News & Events

Faces of Change: Retrospective, part 2 – The Rise of the Filmmaker-Anthropologist

Faces of Change – Retrospective for a New Digital Chapter

This post is part of a summer blog series on Faces of Change, one of the most important ethnographic and educational film collections of the previous century. Digitally remastered by DER in 2017, the collection is one of the earliest attempts to provide a creative documentation of a changing world through the use of then pioneering approaches of observational cinema.

For an introduction to the series, read part 1.


One of the important features of the films from the Faces of Change collection is that they were all made through a collaborative effort from filmmakers and scholars, who were brought together through producer Norman Miller in an attempt to make films that would serve as “visual evidence” of the cultures that were examined in the series. In this regard, together with the Harvard Peabody New Guinea Expedition, the Netsilik Series, and the Yanomamo Series, Faces of Change is one of the early serious and large-scale projects to serve as a platform for filmmakers and anthropologists to work together in producing works that bear the authorial marks of, and reveal a tension between, both sides. Yet, as I wish to argue in this piece, Faces of Change could as well be viewed as one of the projects that, seen in retrospective, has served as a catalyst for the rise of the filmmaker-anthropologist (or anthropologist-filmmaker?). We will consider this by looking, if only briefly, at the careers and films of three of the filmmakers that were involved with the Faces of Change, Herb DiGioia and David Hancock (who worked together in all of their films) and David MacDougall, and how this project influenced their later work.

After an unsuccessful attempt to work with the NFB (a two-day conference was held in Montreal to discuss collaboration possibilities between AUFS and NFB), Norman Miller turned to Colin Young, who had founded the Ethnographic Film Program at UCLA in the 1960s (see MacDougall 2001 for a longer piece on Young’s efforts to bring students of cinema and anthropology together) for assistance with recruiting filmmakers who would be capable and prepared for working with scholars in sensitive geographical areas and in new cultural settings. Among those who Young recommended were his former students Herb DiGioia and David Hancock, as well as David MacDougall. They would later become the principal filmmakers for several films in the Kenya and Afghanistan series, including two of the most celebrated pieces of the collection: Kenya Boran and Naim and Jabar.

Colin Young is an influential figure in the development of observational cinema. In his early days at UCLA, he was one of the major proponents of new forms of collaboration between filmmakers and anthropologists. Yet, interestingly enough, he was also among the first to notice the difficulties that this undertaking brought to the fore, as both anthropologists and filmmakers were quick to realize that their ideas about how a film should be made or what it should look like were, more often than not, almost contradictory. In a seminal essay from 1975, (see Hockings 1995), Young acknowledges that “until anthropologists are their own filmmakers…they must help a filmmaker choose his subject.” In his struggle to find new ways for the development of observational cinema, he continually made calls for filmmakers to think more anthropologically and for anthropologists to learn the “language” of cinema. DiGioia, Hancock, and MacDougall were among the first to respond to these calls.

 

DiGioia+Hancock

The participation of these three filmmakers (note that DiGioia and Hancock always worked in a tandem, until Hancock’s passing, when DiGioia turned to teaching) in the Faces of Change, and the films that they made as part of the project, had a great impact for their later careers. For Digioia and Hancock, participating in the Faces of Change project was the first (and last) time they worked in a community that was not their own. Most of their films have been made in DiGioia’s native Vermont community, where they worked with, and filmed, people they knew well as they went about their mundane activities (for a longer discussion of DiGioia’s and Hancock’s careers and films, see Grimshaw 2009).

Their experience filming in an unfamiliar environment and community (Aq Kupruk of Afghanistan) was one that had a significant impact in the development of their career and their filmmaking style. On one hand, it confirmed the difficulties of filmmakers and anthropologists to work together, as DiGoia recalls in a conversation with Anna Grimshaw (see Grimshaw 2006): “It was not easy working with an anthropologist…he had conventional ideas about documentaries, narrated films and all of that…” It also made them aware of the struggle to work and build relationships with people in an unknown community: “I think that what we both learned very well is that neither of us wanted to make films in other cultures again…We loved being with the boys [Naim and Jabar] but we felt bad that we just grabbed the film and left.”

On the other hand, spending time in Aq Kupruk helped them to hone a particular style of filming that accompanied them in their later films back in Vermont. When we look at Naim and Jabar today, we can quickly realize the importance of the encounter that DiGioia and Hancock had with the main subjects after whom the film is named. By focusing on these two boys, they learned that observing and following particular individuals, rather than actions, was an interesting way to build a more structured visual narrative which did not require the use of tools such as commentary to assist in the film’s editing and storyline. With Naim and Jabar, partly because they did not understand the language, they learned to be patient and wait for the subjects to guide them and their camera, rather than the other way around (see excerpt below as an example). It was this experience that served DiGioia and Hancock to further strengthen a unique style of observing and following particular subjects as they went on with their daily lives. This can be clearly seen in the works that they later produced back in Vermont, such as Peter Murray and Peter and Jane Flint.

Excerpt 1 – Naim and Jabar

Naim and Jabar can, then, be considered as a pivotal work that defined the careers of DiGioia and Hancock. Its importance today is even greater, considering that it is the only work (together with the other shorter films from the Afghanistan collection) that these pioneer observational filmmakers made outside of the United States. It can now be said that this film, even if subconsciously, helped them develop a more anthropological and reflexive approach to filmmaking.

