News & Events

Celebrating Pride Month with the Filmmakers of VISIBLE SILENCE and THIS KIND OF LOVE

DER celebrates Pride Month 2018

DER’s Outreach Coordinator Michaela Koller recently sat down with DER filmmakers Ruth Gumnit, Marguerite Salmon, and Jeanne Hallacy to discuss their latest films, VISIBLE SILENCE and THIS KIND OF LOVE. Both films offer important windows into the LGBTQ and larger human rights movements in Thailand and Myanmar.


Michaela Koller (MK): I am really interested in the origins of these films and how you found yourself interested in their topics, as well as your personal investments in these stories.

Marguerite (MS): Visible Silence (it had many titles) came to be when Ruth was traveling a lot to Thailand for her last film and needed to learn survival ties so she could eat and get around. She found a teacher here who serendipitously happened to be a Thai tomboy. This person was doing her dissertation topic on tomboys and ladies and we became fast friends. And so ourselves, or the tie in with ourselves, is that we are a butch/femme couple. We have for our lifetime been drawn to issues involving gender, sexuality, and human rights and so we joined forces with our friend and started the film.

MK: And how about you Jean?

Jean Hallacy (JH): This Kind of Love emerged from a different origin in the sense that it wasn’t necessarily intended to be an LGBTQ-focused film, but was more about the overarching human rights crisis in Burma and Myo’s presence as a leader within that. I had been a long time friend of his. We met in the jungle when he was still in the armed resistance, the student army fighting the Burmese regime, and he always struck me as someone who had tremendous charisma and a very unique take on how he was going to be an agent of change in his country. Because we were friends when he was ousted from the student army as a result of his sexual identification, I was astounded and kind of mourned with him through it because it was a real blow to him. These are the people he literally put his life down next to, slept with and fought with, and they couldn’t accept his sexual orientation. This was mind-blowing to me and I could see that there was a devastation in his soul. He had to reconsider if he was going to then fight the regime if the comrades that he had embraced originally were people that couldn’t accept the fact that he was an openly gay man. That was when he decided to form his own organization.

We stayed in touch and I had always said to him “Oh my gosh, your story, you know we have got to make a film about you one day!”. Just by chance, he messaged me when he was in Bangkok and said: “I’m here, do you want to meet up?”. I texted him back and said “What are you doing here?” and he said “I just got a letter of invitation to go home to Burma”, so I called him instead of texting him and I said, “Wherever you are, I am coming to meet you right now.” So the very first frames of footage that were shot of this film were actually captured on a flip phone. I couldn’t believe he got this invitation to go home after all these years and I realized what the emotional symbolism of that would be on many levels– and I said that’s it. This is going to be the time, we’re finally going to make this film.

MK: That’s really incredible. Can you speak a bit to the idea of LGBTQ pride and how it was expressed in your films?

Marguerite Salmon and Ruth Gumnit, makers of the film Visible Silence
Marguerite Salmon and Ruth Gumnit

Ruth Gumnit (RG): Well, what I would say that pride is a very important concept in the United States, but I am not sure it translates directly to Thailand at all. But for ourselves, the whole LGBT filmmaking/film festival movement was very important to us. We’ve been active members of Frameline, the San Francisco International LGBT community film festival since its early days: going to it, watching it, living there as a film student. It was like I took the week off and did nothing but be there. The healing property of seeing yourself reflected in film; we know from first-hand experience how important that is.

In the US, coming out is often equated with leaving one’s family and joining the queer community and that doesn’t translate to Asia at all. A lot of people here could move somewhere; they could put 3,000 miles between themselves and their families. In Asia, you can’t survive if that is going to happen; it is very very difficult to do that. What we found is that talking about pride isn’t always as important to everybody. At the beginning of our film, Tang, kind of our big guru who formed a lot of the earlier lesbian and gay groups in Thailand, said that in Thailand you can be or do whatever you want as long as you don’t talk about it. That’s a challenge and it still exists, although I think things are changing of course.

The fundamental thing is you don’t want to embarrass your family, you want to stay with your family. It is very important what your family thinks of you and you don’t want to hurt them. We have friends whose parents have said “Don’t embarrass me” when they wanted to be included in the project. Of course, this isn’t representative of everybody. We also made the film from the point-of-view of our co-producer who formed this project with us that Marguerite talked about earlier. Her dissertation was about the idea that after you tell your story and someone hears your story, everyone is changed. That is the concept behind the film – we really wanted women to tell their stories from their own point of view. That is, the idea that it is a storytelling that the teller and the listener would have a transformation.

