Ethnographic film is one of the richest, most dazzling, and often most problematic filmmaking traditions in cinema. Charting the winding path it has forged, from largely colonialist origins to the present day, paints a picture of a movement that has never stopped innovating or reflexively interrogating itself.
As it has progressed through the decades, the movement has tried collectively, in patches and through different means, to address what was its original gaze: one clouded by the prejudices of the colonizer. Ethnographic film started as a method for anthropologists to plainly record their discoveries from foreign lands as subjects for their studies. The temptation to lean into the exotic nature of their subjects and emphasize their difference for the sake of audiences back home led to some of its most spectacular sights as well as its most disturbing lows. Yet it within a few decades, it proved a major source of some of the great breakthroughs in film, some of its most significant artists, and a handful of its major masterpieces — all while its involvement with the peoples who were at the mercy of the filmmaker's gaze grew ever more knotty and reflexive.
Our survey is an account of the movement as it exists today, with all its complexities and contradictions. As we cautiously head into the new school year, it is worth taking stock of these vital works of exploration and discovery. There is so much to learn from these visions of the world: their scope, their mystery, the vitality and independence of the people participating in the process in front of and behind the camera. The ethics of image-making in ethnographic film prompts difficult question after difficult question. Maybe for this reason filmmakers who work in this mode have been the quickest to challenge these ethics, to think them through with the most rigor and seriousness. If there's a mark these movies have left on the world, it is this, the moral vision that underpins the most impressive discoveries they yield.
Maybe we feel like there's little left in the world that can still impress us. Maybe only cinema can prove us wrong.
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