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Some thoughts on film in ethnography

Still from ‘Inside the Mind of Favela Funk’

By Ina Keuper     On 7 December the Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology organized its second Ethnographic Film Day, which featured four rather different ethnographic documentaries. Former staff member Ina Keuper was there and shares some thoughts on Standplaats Wereld about these particular films and the role of this visual medium in anthropology.

The program was very interesting and diverse. Although two movies were about Brazil, the first and the last one, they both showed very different aspects of Brazilian culture and also very different approaches to the use of film in anthropology. The film Inside the mind of Favela Funk made by Elise Roodenburg and Fleur Beemster presented opinions of inhabitants in a favela of Rio de Janeiro about the lyrics of a specific funk music genre which is very popular in the favelas. The film-makers themselves were not visible in the movie so I could concentrate on the content of the movie. I found it quite amazing to  watch women and even young girls singing enthusiastically a very explicit text about male sexual lust and machismo prowess. I wondered about Brazilian female song writers, would there be feminist rappers like in the American hip hop scene? Another issue that struck me was that both women and men interviewed for the film said to prefer a faithful relationship with their partner. Honour and shame were important issues in various ways.

Still from ‘The Possibility of Spirits’

A very different topic in Brazilian culture was presented in the second movie The Possibility of Spirits made by Mattijs van de Port. In this movie the film-maker himself was quite present through spoken voice-over texts elaborating on his own view and struggles regarding the analysis and evaluation of beliefs about spirits and spirit possession in Candomble religion in the region of Bahia. While watching this movie I thought about my own struggles with protestant Christian religious beliefs of my childhood and the article in VU Magazine Ad Valvas of November 23, 2016  about the changing perspectives on God by retired full professor in Theology, Harry Kuitert at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. In the early 1990s  Kuitert introduced the phrase ‘all talking about above comes from beneath’, meaning that ideas about the existence of God, the protestant Christian God  of his childhood and of the denomination of the founders of the Vrije Universiteit, are constructed by people down on earth. During my studies in anthropology in the 1970s I had already gained knowledge about so many various ideas about God, gods and spirits of people all over the world that I had lost the believe in the God of my childhood. In Kuitert’s phrase I recognized much of my own process. Relating this with the elaborations of Van de Port in his voice-over texts I got the impression that perhaps he was going through a quite different process because of the intense experiences the people in his film showed had in their beliefs and spirit possessions.

A second point that struck me on the Ethnographic Film Day was that one of the two other movies shown was really innovative. Marcella Pasotti, Viola Bachini, and Giulia Sinatti presented their not yet finished weblog Demal Te Niew (“Go and Come Back”). Building on  many years of experience as development practitioners in Senegal Pasotti and Bachini wanted to use new possibilities of the internet to inform a larger public about the experiences of return migrants from Italy in Senegal. With the help of anthropologist Sinatti who had done research these return migrants they constructed a weblog with many text pages and film fragments to present a large variety of contextual and background information regarding three men who had re-migrated to Senegal after having lived in Italy for many years. Most of the texts on the website are in Italian as the weblog was made for an Italian newspaper. This implies that I and most of the readers of  Standplaats Wereld cannot read it. Fortunately I remembered during my travel home the website Surprising Europe  I had found several years ago and which is more or less dealing with the same topic, but in this case filled by migrants themselves. This weblog is still active and I hope that the Italian weblog makers will share their weblog with this one.

My last remark is about films in ethnography. I am really a fan of this medium in the dissemination of findings of anthropological research. A much larger public can be reached than with written texts only, even when these texts are written in a non-academic way or even in a literary style. However, not only anthropologists are making interesting documentaries. Since many years we have the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam. As being retired from work duties since two years now I could watch many screenings of this year’s festival of November 2016. I have watched so many good and relevant films, which could have been made by ethnographers, like Plastic China, Fallen Flowers Thick Leaves and 4,1 Miles. I would advise every student in anthropology and other social sciences to watch as much documentaries as you can. Even when it is not obligatory in your Bachelor’s or Master’s program.

Ina Keuper is a former staff member of the Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.

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