MK: Yes, absolutely. It’s easy to get so caught up in our own worlds and forget that identity politics can be so different from one person to the next. Jean, what did you experience with pride in your films and Myo?

JH: I have really approached the years of my work through the human rights framework, so my orientation is focused on looking at those who rise to provide windows of inspiration by amplifying their stories for other people to see. It doesn’t necessarily mean that it equates to one supporting Burma itself or topic X, Y, or Z, but rather that it would inspire a person to find things in their own life that they find difficult to confront or to be agents of change in their own communities. Myo literally fled with his life on the line, was in the jungle hiding, and people decided to spurn him because he is openly gay. And so, I felt compelled to make sure that he was recognized as a pioneer of this human rights movement in his community. He was working tirelessly to awaken his countrymen and women and really be able to give some safe space for the LGBTQ communities, particularly those that are more marginalized within any society.

I think even in the United States, people that are trans are on the fringes of a lot of LGBTQ rights movements which were not always very inclusive of them. It is no exception in Burma that being gay is different from being trans. So when Myo brought these issues to the national court, it was a landmark case: one that said that the transgression of the rights of the transgender women in our film was something that could not be tolerated under the country’s human rights law. I thought this was fantastic. What I love about the film is that we took great care to balance it: it wasn’t explicitly about an LGBTQ activist. As Myo says himself, “I am a human rights activist who happens to be gay”. That, of course, as a human rights activist one should not even question another’s sexuality. This is the approach that he lives by and we try to reflect that in the film.

MK: Definitely, I think those efforts really shine through, and it’s wonderful that they do because both films really feature some incredible people. I’d love to talk we about the expressions of community that you’ve encountered through this process of filmmaking. Jean, you were just talking about Myo and his relationship with the student army–you know, him going off and giving his life to these people and having them turn their backs on him. Can you give us an idea of what that was like for him?

JH: It wasn’t only the fact that he was thrown from his community but that the love of his life was killed. Myo’s partner felt a lot of guilt as result of his own masculinity as a soldier being challenged. His partner eventually laid down his life, which was a very traumatic event for Myo, and he was on the brink of complete emotional collapse at the time. He was nominated to go do a fellowship at Columbia University and I encouraged him to go. I said, “Get out, get out the country, extricate yourself from all of this and have a different perspective”. It was upon his return from that fellowship that he had the fortitude to found his own human rights organization in Burma, which is now going stronger than ever.

Jeanne Hallacy with Burmese human rights and LGBT activist, Aung Myo Min
Jeanne Hallacy and Aung Myo Min

I personally wondered, how is it possible that the movement that proclaims itself to be working toward democracy and human rights would be denying this most fundamental right? After I allowed my initial dismay and anger to settle I realized that it wasn’t something we could necessarily blame the community for. So then, it became a question of how do you approach that? That is really what Myo’s organization, Equality Myanmar, has done. He is very much in demand as a human rights educator across the country, and all of his workshops integrate the importance of LGBTQ understanding. That is the way to do it, not necessarily getting angry that people act a certain way but understanding the origins of that lack of understanding.

MK: Yeah, absolutely. I think we often forget the positions of privilege that we are in to be able to openly have such important social commentary. Ruth and Marguerite, I am really interested in hearing about the lesbian group, Anjaree, featured in your film. What were your perceptions of the group? How did it impact the community?

RG: Tang was actually one of the founders of Anjaree, she is just a force of nature. Other people in the film were early members of the group as well, even though we didn’t necessarily present them as such. The group was the product of the first time somebody came forward and said they were going to do something that is visible. She [Tang] said she pretty much had to be the face of it as nobody else was willing to.

Again, the thing about Thailand is that if your family accepts you, you have a lot of freedom. Tang comes from a certain amount of privilege and her family is accepting of her so she took all of that and put her face out there. One would get the idea sometimes that she was the only lesbian in Thailand because she was the poster child of the movement. She is very well spoken and is a dedicated human rights and queer activist. In terms of community, there is a lot of NGO money that comes into the country for certain issues, and that’s ultimately what people focus their time on so they can have a job. A lot of women are working with HIV or in reproductive rights. Lesbians, trans men, and toms and dees are probably the lowest on the list for any money coming in. So it is very difficult for there to be any professional, ongoing activism in that area… I think of a lot of it is done in people’s spare time.