 

MacDougall

Unlike DiGioia and Hancock, when David MacDougall was brought into the Faces of Change team to work in Kenya, he had already had some experience working and filming in other societies. It was in an early project with other people from the UCLA Ethnographic Film Program that, even as a student, he noticed the problems that would arise in the filmmaker-anthropologist collaboration and in the difficulties for the cinematographer to be directed by others. As he would recall some thirty years later: “I could receive general instructions, but when important decisions had to be made, there was no time for direction. As a result, I soon began making my own decisions, shooting the film as I thought it should be made” (MacDougall 2001). He is one more voice, and a loud one indeed, to speak of the need for anthropologists to view film not as a tool for the illustration of existing ideas, but as an alternative form of ethnographic practice (for a substantial discussion, see MacDougall 1998).   

His authorial mark on the Faces of Change films from the Kenya series is clear. In Kenya Boran, in a great partnership with filmmaker James Blue (who was the sound recordist in this film), instead of directing the viewers toward presumed issues and concerns of the Boran people, they allow their subjects “to breathe.” Their subjects converse freely about their preoccupations, especially those of the young people as they try to adjust between studying at school and doing their chores with their families, which gives them “the wheel” of direction (see excerpt below as an example). As noted in the excerpt and as he would later acknowledge: “I understand education among the Boran partly through the meaning of ‘lion’ and ‘elephant’” (see MacDougall 1998, emphasis in original). In addition to marking his style, with the Kenya films MacDougall was first introduced to the struggle to film young people in various educational and institutional settings. Later in his career, he would go back again to similar issues in other films, particularly in the Doon School series that he made in India.

Excerpt 2 – Kenya Boran

In contrast to DiGioia and Hancock, MacDougall’s experience with the Faces of Change project was an incentive to continue to make works in unfamiliar cultural settings such as Uganda, Sardinia, Australia and India, and to make important additions to the tradition of ethnographic film with pieces such as The Wedding Camels or Tempus de Baristas. His work, thus, bears a distinct anthropological tradition of living and spending a substantial time with subjects (referred to as“fieldwork” in anthropology) in an attempt to get to know, cinematically, why they do particular things and why they do them in particular ways. As he would later note: “…the encounter with another culture forces filmmakers to invent new modes of expression, and makes evident epistemological and ethical questions that tend to be overlooked when one is filming on one’s own society” (MacDougall 2001). If we should ever try to make a mental picture of what a filmmaker-anthropologist looks like, the figure of MacDougall could easily to come to mind. It must be noted, however, that Judith MacDougall, David MacDougall’s wife, has been his partner in the majority of the films and although she was not part of the Faces of Change project, her contribution in the making of their later films is essential.

Although the effect of the Faces of Change experience on the careers of DiGioia and Hancock and MacDougall was contradictory, the impact it had on their work is unquestionable. It is through this experience, and perhaps mainly by working with anthropologists, that they perfected their styles and found a place to carry on their anthropologically-informed work, be it at home or away from it. Naim and Jabar and Kenya Boran are a fine testament of their legacy and their status as pioneers of a profession that has come to be known as filmmaker-anthropologist.

-Arber Jashari, DER Intern

Arber is a DER graduate intern and a Fulbright fellow from Kosova. He is currently attending the MA program in anthropology at SIU in Carbondale. You can learn more about his work in his website.

Posted on August 8th, 2017 in News |

Faces of Change: Retrospective for a New, Digital Chapter

Faces of Change – Retrospective for a New Digital Chapter

This summer blog series will bring a retrospective on Faces of Change, one of the most important ethnographic and educational film collections of the previous century. Digitally remastered by DER in 2017, the collection is one of the earliest attempts to provide a creative documentation of a changing world through the use of then pioneering approaches of observational cinema.

Some of the topics that will be touched upon in this series include: collaboration between anthropologists and filmmakers in the production of the films; the pedagogical intentions and uses of the collection; and the overall historical significance of the collection. In addition, we will conduct interviews with scholars and filmmakers involved in the project and look at specific films that they worked on as part of this collection.


 

Introduction

The Faces of Change collection of ethnographic films, digitally remastered by DER in 2017, contains 26 films that examine a changing world in five diverse geographic locations: starting with the China Coast at sea level and moving up to Taiwan, then to Afghanistan, Kenya and finally to the mountains of Bolivia. The films, produced by the American Universities Field Staff (AUFS) collective, through a National Science Foundation grant, were designed to examine themes such as rural society and education, and in a smaller scale, economy, the role of women and different belief systems. In addition to the films, the scholars and filmmakers who were involved in the project prepared a study guide with textual essays, instructions on how to use the films, classroom teaching strategies, and technical information.

In this introduction to the collection, we will focus on the historical importance of this project for the fields of anthropology and, more specifically, ethnographic film. After the arrival of 16mm cameras and sync sound in the 1960s and the emergence of cinema vérité in France and direct cinema in the U.S., anthropologists were looking at cinema as an alternative to textual ethnography. It was in this vein that AUFS scholars (mainly anthropologists) came up with the idea of turning to the medium of film to research various so-called rural cultures whose lifeways were rapidly changing due to outside (mainly Western) intrusion. For the producer of Faces of Change, Norman Miller, and for other social scientists of the time, this period represented “a revolution in film usage” as it allowed reality to be observed easily and presented as “visual evidence” to students and professors in universities and high schools around the country (Miller 1976).

In line with similar productions, such as the Netsilik Eskimo Series or the Yanomamo Series, which were taken as examples, the Faces of Change films were primarily designed to serve the educational needs of students and professors in university departments across the country. It was with this purpose in mind that the creators of the project decided to set the themes and duration for the films before they went into production in the five different locations. They decided to make two longer films (approximately 30 to 45 minutes) and three shorter ones (between 10 and 20 minutes) in each location. The films were meant to complement one-another and were designed so they could be shown together or separately. In addition, they were to serve as comparative examples of the different cultures that were explored in the films. For instance, the five films that deal with the role of women in each culture could be shown together to compare and contrast the role of women in the respective culture. Similarly, a variety of other combinations could be done with the other themes to enable a cross-cultural comparison through film.

