getting political - at least a little bit - and maybe that's not a bad thing. I just hope I can be detailed and nuanced enough - and entertaining enough - to make these projects not only memorable for those involved, but also involving for those who view my work.

I guess I might not have so much to worry about after all when it comes to this film thing. Not as far as these issues are concerned. Not if I have such strong (and sound, I think) opinions about them already. Now I just need to figure out how to start my career.

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