MK: To go a little deeper, I’m really interested in hearing from all three of you about topics of being trans, gender non-conforming identities, and perceptions of the gender binary present in your films. We have these ideas of masculinity present in Myo’s story, and in VISIBLE SILENCE, there’s an individual saying “Man or woman, can’t I be in the middle?” I think these ideas are all things that people are having trouble with in the US. Is the response similar in Thailand and Myanmar?

MS: Our co-producer Philly Archa has been such an amazing, smart person who played a big role in the film – she was our translator and everything. She explained the idea of “toms” and “dees” to us really, really well. So let’s open up a little space in our society for what we call “tom”. There is room for you to be a tom, you can do some of the work that men do if it is menial and in the field, or some other kind of labor. We will pay you as if you are a woman, not as a man, and we will open up a tiny amount of space for you in our world. The same would go for a male to female trans person; we will open up very specific spaces for you in our society that have to do with beauty, entertainment, childcare, and other very small spaces. If we start there, this whole idea of “toms” and “dees” starts to make more sense because that middle is just beginning to barely break open. That you could be two feminine women or two masculine women that love each other is just a radical concept. We need to realize that gender and sexuality isn’t a standard plane that is understood everywhere. I think I’ll stop at that.

MK: Thank you for that explanation. I think it’s so, so crucial as members of the LGBTQ community to try to understand these cultural frameworks, even if they initially come off as radical or totally unlike anything we’ve encountered before. If we don’t, that’s when people start bashing heads and can’t connect to find common ground. Jean, how about your side of things?

JH: I also live in Thailand and a lot of what Ruth and Marguerite say I have witnessed myself. The cultural mores are such that there is a prevailing sense of tolerance in the Buddhist framework of people being allowed to be without overt hatred or discrimination. However, that is very different from acceptance. Seeing a man like Myo come forward, who is receiving international human rights awards and is being invited all over the world to speak on behalf of the human rights crisis affecting his country, has shattered the notion of what a gay man’s role is supposed to be. By being who he is and doing the work he does, he is already breaking the molds of this concept.

It’s going to take time, just as it did in this country. I think the work Myo is doing is global. He’s moving people in this direction, like my God, the fact that we even have to discuss this is so wholly irrelevant to the countless other pressing crises we are facing across the world. That’s the starting point Myo is using and as I said, it’s a task and an evolution. There are more groups now, and youngsters are involved which is so inspiring. A while back, a young lesbian group on Facebook reached out to me. They have a safe space that is open for all orientations in a public market in Bangkok and they asked me to show the film and join a talk on Valentine’s Day that was called “The Alternative Valentine Event”. They live streamed it and there were thousands of people on the stream.

MK: That’s incredible.

JH: Yeah, from all over the country. There were probably a lot of young people who were finally hearing people speak about things that were in their heart and soul that they were too afraid to come out and express themselves. I thought that was really amazing and when we showed the film in a park in January, there were 7,000 people who came and saw it. You know… right on. This is how it’s going to happen, solving all of these confines that are externally imposed on human beings. These are not things we are inherently born with, these discriminatory views. They are externally imposed on us by negative forces that have ulterior motives. But that is another topic, you know, the corporate conspiracy to usurp our souls (laughs). But I do think there is truth to that without sounding overly simplistic. I think this is how it is going to happen; it’s the youth. The women in Ruth and Marg’s film are absolutely remarkable. Without exaggerating, they are trailblazers to have come forward and stood up and said the things they have said in public, to have the film identify them. This how change is made. It is made through small acts of courage that collectively create a wave.

Posted on June 25th, 2018 in News |

DER’s 50th Anniversary Screenings & Events

DER's 50th Anniversary - 1968-2018


February 26, 7pm, Brattle Theatre (Cambridge, MA)

House in the Fields Screening + Filmmaker Q&A

Co-presented with The DocYard, we kick off DER’s 50th Anniversary with a screening of the 2017 John Marshall Award for Contemporary Ethnographic Media winning film, House in the Fields, with filmmaker Tala Hadid in person.