Among other things, this project was also conceived as an experiment to measure the potential of film as an alternative to textual forms in teaching. In his “visual evidence” essay, Miller predicts that “we will learn to read film as critically as we read print” and that “the old myth that those who work with ‘audio-visuals’ are somehow unscholarly, will die away” (Miller 1976:2). It is certainly difficult to evaluate whether this prediction has, so far, been accurate or not, but it is of importance to note that, despite this belief in the possibilities of film, the creators of the collection deemed it necessary to have a book-long study guide which gave background information on the five geographic locations and cultures treated in the films. We will discuss the role of accompanying textual information for ethnographic films in more detail in one of our next writings, as well as the notion of “visual evidence,” a term coined by Miller.

David MacDougall, one of the celebrated practitioners of the field and one of the filmmakers involved in the project, recalls in a 2015 reflection: “The objective [of the Faces of Change project] was not to communicate a set of concepts about change, but rather to engage filmmakers and anthropologists in using film to explore processes of change as they were actually occurring in different circumstances” (MacDougall 2015). Here, then, lies a fundamental motive of this series. With this in mind, we invite you along to explore and re-evaluate the role of the Faces of Change collection, specifically of the filmmakers and anthropologists involved in it, for the development and reception of observational cinema as a filmmaking practice within anthropology and pedagogy.

– Arber Jashari, DER Intern

Posted on July 21st, 2017 in News |

Animating the DRC: Interview with Congolese Animator Jean-Michel Kibushi

Congolese Animator and Filmmaker Jean-Michel Kibushi


Palabres Animées du Griot is our new collection of stop-motion films, full of  lively animations ranging from folk tales to political critiques, by pioneering Congolese animator Jean-Michel Kibushi. To celebrate the collection’s release and offer more information on Kibushi’s work, we’re pleased to share this special guest interview with Kibushi, conducted by his long time friend and Sub-Saharan African animation expert, Paula Callus.

***

Widely considered a pioneering artist in the field of animation in Central Africa, Jean-Michel Kibushi has assumed a vastly important role in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), his home country.  In 1991, Kibushi made his first stop-motion film based on a tale from his own ethnic group, the Tetela, titled Le Crapaud Chez Ses Beaux-Parents (The Toad Visits His In-Laws). Since then, he has worked to teach and encourage animation amongst local artists and youth in the region. With the creation of Studio Malembe Maa (which means “slowly but surely” in Lingala), the first local mobile studio for animation, he continues to undertake socially motivated work with an educational and developmental agenda. 

Paula Callus: To begin, could you explain how you developed a special interest for the art of animation?

Jean-Michel Kibushi: This interest emerged while I was studying theater and film at the National Arts Institute in Kinshasa in 1985. I had decided I wanted to go beyond the theoretical study of these subjects, and I was driven to discover the practice of cinema. At the time, the French Cultural Centre in Kinshasa offered a range of workshops where I was able to gain this practical experience and use of proper equipment. Here, I discovered the classic films screened during the meetings of a film club I had joined. By 1988, I had a voluntary internship at the Centre Wallonie of Bruxelles where I could put this knowledge to use, alongside the Belgian animators from the studio Atelier Graphoui, who specialize in animation.

This first experience of animation, as stop-motion, frame by frame, shooting with a 16mm Bolex, seduced me! In effect, I had identified that animation was a means to add value, promote and preserve our traditional culture. Certainly, in theater one could transmit this but it would be short-lived, and one would need to invest so much time for a few performances. In animation, the artist is allowed a continuation of the work, a wider dissemination… and the possibility to resonate with an international audience.

PC: What are your first memories of animated films in your youth in the DRC?

JMK: I have no recollection of cinematographic projections in my childhood, because I lived in a rural country where there was no cinema or television. It wasn’t until college that we sporadically had some screenings of documentary films. It was only when I was a student in Kinshasa that I discovered the Kimbo series on television.

Prince Loseno by Congolese animator Jean-Michel Kibushi

PC: What kind of stories are you interested in? Are they an inspiration for your own work?

JMK: My heritage, traditions, legends, rituals, and tales are the main inspiration for my work. This was the case for The Toad Visits His In-Laws and Prince Loseno and continues to be so in my current film Ngando which is in development. This is the basis of my work because, in my opinion, the African soul and for that matter the soul of each culture, rests on a heritage that shows us who we are, where we come from, our roots.

PC: In your opinion, what does the technique of cut-out, under the camera, animation offer an artist in comparison to the more conventional drawn or cell animation?

JMK: The classic cartoon utilizes a technique that requires a steady team of animators (for a 1-minute animation, for example it takes 1440 drawings). Since I am not a draftsman, the paper-cut technique allowed me to realize the characters quickly, and to animate the characters directly under the camera on a bench. Although this technique has limits with the breakdown of movement (walking, expressions of the face, mouth, and arms), it is more accessible than drawn or cell animation, and still a very expressive form.

PC: Beyond your own work as an artist, you have been described as a cultural promoter for the art of animation in Central and East Africa’s Great Lakes region and the DRC. Can you explain your role?

JMK: I am one of the few animation filmmakers in Central Africa. Our region is characterized by a virtual absence of productions for the youth. The national television channels of our countries do not produce and import programs, so it is important to have local productions with themes that allow identification with our cultural referents, rather than to bring to our youth the dreams carried by heroes distant and unidentified. My struggle is to train artists in the region so that we can tell our stories and share them with the rest of the world.

PC: Could you talk about the “Afriqu’Anim’Action” project? How was it organized?

JMK: Afriqu’Anim’Action, is a professional training course that supports young talented creators ready to take up the challenge of developing professional animation films. Quality animation requires substantial investment in resources, equipment, education, and animation technicians and professional assistance to enable its production and development. The workshops took place in the form of long-term residences in Burundi and Congo Kinshasa.

