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It’s hard to ignore a camera

By Matthias Teeuwen      On Thursday 3 December 2015 the department of Social and Cultural Anthropology of the VU held its first ever Ethnographic Film Festival. Throughout the day ten films were screened in the Church Hall of the university, each followed by a short Q&A session with the filmmakers. What struck me during the screenings was the question: What is the difference between a documentary and an ethnographic film? What is the difference between making films in order to raise awareness about the plight of a group of people and making films in order to make a visual depiction of a group of people?

There are obvious advantages in using film as an ethnographic tool. In ethnographic films you can see the facial expressions of the people speaking. This is especially apparent in the film Impressions of South Africa Today: A Stellenbosch Perspective in which students of Stellenbosch University were asked about racial segregation in South Africa after Apartheid. You can see the way people react to their urban surroundings in ethnographic films like Future Suspended, a film about public space in Athens during the financial crisis. And in ethnographic films, more than in ethnographic writing, you can really walk in the footsteps of the ethnographer. As becomes clear in What Keeps Them Going, a film in which we witness a day in the life of three Dutch truck drivers.

However, it is hard to ignore a camera. Ethnographic filming is not exactly a ‘fly on the wall’-approach; it is bound to affect the behaviour of the respondents. And due to the public character of films respondents can hardly remain anonymous. It was interesting to see how the filmmakers navigated these pitfalls. Some made films explicitly dealing with societal concerns like We Don’t Want the Coal Mine. Others opted for letting the images speak for themselves, as is the case in Smell of Freedom about Estonian SS-soldiers. In the end it was a day full of visual anthropology, be it activist or ethnographic.

Matthias Teeuwen is student-assistant at the Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology. He studies Social and Cultural Anthropology, as well as Theology.

A list of the films that were screened:

Last Minute Weeshuis by Karin van Mullem

Impressions of South Africa Today: A Stellenbosch Perspective by Hanaen Fati

Smell of Freedom by Inge Melchior

Future Suspended by Dimitris Dalakoglou

We Don’t Want the Coal Mine by Nasrin Siraj Annie

Time to Look at Girls by Marina de Regt

Emerging Women of Burma by Ursula Cats

What Keeps Them Going by Fedor Ikelaar

Leven, Liefde en HIV by Nadia Moussaid

Hallelujah Amsterdam by Rachel Visscher


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