In making Ethnographic Film Essay ethnographers will inevitably beconfronted with conflicting values and will be forced to choose to upholdsome while neglecting others. The situation is complicated further whenthe films are intended for television screening and the audience is thegeneral public; the ethnographic filmmaker then faces the task of producingsomething that is simultaneously ethnographically competent, entertaining,accessible to general audiences and ethical. Here I will examine twoethnographic made-for-TV programs: Masai Women and Kayapo Out of theForest.
In each of these programs the filmmakers were confronted withethical decisions requiring them to uphold one value while excludinganother. It is my intent to show that in ethnographic film making therecan be no set formula for which filmmakers can prioritize ethnographicvalues and human ethics; each decision to uphold one value over anothermust be made in regard to the specific social and political context inwhich it is being made. Masai Women’s filmmakers were confronted with two conflicting valueswhen treating several aspects of Masai culture. On one hand the film wasmeant to be an ethnographic documentary and as such had its own set ofethnographic goals. These include portraying whole people and being asobjective as possible. On the other hand, the filmmakers had to becognizant of their audience, the general (British) public.Order now
Knowing thattheir audience was the general public had both advantages anddisadvantages: while it gave them a unique opportunity to reach a widerange of people it also created a certain responsibility, since the filmwasn’t being shown in the context of any anthropological discourse on thesubject. This isn’t to say the filmmakers were limited because theiraudience were the ignorant masses but rather that they were dealing with adiverse audience. The film, to be successful, could assume neither that theviewers were educated nor uneducated; a successful television programappeals to many sensibilities. While depicting Masai culture these values came into conflict intreating several subjects. First and most striking was the subject offemale circumcision: the topic was completely glazed over.
In narratingthe topic Melissa Llewelyn-Davies describes female circumcision as a joyousoccasion, a rite of passage for Masai women, “the equivalent to a whitewedding in British society. ” The filmmakers’ reasoning behind thisdecision to not dwell on the subject was essentially a decision to adhereto one of the values described above, to be responsible and respectful inportraying a culture to “open” audiences; ethnographic filmmakers certainlydo not want to create disdain for a culture based on practices that mayseem adverse to western society. In adhering to one value however theywere forced to abandon another, ethnographic completeness. In a film aboutMasai women, a female-centered film about the lives of women, the issue offemale circumcision seems to me to be very pertinent and an important topicto explore. For instance, the girl’s screams are edited out, clearly inviolation of ethnographic principle.
Lleweyn-Davies also says that “thepractice is the female equivalent to male circumcision. ” It most certainlyis not. If practiced on men female circumcision would amount to one-halfto three quarters removal of the penis. Here, the point is that the issueis glazed over and made benign for the purpose of not offending the”average” western viewer. One topic more difficult to avoid in a discussion of Masai women’sexperience is the practice of polygyny. Here, the same conflicting valueswere confronted as are discussed above: on one hand the filmmaker wants toproduce a film that is ethnographically whole in its description ofcultural institutions, yet on the other hand the filmmaker must keep inmind the composition of the audience.
In this instance Melissa Llewelyn-Davies chose to explore the topic at length in favor of the former value. She does however explore the topic with great sensitivity, choosing to askthe subjects how they feel about the practice themselves, rather thannarrating . In making Kayapo: Out of the Forest, Terrence Turner faced a somewhatdifferent dilemma, yet it was a dilemma of conflicting values nevertheless. The Kayapo project arose out of a relationship between the Kayapo andvarious anthropologists. Anthropologists introduced as early as the 1950′ swestern technologies such as tape recorders and this history culminated inthe late 1980’s when the ethnographic made-for-TV documentary was made, inpart by the Kayapo themselves. The documentary depicts certain aspects ofKayapo culture but mainly highlights their struggle to preserve their landand way of life, threatened by plans to build a dam which .