For a population of more than 120 million (Central and Eastern Africa), in a region where the plastic and dramatic arts are immensely rich, there are to date less than a dozen professional animation filmmakers and some amateur studios. Our training, in a simple and adaptable method, provided participants with working tools and opened up new paths to artists wishing to undertake the production of animated films. The adventure was finding out whilst doing, so to speak; adapting to the African realities, the complex social and cultural environment, and the needs and interests of the trainees.

 PC: After four years of training, what were the results of this project?

JMK: It was a long-term project that we carried out in two stages. It was a challenge to convert artists into animation professionals: to train them in the various aspects and related practices in animation production, from writing to making films. After the workshops, the second stage of the project was to help promoters to make their own short films. Afriqu’Anim’Action resulted in the production of 9 short films. Since the end of the project another three short films have been produced in Kinshasa and some artists have collaborated on advertising projects or documentaries with animated sequences.

Animator and filmmaker Jean-Michel Kibushi

PC: And finally Jean, in 2008 I travelled with you to Kinshasa to begin the development and pre-production of a stop-motion film, Ngando, which you mentioned earlier. You gave a presentation to the artists and various dignitaries, and explained how you thought it would take at least another 8 years to produce this film. Everyone was shocked to think it would take so long…but as you explained, stop-motion was a labour of love. Can you tell us about this film and your ambitions for it now?

JMK: My ambition with this work is to bring the mythical and fantastic world of a place in Africa, where tradition and modernity meet, to a wider audience. Fighting tyranny, defending rights and access to basic needs such as water and electricity, safeguarding cultural heritage, are all values that are conveyed within this film. My hope is that this dream will succeed.

Why does it take so long and why is it so complex to make this film? Alongside the scriptwriting, I tried to take an atypical path, contrary to classical production method. This project was not only for me to make a film, but also to serve as a means to train young people in the craft of animation. The trainings in Kinshasa during the film’s development benefited from the participation of many experienced professionals from Africa, Europe and Russia. In particular, Olaf Trenk, a German artist, trained young people in the creation of characters (frames, molding, drawings) and Thalia Diane Lane, a British artist, supervised training with dolls, costumes, and accessories. These two artists have been part of film crews including Frankenweenie (Best Animated Film Oscar for 2013) by Tim Burton, Fantastic Mr. Fox by Wes Anderson, The Sandman (Das Sandmännchen) by Sinem Sakaoglu, and others.

Unlike the productions of the major studios who combine the necessary resources with precise development on a tight production schedule, the absence of development financing kept us from adhering to a strict timetable. Nevertheless, we managed without great financial means to develop the project, and without any artistic constraints or dictates of a financial partner. Today, with a solid script structure and a finalized aesthetic developed through pre-production (such as storyboard, characters, sets, puppets, etc.) I am seeking financial partners to set up the business plan for production.

This piece was written by Paula Callus and edited by Alijah Case.

Posted on May 23rd, 2017 in News |

GOOD LUCK SOUP National Broadcast May 9, 8pm ET

We are pleased to announce that Matthew Hashiguchi’s documentary GOOD LUCK SOUP will have its national broadcast premiere on America ReFramed Tuesday, May 9 at 8pm ET on PBS’s WORLD Channel. Check your local listings!

In GOOD LUCK SOUP, Matthew explores his Japanese American identity through conversations with members of his multi-ethnic family, the star of which is his spunky Japanese grandmother, Eva, who was interned in a prison camp during WWII.

To celebrate the premiere, we asked Matthew to share one of his favorite family recipes with us–one we could make to snack on while watching GOOD LUCK SOUP. We can’t wait to try out the Hashiguchi teriyaki recipe! Matthew says: “It’s pretty much good on anything. We use it on chicken mostly: chicken wings, tenders and in stir fry. It’s good on corn and grilled items too. Any veggies. You can put some honey in it, too!”

Good Luck Soup Recipe

Let us know if you’re snacking on the Hashiguchi family teriyaki sauce, or one of your own family recipes, during the premiere using #goodlucksoupdoc! We’re on Twitter and Instagram as: @docued, and Matthew is on Twitter as: @MatthewHash and Instagram as: @MatthewHashiguchi.

Matthew is a member of DER’s Filmmaker Services Program, and we are glad to be able to support his work. Stay tuned for information on the film’s distribution!

Posted on May 8th, 2017 in News |

We’re hiring!

We are seeking a part-time Outreach Manager to join DER’s small, friendly, creative team! The Outreach Manager will be responsible for creating and implementing outreach and marketing strategies for DER’s new films, with specific focus on outreach to colleges and universities. This is an ideal position for a creative, energetic, self-starter with experience organizing outreach campaigns and/or working with university groups.

The Outreach Manager offers direction to, and works closely with the Sales & Programs Associate, and reports to the Executive Director and Director of Design & Media. This is a 3 day/week position to start, with the possibility for growth.

Major areas of responsibility:

  • Watch and discuss new films to identify outreach/marketing opportunities
  • Create quarterly outreach/marketing plan and budget with Executive Director
  • Promote new films through outreach to university faculty, student groups, campus cinematheques, and museums; submitting films to journals, film festivals, and conferences
  • Create and organize mailing campaigns
  • Create outreach materials using templates in Word, InDesign, and Photoshop
  • Work one-on-one with filmmakers to promote their films
  • Track outreach activity and create reports correlating to film sales
  • Manage social media

Qualifications:

The ideal candidate will have a background in Communications and/or Marketing, and a strong interest in the non-profit arts sector. S/he will take initiative, be goal-oriented, and comfortable working independently. S/he must have strong written and verbal communications skills, and be comfortable working in Microsoft Office Suite, especially Word and Excel. Must be familiar with InDesign and Photoshop, or be willing to learn. Interest in anthropology and/or documentary media a plus!

