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.


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