Ethnorgaphic Realism and Visual Anthropology

In the field of Anthropology, many anthropologists strive to research, observe and collect data from various cultures throughout the world. This form of research can be taken on in many different forms, from the aspects of biological, linguistic, archaeological, and many other fields. However, a field that many consider being new and innovative in the field of Anthropology as a whole is the field of Visual Anthropology. This field is part of social anthropology in which anthropologist study a culture and collect their data in visual forms such as photography or films. These forms of data, or ethnographies, have allowed anthropologist to show there data and research to others in a way that allows the observer to better understand the research they have collected in a way that not only as someone who isn’t an anthropologist to understand, but as a form of data collection that provides significant proof to what the anthropologist has observed.

However, due to the nature of how easy it can be to manipulate things like photography or more specifically film to show fictional aspects of a culture, and how the role of recreational films from places like Hollywood has affected the way people interpret these ethnographic films, it calls into question the realism of many of these ethnographies. This influence of other types of films that lead many others to doubt the nature of these ethnographic films also calls into question the ways these films are captured in an authentic way. In this paper, I will compare the film Chronique d’un été (1960) by Rouch to the film Leviathan (2012) by Taylor and Paravel and discuss how human culture can be captured in its most authentic form through the concept of realism as it is understood in the field of anthropology.

First, to better understand how the concept of realism and how it’s understood in anthropology, we must know the background of these films in order to understand the data and analyzes in this paper. The film, Chronique d’un été (1960) is about a sociologist, Edgar Morin, and an anthropologist, Jean Rouch, and their search to find the true nature of French society in the 1960s. The film conducts multiple interviews with real-life individuals in French society in which they talk about their happiness, work, and society itself. Later, these individuals are gathered together to have a group discussion about these topics and how each person is depicted in the film after seeing one of the final cuts of the ethnographic film. This film in a sense, is asking the question of what French society is like in the point of view of the common French citizen in the 1960’s and tries to answer such a question in a way in the most authentic way possible during that time by interviewing its subjects one on one, and then in a group setting.

In another film set more than 40 years later, Leviathan (2012) is a film about a crew of commercial fisherman and the difficult and dangerous obstacles they face on a day to day basis. The film depicts these events not by using words but allowing the camera to gain certain perspectives of the boat, the fish in the water, and the many crew member positions in the film. While this film shows a typical day or work season for these fishermen, by not using words or interviews to describe their work process or environment allows the audience to gain the perspective that they feel that they are on the boat with the fishermen by manipulating and challenging the visual and auditory senses of the viewer. By providing this different viewpoint and understanding of the culture of the fishing boat and its workers, the ethnographer doesn’t manipulate the viewer into any sort of fictional fantasy of the hard work that goes into this type of career but displays a reality of a culture of people that is often not discussed.

Now, after giving some background information of what these films are about and what they are trying to accomplish, let us review what the concept of realism really is and how it affects the field of anthropology. In an article written by Peter Loizos, he writes towards the end of the article about the influence the film Chronique d’un été on the nature of realism in ethnographic and documentary films.

The film itself is composed in the film style of cinema verite or the style of filmmaking that strives to film the authentic truth about its subjects without using grand artistic techniques and intricate equipment. By doing this, the filmmakers allowed the subjects to feel at ease when talking to the directors of the film, as Loizos states that because of this mobility and flexibility that the subjects could be in their natural setting without being dragged into a large recording studio where the feeling of relaxation would dissipate (Loizos, pg. 59).

Even though that later on after the film was produced did the directors reveal that these subjects were in fact chosen and not randomly selected, the way that they produced their film and the methods in which they collected their data from their subjects demonstrates the idea that they gave their best attempt of collecting realistic information based on the realities of each subject about their unique point of view about the French society during that time in their culture.

With regards to this form of realistic ethnographic documentation, we are able to see how much this idea has progressed into the modern era. In an article written by Sarah Pink, she discusses how this journey to seek realism, or cinema verite, in ethnographies has branched out a new field of ethnographic films entitled sensory ethnography. In this new type of ethnography, the main focus of these films is to place the viewer in a position that makes them feel as if they are in the same location as the film by collecting data that effects the viewers senses such as what they see, what they hear, and providing a point of view of the situation displayed in the film that can help the viewer relate it to their own lives. In Pink’s article, she states that when it comes to this type of ethnographic films, it requires us, as both anthropologists and the viewers, to reflect on the observations of behavior and events seen in the film as well as to conceptualize their theoretical meanings and to seek ways to communicate its relatedness of it meaning, both experiential and intellectual, to others (Pink, pg. 26).