Interested candidates should send a cover letter and resume to .

Posted on April 18th, 2017 in News |

DER Awarded NEH Grant for Cinepedia Ethnographica

DER Receives $50K NEH Grant for Cinepedia Ethnographica

We are excited to announce that the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) has awarded DER a $50,000 planning grant for the development of Cinepedia Ethnographica, a first-of-its-kind open access catalog of ethnographic film. DER has a longstanding history of innovation in ethnographic filmmaking, and we are honored to now be shaping the future of the field with this new initiative. Cinepedia Ethnographica is co-directed by Dr. Alice Apley, DER’s Executive Director, and Dr. Jennifer Cool, Lecturer in Anthropology at the University of Southern California.

Born out of the “Roundtable on Ethnographic Film Archiving” convened by DER in 2013, Cinepedia Ethnographica will be a collaborative, expert- and user-generated online resource for the ongoing archiving of new and existing ethnographic and folklore film. The project aims to make this body of films discoverable, searchable, and shareable in new ways and by new publics. As such, the project will powerfully enable new opportunities for research, creation, curation, and education, and for understanding the history of cinematic documentation across space and time. By making these materials easily discoverable, the project also serves to decolonize an historical body of films to allow for their re-use and re-signification by contemporary media makers and audiences.

The NEH grant will fund activities over an 18-month period aimed at creating a foundation for the implementation of the online catalog. Issues to be addressed include development of a metadata schema and cataloging guide, institutional partnerships, and a governance structure for ensuring sustainability of this pioneering resource.

We are grateful for NEH’s support and honored to be among the projects recognized for their contributions to preserving cultural heritage. This grant is an important step in making the extraordinary visual record of global cultures accessible to new audiences around the world. We can’t wait to get started!

 

“We view this path-breaking initiative as an essential project in this rapidly changing technological world that will generate dialogue and discussion about all facets of ethnographic film.” — Jake Homiak, Director of the National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution

 


NEH logo

About the National Endowment for the Humanities

Created in 1965 as an independent federal agency, the National Endowment for the Humanities supports research and learning in history, literature, philosophy, and other areas of the humanities by funding selected, peer-reviewed proposals from around the nation. Additional information about the National Endowment for the Humanities and its grant programs is available at: www.neh.gov.

Posted on March 30th, 2017 in News |

Bringing “Elephant’s Dream” back to the Congo: An Interview with Filmmaker Kristof Bilsen

Elephant's Dream in DRC

We knew Kristof Bilsen had been looking forward to bringing his film, Elephant’s Dream, to screen in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) where it was made.  He finally had the opportunity to do so this summer. We caught up with him to learn how the screening went.


DER: Could you set the scene for us? When and where was the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) screening? Who hosted? And who from your team attended?

KB: In July 2016, Elephant’s Dream was invited to screen as opening film at the Congo International Film Festival in Goma, East-Congo. Congo International Film Festival is organised by Yolé Africa, an initiative to support and nurture arts in the region of Goma. The festival had its 11th edition and programmed a wide selection of national and international premieres of documentary and short and feature length fiction films.

Not only was I able to attend, but we managed to bring one of the leading characters of the film, Henriette (the post-office clerk), and flew her over from Kinshasa. My sound-recordist with whom I worked during the 4 years of making of the film was there as well. Not only was it the first opportunity to bring the film back to the Congolese community, it was also a premiere for Henriette to share her story with a big audience there in Goma.

DER: Who was in the audience and how was the film received?

KB: There were well over 600 audience members, both expats (but a minority) as well as Congolese filmmakers and locals. It was pretty impressive to be able to screen the film and have such a wonderful turnout. We screened in open-air on a courtyard of a hotel in the city centre and were invited for an elaborate Q&A afterwards. The biggest compliment? “Ahhh, vous êtes Congolais, vraiment, Papa!” In other words, we were praised for not going into the pitfall of portraying DRC as a country of war and turmoil. The audience really appreciated the poetry and the languidity of the film and the room for them to make up their own minds after watching the film. Several questions came from the audience, ranging from the contemporary issues of politics (in this 2016, one is still unsure if the long awaited elections in November will eventually take place, as Kabila is trying to cling on to power in various ways) to the hardship of the daily lives of state-workers.

People really appreciated the presence of musical heroes such as Tabu Ley Rochereau in the soundtrack and were intrigued by the way we managed to observe quite thoroughly the reality without interfering and still being able to “catch” underlying and universal issues of the Congolese reality, not being caught up in a Western gaze.

Elephant's Dream DR Congo

DER: Were the characters in the film present for the screening? And if so, (or if you have shown them the film in another context) how do they feel about the film and the representations of themselves? Did they see themselves or their nation differently as a result of viewing the film?

KB: We managed to get Henriette over from Kinshasa, and she was very proud and confident to show the film with us for a big audience. We did, however, show her the film at the same time as the world premiere in Fall 2014. Back then, our friend in Kinshasa met up with her and organized a private screening with her and simultaneously we were in touch via WhatsApp. Henriette was then able to respond to questions from the audience in DOK Leipzig. Her response was this: I do hope that a Western audience enjoys the qualities of the film, its pace and poetry, but also will be able to feel at least for a couple of minutes what we feel almost every day: being stuck in a harsh reality where one is obliged to take it on oneself to carry on, to instigate change, even if little. Henriette assured us that our approach of being aware of that problematic Western (even imperialistic) gaze proved successful: she praises the film and sees it as a huge force for introspection and hope. It’s a story that to her embodies the strength of the Congolese civil servants (and with them the Congolese people) and that within despair and frustration, there is a huge potential for empowerment by sharing these less sexy (read: warstruck) stories, too. In terms of representation, she also feels that the fact the film was able to travel widely on the festival circuit, it goes beyond the clichés of portraying Kinshasa and DRC as a war-torn country without any hope. Their resilience shows the contrary. The film made her and the audience much more aware of the scope of stories to be told about Congo. It made us realize how often we underestimate their insight in the medium.