October 11th, 6pm, Harvard University (Cambridge, MA)

N!ai Screening + Panel

With panelists Michael Ambrosino, Ilisa Barbash, Sue Cabezas, and Ross McElwee, moderated by Alice Apley. Co-presented with Harvard Museums of Science & Culture. Reception to follow.

Thirty years after its release, N!ai, The Story of a !Kung Woman remains an exemplar of ethnographic filmmaking. Directed and edited by John Marshall and Adrienne Miesmer, the film documents the life of N!ai, a Ju/hoan woman, and the harsh realities of apartheid in 1980s Namibia, offering an intimate portrait of life in one of the last communities to live by hunting and gathering. After the screening, panelists will explore the significance of this film, and Marshall’s work more broadly in relation to the development of documentary styles.

November 9th, University of Southern California (Los Angeles, CA)

Tim Asch Retrospective

A program of works by Tim Asch featuring titles from the newly-restored Yanomamo film series.

November (date TBA soon!), American Anthropological Association Meeting (San Jose, CA)

Roundtable, Celebrating 50 Years of Ethnographic Film: Documentary Educational Resources & The Society for Visual Anthropology

Participants: Matthew Durington (Organizer), Alice Apley (Chair/Roundtable Introducer), Kathryn Ramey (Discussant), Sarah Elder (Presenter), Allison Jablonko (Presenter), John Bishop (Presenter), Jake Homiak (Presenter)

Posted on May 8th, 2018 in News |

Preserving the Yanomamö Films

DER's Yanomamö Film Preservation Project

In the summer of 2017, the DER team began taking steps to preserve and remaster the films in our Yanomamö Series, a groundbreaking ethnographic media project by DER co-founder, Tim Asch, and anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon. In 1968 and again in 1971, Asch and Chagnon formed a unique collaboration to document the Yanomami, an indigenous community living in the Amazon River Basin. The resulting Yanomamö Series consists of twenty-one finished films, which expanded the scope of what was then possible in cross-cultural filmmaking. The Yanomamö Series was one of DER’s founding collections: produced, edited, and distributed in-house, and we are pleased to be stewards of these innovative works in the history of documentary filmmaking.

Together with our colleagues at the Smithsonian’s National Anthropological Archives, we crafted a proposal for the National Film Preservation Foundation (NFPF) for funds to preserve nine films from the series. The NFPF awarded us a $33,500 matching grant for the project, and we got to work!

To raise matching funds, we braced ourselves for our next challenge: Kickstarter. We were blown away by the response from the anthropology and documentary film communities, both locally and internationally! Fundraising provided a wonderful opportunity to connect with filmmakers, researchers, and others who not only cared deeply for the project, but many of whom were involved in the making of the films. We can’t thank our supporters enough!

With the help of DER’s wide community of filmmakers and anthropologists, we raised an additional $26,000, enabling us to not only preserve, but also digitally restore and remaster the films. Under the terms of the NFPF grant, for each film we will create a new 16mm preservation internegative that will go directly into cold storage at the National Anthropological Film Collection (NAFC, formerly the Human Studies Film Archives) in the National Anthropological Archives (Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of Natural History). In addition, we will create an ultra high-definition digital master, copies of which will be kept in the Smithsonian’s digital asset management system, and which will be available to DER for distribution purposes.

Restoration and preservation work is now underway for the following films:

A Man Called “Bee” (40 min, 1974) Tim Asch’s documentation of Napoleon Chagnon’s fieldwork among the Yanomami.

Magical Death (29 min, 1973) documentation of Yanomami shamanism.

A Father Washes His Children (15 min, 1974) observational study of a Yanomami headman.

Moonblood: A Yanomamö Creation Myth (14 min, 1976) exploration of Yanomami mythology.

Weeding the Garden (14 min, 1974) documentation of everyday Yanomami life.

Climbing the Peach Palm (9 min, 1974) observational study of Yanomami tool use.

A Man and His Wife Make a Hammock (12 min, 1975) observational study of Yanomami daily life and crafts.

Arrow Game (10 min, 1974) documentation of Yanomami children’s games.

Children’s Magical Death (7 min, 1974) Yanomami children imitating their shaman fathers.

Restoration of Climbing the Peach Palm has recently been completed, and the 2K digital file has arrived at DER HQ! We are looking forward to sharing all nine of the restored films with audiences soon!

