The art of anthropology in film

Anthropology can play an important part in film-making – but only when its subjects are allowed to speak, says Hugh Brody
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The Independent Online

But the force of film and TV has been such as to cause anthropology to lose its rightful and essential place. As a result, tribal and indigenous peoples are all too often returned to their primitive appearances, struggles against colonial invasion and oppression go unreported or are crudely simplified, and audiences are encouraged to see the "primitive" through the eyes of a presenter whose ignorance is supposed to be rendered acceptable by some degree of celebrity.

Among the first to use film to reveal an indigenous people was Robert J Flaherty. In 1914, the mining company that employed him to explore the Arctic encouraged Flaherty to "take one of those newfangled things called a motion picture camera". Flaherty was transformed from a geologist into a mix of anthropologist and film-maker.

His famous Nanook of the North, about the Inuit, went on general release in 1922. It achieved rapid and massive success. Later in his life, Flaherty liked to boast that when Nanook died – having starved to death on a caribou hunt in the Arctic Quebec tundra – it made big news in China. It was a death, as well as a kind of fame, that revealed much about Flaherty's vision: the Inuit were filmed and edited and captioned by Flaherty to establish the drama of their struggle with the extreme climate of the North – the primitive, essentially human against a relentless and pitiless nature. And the "primitive" – the truly human, says Flaherty – finds happiness because of the simplicity of the drama. This tangle of myths and stereotypes about both society and nature, along with his consummate skill as a storyteller, is what makes Flaherty's work so fascinating – and so troubling.

Flaherty's two greatest films – Nanook and Man of Aran – are powerful for their drama and images but are trapped in silence. Much the same applies to that brilliant anthropological project The Netsilik Series, a set of 21 half-hour films that show a year in the life of the Inuit of the Central Arctic, created by the anthropologist Asen Balikci: it has no translations of what its subjects are saying.

The work of Jean Rouch breaks the pattern. His 50 years of anthropological film-making, mostly in Africa, saw him make use of recorded sound as well as anthropological narration after about 1960. Yet the norm was to treat tribal people as objects of exploration and inquiry, as if they could be known without them telling their own stories.

Beginning in 1960, Brian Moser and Donald Tayler, both just out of Cambridge, spent more than a year recording the music of Colombian Indians. For three months they canoed and surveyed the Pira-parana river, and visited the Tukano, a people who then lived just beyond the missionary and colonial frontier. This journey resulted in their book The Cocaine Eaters; it also led to the first idea for what was to become the most important of all anthropological film-making projects – Granada TV's Disappearing World series.

It was 10 years before the first film in this series was to be made. In that time, Moser worked as a government field geologist in what was Nyasaland where he spent time with the Yao and, as he now says, came to loathe everything to do with colonialism. Appalled by news of the cynical murder of Indians by ranchers on the Colombia-Venezuela border, Moser and his wife, the urban anthropologist Caroline Moser, put together the proposal to Granada for the first Disappearing World series.

From the beginning the series depended on what the Indians had to say. So the films had to be shaped by those who spoke the languages: the anthropologists. Every one of the 60 films that were eventually made in the various Disappearing World series depended on an anthropologist taking a director and crew into a community, translating what was said, leading interviews and often shaping the core ideas and narrative of the film. Several of these anthropologists found a chance to begin to become film-makers themselves – Andre Singer, Paul Henley, Chris Curling, Melissa Llewelyn-Davis and myself among them. The films soon went beyond South America, to be shot in just about every part of the indigenous world. All of the films gave tribal peoples a voice – often of protest against colonial forces.

And the popularity of the series built fast. By 1975, with a peak-time midweek slot, the audience passed nine million. The last Disappearing World film was broadcast in 1993.

The Flaherty tradition spilled over into feature films, too. Nicolas Roeg's Walkabout (1971), John Boorman's The Emerald Forest (1985), Roland Joffé's The Mission (1986), Kevin Costner's Dances With Wolves (1990) – all are testament to the force and appeal of tribal stories within feature film-making.

But here the drama is imposed by ideas of narrative that come from Hollywood. The tribal world exists to show epic collision between innocence and cruelty, simplicity and sophistication, them and us. Zacharias Kunuk's Atanarjuat is the only one to show what can be done by taking film into an indigenous world with a resolve to let that world shape the story.

As far as television goes, the one-hour film that has subtitles, an anthropological narration and a pacing that allows some respect for a way of life has all but gone. It seems to have been consigned to some dustbin of film-making history that has been designed by anxiety about ratings, different kinds of dumbing-down and a lust for reality TV that is "us" in extremis (Big Brother and co) rather than "them" at unfamiliar centres of life.

Yet there are more visual anthropology courses than ever, and more students making anthropological films. The new technology makes many kinds of opportunities. And film of this kind may need to be emancipated from television. The exact 48- or 53-minute slot, with fixed commercial breaks, may be the worst medium for the kinds of complex translations an anthropologist has to make.

But if any young adventurers are out there on remote frontiers, they are sure to be thinking that what we need to do, in our world, is find the way to listen and understand what is happening in theirs. And a good way of doing this would be for anthropologists to work with film-makers on films that are committed, first of all, to listening to what indigenous people have to say.

Hugh Brody's 'Inside Australia', made with Antony Gormley, will be screened at the 9th RAI International Film Festival, 18 to 21 September (