DER: Do the audiences in DRC see the film as optimistic or pessimistic about the future of DRC?

KB: I feel it’s either one or the other: they see it as a genuine portrayal of DRC and specifically of the State. For once they see a film that carefully developed a language on its own, a way to get insight into the daily lives without focusing too much on the Kafkaian or tragic, without being lost in anecdotes of hardship. The different responses were positive and grateful. But as we speak, there is a wider conscience of the influence of the State and the oppression it embodies by not allowing change in depth. On a superficial level, they do see changes (new roads, airports, business deals and opportunities) but on a deeper level, they hunger for a mental change and consciousness to finally respect the need for fair elections and representation. And with that, they do realize that the decade-long influence of foreign powers (be it in the past by the troubled Belgian Colonial Rule and the contemporary Rule of dealings with multinationals, the UN and so on) needs to be redefined and there is a huge will to take the future into their own hands. New youth initiatives of peaceful protest such as LUCHA and FILIMBI are exemplary for a new (and hopefully successful) wave of consciousness that doesn’t just accept the decade long rule of foreign and national power. They are ready and keen to shift the tables. But I would hope it will not need any bloodshed.

Also we have been teaching in the context of the festival, through Yolé Africa, where we met countless young filmmakers who are more than ready to take on these alternative stories and share them through festivals, new and online media and who are keen to form alliances with peers worldwide.

DER: How would you describe the status of independent filmmaking and viewing in the DRC? Is there a filmmaking community?  What is the interest in and/or access to independent film?

KB: There absolutely is a network of filmmakers and this is in docs and animation and narrative. Sadly (as anywhere in the world these days) the funding for independent films is scarce and due to the government, there really is not a healthy public funding or screening network in place for cinema. However, the resilience of the new generation shows a need and an increasing energy to make change happen. Yolé Africa initiative is but one example, the various little film festivals in Kinshasa another, but generally one should really keep an eye on what is happening in DRC in terms of independent cinema.

Posted on January 12th, 2017 in News |

Alice Apley named one of the “40 for 40” at Margaret Mead Film Festival


Margaret Mead Film Festival's "40 for 40"
photo: American Museum of Natural History

The Margaret Mead Film Festival is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year and DER is thrilled to be participating! We are proud to announce that our Executive Director, Alice Apley, has been selected to participate in the festival’s special anniversary program, “40 for 40”:

“We asked 40 extraordinary women to join us in celebrating the 40th annual Margaret Mead Film Festival. These leaders signed on to help us highlight Margaret Mead’s legacy of boldness, humanity and innovation.”  — Margaret Mead Film Festival

Alice will be introducing films and sharing words of wisdom alongside a spectacular group of women who have contributed to the festival and to arts and culture over the past 40 years. Check out the Mead site for the full list of 40 for 40 speakers.

Congratulations to the Margaret Mead Film Festival and cheers to many more years!

Posted on October 13th, 2016 in News |

Spotlight On DER’s Summer Interns

Here at DER, we were lucky to have a fantastic group of talented and dedicated interns with us this summer! To honor this passionate group of cinephiles and acknowledge their hard work, we’ve asked them to share a bit about themselves and their favorite films from a documentary intensive summer at DER.


Mary Grace

Mary Grace Cronin

About: Mary Grace is currently an English major at Amherst College, and has spent the summer working on marketing and social media projects at DER. Although she considers herself relatively new to ethnographic film, her interest comes from a longtime love of watching documentaries and making short videos. She has seen every episode of The Office at least twice and feels satisfied with this accomplishment.

DER Film Pick: Sailing a Sinking Sea
dir. Olivia Wyatt, color, 65 min, 2015

Sailing a Sinking Sea explores the lives of the Moken people of Thailand and Burma, whose survival rests on an instinctive and intimate relationship with the sea. With vibrant and often unpredictable kaleidoscope-like views, this documentary allows access to the unique Moken folklore and culture. It offers a sparkling glimpse at the tempestuous beauty and power of the sea, and those who find life in its uncertainty. 


I-Lin

I-Lin Liu

About: I-Lin graduated from National Taiwan University, Taiwan with an M.A. in Anthropology. While at NTU, he became interested in ethnographic films and documentary. After he graduated, he worked as the international and screening coordinator for Taiwan International Ethnographic Film Festival. He is now studying film and television at Boston University. He enjoys strolling around different used bookstores in Boston.

DER Film Pick: The Collective: Fifteen Years Later
dir. Richard Broadman, b&w, 60 min, 1985

There’s a line in Godard’s Le Petit Soldat, “The time for action is over…The time for reflection is beginning.” The Collective shows us how this kind of reflection could be done. On the surface, this film is an oral history of the radical movement in Massachusetts during the seventies. What differentiates this film from other documentaries is that we see these people encountering their own failures. They are all trying to answer the question, “We have failed in the past, what shall we do in the future? ” And we can all benefit from their answers. 


sarahnewSarah Lawson

About: Sarah earned her B.A. in Linguistics from Boston University this past spring. Hailing from the DC Metro area, she has long cultivated a passion for the arts and other forms of expression, becoming involved in Boston’s local music scene and independent cinema whenever possible. She enjoys hiking, discovering new subject matters to explore, and hopes to turn her artistic interests into a profession someday.