In addition to these titles, preservation for the films The Ax Fight and The Feast was completed in the early 2000s. We’d like to preserve and create high-definition digital masters for ALL twenty-one titles in the series. Today, these films serve as important documents of cultural heritage, language, and life, and we seek to ensure their availability for future generations.

Posted on April 30th, 2018 in News |

Returning the Faces of Change Films to Their Country of Origin: Bolivia

Faces of Change visit to Bolivian Embassy

UN representative Sacha Llorentty Solíz speaks as filmmaker Hubert Smith and former Bolivian president Eduardo Veltzé look on.

On December 8, 2017, I had the honor of attending a heartfelt ceremony at the Bolivian Permanent Mission to the United Nations in NYC. The occasion was the gifting of the Faces of Change: Bolivia series—recently re-transferred from the 16mm films and digitally remastered—to the government of Bolivia. The series of short films offers a glimpse into Andean life in the 1970s, focusing on economics, the role of women, and religious beliefs, among other topics. Following a screening of the series for members of the Bolivian consulate, the films were presented by Hubert Smith, who made the films with cinematographer Neil Reichline. Receiving the films on behalf of Bolivia were H.E. Mr. Sacha Llorentty SolĂ­z, the Permanent Representative to the United Nations and H.E. Mr. Eduardo RodrĂ­guez VeltzĂ©, Bolivian Ambassador to the Kingdom of the Netherlands. 

VeltzĂ© has informed me that following this ceremony, the films were delivered to the Fundacion Cultural del Banco Central de Bolivia, a public entity that manages and provides funding for Bolivia’s main museums. In a recent message updating me on the progress, VeltzĂ© writes:

I understand that the films will be deposited at the MUSEF, a museum focused on ethnography, anthropology, and folklore. […] It is a public museum open to all, but it also provides material for research and academia.[…] I hope that the gifting of the film and material of Faces of Change brings an opportunity to Bolivian people to learn about their own rural communities and cultures.  Most importantly, it provided a reason to keep reaching out to them to share, through films, pictures, and new technologies, a better way to understand our own heritage.

Faces of Change visit to Bolivian Embassy

L to R: Alice Apley, Eduardo Rodriguez Veltzé,
Hubert Smith, Pam Wintle

Also attending the ceremony was Pam Wintle of the National Anthropological Film Collection at the Smithsonian Institution, where the extensive 16mm Faces of Change films are now under long term care and preservation. Pam and the NAFC have been longtime partners of DER’s, supporting the massive transfer of the Faces of Change film materials, among others, from our Cambridge, MA storage vault to the National Anthropological Archives in 2015. Pam and I were delighted to be part of the next leg of the journey for the Bolivia films, and enjoyed Bolivian “saltenas” at the reception.

The repatriation of these films was facilitated by series producer Norman Miller. In an email to VeltzĂ©, Miller writes “I am honored to have been a part of this joint effort. These materials are rich in historic value and belong to the people of Bolivia.” Miller looks forward to local filmmakers in each of the regions using the films as a stepping off point for providing updates to the material, and documenting the modern changes.

Miller is working to repatriate the films from each of the locations represented in the collection. In the summer of 2017, he orchestrated the transfer of the Afghanistan Series—and all of its now digitized footage—to the Afghanistan Center at Kabul University. The ACKU was founded by the American Afghan scholar, Nancy Dupree, who also served as a consultant on the Faces of Change project. Miller is now focused on repatriating the remaining films to their respective homes in China and Kenya.

Posted on April 27th, 2018 in News |

House in the Fields – 2017 John Marshall Award for Contemporary Ethnographic Media

2017 John Marshall Award winner – House in the Fields

We are delighted to announce the winner of the 2017 John Marshall Award for Contemporary Ethnographic Media at the Camden International Film Festival (CIFF) this past fall. Now in it’s third year, the award was presented to Tala Hadid for her film House in the Fields, an intimate portrait of an Amazigh (Berber) community in the North Atlas Mountains of Morocco. The film focuses on the lives of two teenage sisters. Khadija wants to continue her education and become a lawyer. Her older sister, Fatima, is engaged to be married and has withdrawn from school.

