Filmmaking as Social Science

As I mentioned in my previous post, I’m doing an independent study on political film theory. Due to my surgery fundraiser, I got WAY behind on the readings (although I’ve done all the screenings and then some). So today is my catch up day & I’ve started with Fatimah Tobing Rony’s Those Who Squat and Those Who Sit (paywall warning). In it, Rony discusses the history of ‘ethnographic’ film, as implemented by Félix-Louis Regnault (you’ll want to read at least that abstract for an explanation of his project). Tell me why I’m not even halfway through the article, but I’m learning more about this from a piece on film studies than I have from an actual ethnography class! (Okay, maybe I’m being a little dramatic. Just a little.)

Anyhoo, did you know that… well, here:

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On some level, I feel like I knew this. But I know for sure that I’ve never read it anywhere and I don’t recall having any discussions about it. Let me rephrase that: I’ve known about the relationship between race and science ever since those epic discussions in Tukufu Zuberi‘s Race & Ethnic Relations class my freshman year at Penn. And yes, I’ve had my issues with the racism of anthropology for a number of years now. But this whole thing about anthro being a driving force of imperialism, point blank? That’s new to me. Alas, even as I type these words, I feel like I shouldn’t be surprised. I really don’t seek to confirm these things, y’all, but it just keeps happening.

To be fair, I’m sure there are plenty of anthropologists out there who’s neck hairs are bristling at this post. Part of me wants to be all, “Truth hurts, don’t it?” But that’s rude and ignorant. The other part of me really wants to know what modern-day anthropologists think of this kind of work. Because really? This kind of ‘research’ seems to be the foundation of anthropology (and sociology,* let’s not pretend here), as far as I can tell. That concerns me immensely.

While I’ve long been interested in doing ethnographic work, I’ve been very concerned about representation. I find myself reading someone’s work and wondering, “Where’d you get that interpretation from?” or “Are you sure that’s what they’re communicating here, ‘cuz I can think of 14 other possibilities…” Although it’s hard generally hard for me to to hold in any question, I’ve remained largely silent because I feel woefully under-informed. If someone else brings up the issue, I get more comfortable and add in my own response. Of course then I feel like a bandwagon hopper, but I digress.

Why all this concern about representation? Well, I think I’ve always been concerned about it, but I’ve become more sensitive since beginning my coursework in film studies. Did you know that scenes in documentaries are sometimes staged? Yeah, I learned that while taking documentary production. It wasn’t until I started this independent study that I learned an entire documentary film might be staged. All these years, I thought that documentaries were all truth (although likely biased, just as with anything else). Granted, standards have improved over the past 90 years, but staging scenes is still common practice in documentary work. This also concerns me immensely.

If we can have Andrew Wakefield faking data to say that autism is linked to vaccinations,^ documentarians staging scenes to get their messages across, PLUS a history of staged ethnographies, I feel that I’m right to be greatly concerned about the work I’m launching into. Am I late to this discovery? Do other people know these things and wonder about my agenda? Is that why my university doesn’t have any courses on visual research methods?**

At any rate, I hope my concerns about representation are pretty well squashed by my plans for participatory research. At the same time, it will be up to me to defend the research in my dissertation defense. *Starts plotting on a way to arrange a participatory defense hearing*

*Oh, let’s be clear: I do have my issues with sociology for sure – that’s one reason I chose social work instead (albeit not without its own issues).
**I thought the answer to that last question was because visual methods are avant-garde. Not only are these methods not newfangled, but they also go back as far as the school’s existence.
^I know he’s not a social scientist, just roll with me
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