DER Film Pick: Jakub
dir. Jana Ševčíková, b&w, 65 min, 1992

Jakub, directed by Czech filmmaker Jana Ševčíková, takes its name from a man never seen nor heard throughout this film’s visually poetic course. The narrative depicts recollections from a group of Ruthenian peasants living in modern-day Romania, having been incorporated into a national framework practically overnight. Their way of life is a rural one, beset by a harsh landscape. Through fragmented storytelling, Jakub highlights the conflicting nature of both individual and collective memory. At the same time as Jakub’s legacy is shrouded in doubt, the Ruthenians’ overall legacy is revealed to be in a state of constant, yet somewhat muted, threat from totalitarian regimes, and they emerge as a curious feat of human survival.


mateonewMateo Gómez Pinto

About: Mateo is from Bogotá, Colombia. He is a student of Fine Arts at Los Andes University and currently finishing his Anthropology degree as an intern at DER. For some time now, he has been very curious about the intersections between ethnography, video and the arts. His interests jump from side to side in deliberate ways, but he really enjoys painting, making video, and lately ceramics. His soft spot is a good music store.

DER Film Pick: The Cumana Devil (El Diablo de Cumaná)
dir. John Dickinson, color, 30 min, 1984

A blur between the person and the character, between reality and representation, The Devil of Cumana is a biographical portrait of a man and a tradition tying a pact. Through intimate access to The Black Devil, also known as Luis del Valle Hurtado, this short film serves as a sample of the popular celebrations and carnivals in Cumaná, Venezuela. Furthermore, this is the story of a man jealously guarding a tradition that underlies his own identity. ALERT: THE MERE SIMULATIONS, RITES AND/OR THEATRICAL PERFORMANCES COULD BE MORE DANGEROUS THAN THEY SEEM TO BE!!!

Posted on September 26th, 2016 in Film Reviews, News |

Collaborative Ethnography: An Interview with Filmmaker Paul Wolffram

Interview with Stori Tumbuna director Paul Wolffram

Recently, I took the time to re-connect with DER filmmaker Paul Wolffram to learn more about the collaborative process behind his film, Stori TumbunaStori Tumbuna is about the Lak people in Papua New Guinea and their experience of myths. Rather than being told what myth means to the Lak, viewers–through their own experience of the film–come to experience the myth firsthand, parallel to that of the Lak. This is achieved through a unique collaboration between filmmaker and subjects that sets Stori Tumbuna apart from many other ethnographic documentaries. — Alice Apley, DER Executive Director

Spoiler alert: if you haven’t yet seen Stori Tumbuna and don’t want certain elements to be revealed, hold off on reading this interview!


A: How did the idea for Stori Tumbuna come about? Were you studying myths or did the topic come up in the context of another inquiry?

P: The first few months of my fieldwork in the Lak region were spent learning children’s songs and stories, oral histories and of course mythologies. These songs, stories and mythologies formed the basis of my understanding of the culture and society of the Lak region in Southern New Ireland. During that period, I was largely treated like an awkward overgrown child. My facility with the language of the Lak people and their social practices was at a very rudimentary level. I collected many mythologies about the origins of clan groups, the nature of animals in the rainforest, and the many different mythical and non-mythical creatures that resided in the uninhabited mountains.

I understood the stories I collected as just that, stories and mythologies. I was coming from a western academic background that encouraged me to see mythologies as providing an insight into the cultural metaphor and social structures of a people. This is not how the Lak people understand these oral literatures. Some of the stories are understood as having taken place in an historical past but many of these are understood as occurring in an historical present. That is, a time that is contemporary and re-occurring.

I took a video camera into the field because I understood that music and dance are intimately related in Melanesia and I wanted to approach these cultural practices as the people of the region think about them. Many of my Lak friends saw the potential of the video camera as a storytelling device. After 12 months living in the community I asked my friends what sort of story we should tell with the camera. The story of the Song came up in this way. We began to plan how we would tell the story. It took me some time to understand that my interlocutors wanted to tell the story as if it was happening now, in the present rather than recounting it as an historical mythology. Once I understood that they intended the story to be told as if it were contemporary I began to explore ways to weave my own narrative and presence in the film. It became obvious that documenting my own presence and work among the Lak could be effectively woven with the recounting of the Song mythology.  

A: It’s clear from the film that the community members participate as actors and facilitate the shooting of the film. What’s less clear is the behind the scenes collaboration.  Can you talk about the nature of the collaboration between you and the community? What roles did they play and were there specific individuals involved in the conceptualization of the film, developing the story, staging the shot, editing, etc.  

P: Once we had decided on the Song narrative I began to talk to my collaborators in Siar and Rei communities about how we might realize the story. There are actually a few scenes in the film that appear to be us discussing the disappearance of a man from the community but they were actually production meetings in which I was discussing how we would tell the story. Patrick Torabusai and his brothers Christian, Lenny and Nerus helped me develop the story and suggested scenes. The hamlet in Siar, Kapokpok where I was hosted by Patrick and his wider family all participated in the grass cutting scene in which Bar returns from the forest to tell people that he’d discovered a basket in the forest.   

Many of the other scenes in the film are real events that were woven into the story. There was a small group of young men led by Lenny and Christian Torabusai along with Toru and Bar who feature in scenes where we were discussing the Song. Most of the tracking to the song valley scenes are shot 15mins outside of the hamlet in the rainforest just beyond the gardens. The natural storytelling skills of these young men worked well. I would often just describe what I thought should happen in the scene and then let the camera run. I can’t recall ever doing a second take. For example, we were walking to the song valley and Bar said we should rest. I set up the camera and Bar improvised the telling of the story of the Song. Similarly with the scene on Lenny¹s porch where the difference in understanding and acceptance just ran without rehearsal or much discussion. The young men were already in place and I said I’d like to film a discussion about the reality of the Song. What arose was a genuine discussion about their relationship with mythology and my own ability or inability to understand their ethos.