Hadid spent five years visiting and filming in the remote community, and she delivers a sensitive portrayal of the everyday lives of the girls, shaped as they are by rural-urban tensions, and as Amazigh within the Moroccan nation-state. This nuanced portrayal made the film a natural contender for the John Marshall Award, and it was Hadid’s lovely and subtle collaboration with the girls that carried the film to the award.

Hadid allows the sisters to shape the film, not only by picking up the camera themselves, but by re-enacting their dreams. A deep grounding in the perspective of these girls provides the framing for the film and its portrayal of their community. Late in the film, we enter into a village wedding and experience it not as outsiders, but through the eyes of the girls and its meaning for their lives, including the loss of autonomy to further pursue education and careers.

A heartfelt thanks to the Camden team, who nominated a stellar slate of films this year, and which included some truly innovative works such as JP Sniadecki’s El Mar La Mar. This year’s jury included Ilisa Barbash, Irina Leimbacher, Ernst Karel, Maple Rasza, Alijah Case and Alice Apley.

UPDATE: March 2018 – DER is pleased to be distributing House in the Fields. The film is now available for screenings, digital site licensing, and for pre-order on DVD (due out in April 2018).

Posted on February 5th, 2018 in News |

“On the Matter of Film” published in Anthropology Now

A sample of film and video materials from the DER collection. photo: Frank Aveni

This September, DER’s Executive Director, Alice Apley, had her article on DER’s important, and ever-changing, role in film preservation published in Anthropology Now. An excerpt from Alice’s article, “On The Matter of Film,” can be found below:

As film making and viewing increasingly become identified with digital media—storage in bits and invisible streams that manifest as cinematic experiences in our classrooms, theaters and living rooms—it is easy to lose track of the concrete materials, processes and spaces that make these viewing experiences possible. Easy, that is, unless your job requires exactly that, keeping track of the many and varied materials that exist behind the scenes of a large and growing film catalogue. This has been one aspect of my job since 2011, when I started at Documentary Educational Resources (DER), one of the most historically important resources for ethnographic film in the world today. I started with the belief that my role would be to bring DER into the age of digital, networked media and I was quickly drawn into another world entirely. It is a world of 16mm and 35mm film elements in cans—camera originals, pre-print materials, and projection-ready distribution prints—sound recordings, production logs, journals and tape masters in every format imaginable.

The DER catalogue includes over 850 titles, spanning nearly 100 years. Most notable is a body of ethnographic films made between the 1950s and 1980s, significant for establishing the field of ethnographic film, and including classics such as N!ai: The Story of a !Kung Woman, The Ax Fight, and Dead Birds. While best understood today as historical documents rather than films of contemporary cultures, many continue to be used extensively in the classroom. For instance, in the fall 2016 semester, N!ai was “played” 2712 times on just one of multiple streaming platforms, a count that doesn’t include classroom and library viewing on DVD. In addition to these “classic” ethnographic films, shot largely on film, we have a growing collection of works shot on various digital formats, such as Poto Mitan: Pillars of the Global Economy, (un)veiled: Muslim Women Talk About Hijab, Framing the Other, and Stori Tumbuna: Ancestors’ Tales, which have also become mainstays of college teaching. And each year we add approximately twenty new titles to our offerings, reflecting the work of filmmakers and anthropologists who have carried this tradition forward and applied it to contemporary social issues and events. For each film we distribute, DER maintains master materials – that may be an original version of the film made on celluloid now held in an archive, a tape master or a digital file.

Each film offers an irreplaceable window into culture and history, valuable not only for students and researchers, but also for descendants of the communities whose lives are documented. A value recognized for instance by the 2009 induction of John Marshall’s 50-year film record of the Ju/’hoansi bushmen into the UNESCO Memory of the World Register. The outtakes, unreleased cuts, and ancillary materials that DER and our partner institutions hold for many films are resources for understanding the origins of the field and informing contemporary scholarship and production. The DER archive provides a foundation for understanding the tradition of ethnographic media production, distribution and education and extending the practice into the 21st century. To keep these films available in high quality over many decades requires considerable time and effort, as well as access to expertise in archiving, contemporary and historical production processes and forms.

Read the full article: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/19428200.2017.1337354

Posted on December 21st, 2017 in News |

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 vĂ©ritĂ© 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 AnimĂ©es 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 SandmĂ€nnchen) 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 |

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