Film and theory: Knots and Holes

By Matthias Teeuwen          

“What becomes of the medium of film in the hands of an anthropologist?” asks Mattijs van de Port in the introduction to his new film Knots and Holes, an essay film on the life of nets (2018). This project, he tells us, was born from his frustration with the offer of films at ethnographic film festivals: they are all very beautiful and evocative and they manage to take us places we have never been for the length of their duration, but they pass over the most exciting thing about anthropology: theory. “What becomes of theory in the medium of film?” he asks.

In wide shots, Van de Port takes us to different places in Brazil in order to contemplate the figure of the net. We see nets being made, nets being mended, and nets being cast out. We see nets used in catching, nets used in ritual, and nets used in filtering. He asks what the net is in “human modes of world making?” The net stands as a metaphor for the process of filtering and separating the ‘good fish’ from the ‘bad fish’. An example of how we, as humans, constantly order the world around us and categorise the things we encounter.

The net, however, also allows for penetration and sometimes a net is ripped and a hole appears. Some things seem impervious to the actions of nets. Water is shown to flow everywhere despite the fishermen’s nets, caresses can be felt through lace, love does not seem to care for the categories humans impose on it. Constantly, our categories break open and holes are created. In fact, right before our eyes, the images of the film are undermining the theory being imposed upon them by the filmmaker. Van de Port does not allow us to be carried away by the film: he constantly reminds us of who is holding the camera and providing the voice-over. The film is his attempt at theorising and, on another level, his attempt at showing us the surplus of reality that is left out when theorising.

There are quite a number of exciting topics that the film touches upon, all regarding the anthropologist at work, whether he or she is filming, editing, or theorising. In a shift of perspective Van de Port reveals the process by which he tries to construct the ‘ethnographic scene’ for the camera: the scene in which he carefully sets up a conversation with a fisherman only to comment upon the artificiality of this moment and the fact that the questions he asks don’t reflect his real interests. I can relate to this, considering my own difficulties, sometimes, creating the right ‘ethnographic scenes’ for my conversations with people. Anthropology is never as straightforward as the ‘ethnographic scene’. Data gathering and data analysis are never clear-cut, the questions we ask change over time, realisations hit us in the middle of the night.

Van de Port also revealed that he found the editing phase the most exciting in the making of the movie. Sitting down and entering into a back-and-forth with the material, trying to impose interpretations and realising that the material talks back. Van de Port’s emphasis on theory made me reconsider my earlier opinion about ethnographic films as primarily suited for giving the viewer a ‘feel’ for a certain locality but not ideal for working out theory. Knots and Holes, however, is a fine example of the exciting potential of taking film and theory together.

Matthias Teeuwen is a student of the social science research master at the University of Amsterdam and editor at Standplaats Wereld. His research interests include religion, language, and the philosophy of science.

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