A: How familiar were your collaborators with film as a storytelling medium and how did this influence the process of making the film?  

P: Most people in Lak have seen films at one time or another. My host father Paul Totili would tell me how, as a young man he worked on coastal shipping in the 60s and 70s out of Rabaul. He’d spend his paychecks on the Western films that were popular at the time and played at the Rabaul cinema. Most young people in the region have seen action and particularly kung fu films that are popular in the island region. The stories are easy to follow without comprehension of the dialogue. So most of my Lak collaborators had a reasonable understanding of how films work and manipulate reality. They could see the potential of the story we were telling to trick Western audiences and were excited at the prospect of playing with audience expectations.  

The Lak see themselves as being isolated and forgotten. They often describe their region as the “last corner” of New Ireland. Many people in the Northern Region of New Ireland are afraid of people from the Lak region because of their strong relationship with traditional practices and sorcery. The idea that the film would show them as clever and sophisticated enough to pull the wool over the eyes of outsiders made the idea of the film particularly attractive.  

A: For western audiences, the film works as a sort of horror film. How did your Lak collaborators understand the storytelling? What was their response to the finished film?

Interview with Stori Tumbuna director Paul WolfframP: I think thriller is perhaps a more accurate description of how the film works. At first my Lak collaborators were keen on showing the Song in more detail but I knew that we simply didn’t have the resources to pull off special effects or costume effects that would appear convincing to a Western audience. We did spend some time making long fingers and hair from bamboo and river weeds to give the Song an extraordinary appearance but I was careful to always obscure the Song with darkness and distance. Most effective thrillers rely on the audience’s imagination and this is what we sought to achieve.   

I took the film back to the Lak region in early 2011 when it was at the rough cut stage. I screened it for all of the communities who participated (sometimes 60 people around the Laptop) and held discussion after the screenings. Some minor changes were made as a result but by and large the film seemed to conform with our shared understanding of what both they and I envisioned while we were making it.

A: This hardly seems like the kind of film you make as a new researcher to the community. How much time had you already spent in the community?  

P: When I set out to undertake ethnography in the Lak region I planned to go for 12 months but I ended up staying for about a year and a half. It was my first fieldwork experience and after 8 months I realised I would have to be there longer to achieve my ethnographic aims. I didn’t film anything for the first three months because I wanted to be careful about how I engaged with the people. I wanted to have some basis of cultural understanding and social skills so as not to offend people by thrusting a camera into their world. When I did eventually start to film cultural events I was encouraged to film and people would often tell me what to film. We started working together on Stori Tumbuna after I’d spent about 12 months in the area. By this stage people knew me well and I had a strong relationship of trust.  

When I returned home to New Zealand my priority was to work on my thesis. I returned to the region again in 2004-5 for a further 8 months to complete the thesis. This return trip really opened my eyes to the importance of having continuing a relationship with my Lak hosts. People really opened up to me and treated me like a community member. I always told people that I would come back but no one took me seriously until I actually returned in 2004.  It took me another 5 years to complete the film. I had to learn how to edit and find the resources to make the film. As I mentioned I took the film back almost ten years later to show the community in 2010 before it was completed and screened for the first time.  

A: Did the process of making the film further change your understanding of Lak experience of myths or their ideas about oral traditions more broadly? And if so, how?  

P: As I mentioned, what we call mythology and oral traditions in the Western World are understood in a different way by communities that sustain these practices. These mythologies are understood through the lens of relationships. Who tells you the stories and what they mean are interwoven. They describe the world as it was and as it continues to exist. There is a spirituality that it particularly difficult to describe to outsiders that underlies these stories. They are in part just that, stories, but they are also essential understandings that describe the world as it was and as it continues to be.

A: What else do you think it is important for audiences to know about the making of Stori Tumbuna?

P: My Lak friends and collaborator’s saw Stori Tumbuna as a way to describe to the world who they are and how they live. As I mentioned, at times they feel their geographic isolation acutely. 16 years after I first travelled to the region little has changed. There are still no roads through the area, no power or running water. Cell tower coverage has spread throughout Papua New Guinea but in 2015 the Lak region remains without coverage. Many people hoped that the film would encourage visitors and tourists. The Lak are incredibly warm hosts and welcome visitors but unfortunately the lack of roads into the region means that only the most intrepid venture that far south.

A: Do you continue to stay in touch with your Lak friends, or have you been back again since 2011?

P: I made a commitment to return at least one time every five years so that I can continue to participate in a small way with the communities that hosted me and with the families that supported me. My intention is to continue this relationship for the rest of my life.

A: Have the Lak expressed interest in collaborating on another project? Are you interested?

P: In January and February 2015 I returned to Siar community to undergo an initiation into a shamanic/sorcery cult know in the region as ‘Buai’. Buai is a form of creative sorcery that gives the initiate the power to communicate with spiritual entities in order to enhance creative abilities. I have been interested in the Buai sorcery for many years but I was always hesitant about undergoing the arduous initiation process. In 2015 I returned to the Lak region with the intention of completing the initiation. I sought permission from the my host community in Siar and was taken to the most senior practitioner in the Weitin valley just south of Siar. The initiation involved 5 days and nights mostly alone in the rainforest with no food and no water. The story of the initiation is told in a soon to be released documentary “What Lies That Way” (2016).

Posted on April 22nd, 2016 in News |

Catalog of New Films DER new films catalog cover
Join Our Mailing List
Suport DER
Supported By Massachusetts Cultural Council National Endowment for the Humanities National Endowment for the Arts