In the case of ethnographic films such as Leviathan, the film documents the real-life behaviors of the fishermen and the events that happen on a fishing boat by collecting visual and audio data that allows the viewer to feel as if they are on the boat with the film’s subjects. By having these films affect the way we place ourselves in the film as if we were in the same position and situation as the film’s subjects rather than just being observers far away in the distance, this form of realistic documentation only allows the film to showcase the true nature of behaviors and events of the people of a culture instead of developing a false notion about a certain culture.

With this concept of ethnographic realism in mind, let us observe how this concept can be illustrated in the films of Chronique d’un été and Leviathan and compare the two. In our first comparison, we will see how both films so the realism that is observed in their own cultures. At the beginning of Chronique d’un été, we see two women out on the street and asking random French citizens if they are happy or not.

While many people choose to ignore the women and not answer the question, we do get some participants who give various answers from some being happy with where they are in life, to some who say they aren’t because of the society that they live in. With our other film Leviathan, we are also given another scene toward the beginning of the film that shows the viewer one aspect, or job, that takes place on the ship which is collecting a gutting fish on the boat. This scene shows the graphic nature of the job, from cutting up the fish to get the specific parts that are good to sell to seeing the discarded bits and pieces of the fish tossed into the ocean after the fishermen take what they need.

As a result, within these first clips, we can observe how each of the directors in their perspective film went to collect and find data about each culture in a way that promotes the theme of realism. Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin seek to find realism by asking people on the street about how they feel about their society during that time and if that in return makes them happy or not. This approach allows the viewer to get a sense of what society and the culture of France during the late 1960s was like in a way that isn’t trying to push a certain agenda or trying to preach a message to the viewer, but rather a raw and seemingly unbiased opinions of those who are subjected to that environment. Castaning-Taylor’s and Parvel’s clip, on the other hand, found in Leviathan allows the viewer to observe the work life of some of these fishermen and gain a new perspective on a field of work that many do not know about. In the film, the directors do not solely focus on the job of the captain and the daily events and responsibilities that the captain has to go through, but rather focus on the many jobs of the boat and crew that allow the ship to run smoothly on a day-by-day basis.

Secondly, let us look in clips that allow the viewer to observe these environments depicted in each film in a realistic fashion by appealing to the viewer’s senses. In Chronique d’un été for instance, there is a scene in which the directors do an interview with their subjects in one of the subject’s apartments. In this scene, we see the subjects seem to know each other based on how comfortable they feel around each other, as well as how we as the viewer get the sense of how tiny the apartment is. This feeling of being trapped in a small space allows the viewer to somewhat understand how these people feel and live inside a tiny apartment and how in return can affect how these subjects measure their happiness when they are asked by the interviewer. In this scene, we also see what type of diet they eat as well as why they decide to keep things like books and huge clocks in their apartment when it seems as if they don’t have enough space. In Leviathan the whole film in itself can appeal to the many of the viewers senses based on how it is filmed, but a more specific scene would be when we are introduced to another job on the boat of shucking the clams and oysters on the lower part of the ship.

In this scene, we are able to see two men work efficiently to collect the meat of each oyster and clam and discard the shells. When this is happening in the scene, the viewer is subjected to how dark the bottom of the ship can be due to the lack of light coming into the bottom of the ship, how dirty and gritty it can be to work on a boat, especially the bottom of the ship, and throughout the film, and especially in this scene, we hear the sounds of each fishermen working on their specific job, but the only other sound we hear is environmental sounds and no dialogue.

Because of this, we as the viewer can understand how each culture depicted in each film uses the senses like sound and visual to illustrate the daily life of each culture. In another article written by Sarah Pink, she goes into detail about the idea of the sensory home and how it can affect someone’s ethnographic experience. She describes the sensory home as a domain composed of the five senses (smell, touch, taste, vision, and sound) and how its simultaneously understood (Pink, pg. 48). In the case for video and film, as she goes on the explain, she states that film privileges itself to image and sound above other senses because it communicates these ideas directly to the viewer (Pink, pg. 49).

While both clips do use visual and audio communication to display their realistic themes, they do slightly differ from one another. In the clip for example in Chronique d’un été where they do their interview in an apartment, because of how the directors wanted to show the tiny space in the apartment all while we listen to their interview, we as the viewer are given a small glimpse into the real lives of these people from where they sleep, what they eat, and how they feel based on what they say in the interview. By seeing the environment in which they live in and hearing what they feel about their society, the viewer of the ethnographic film gets a chance to try to relate to these subjects in a way that makes them understand where these people are coming from.

In Leviathan, where we see the environment and the way these fishermen work under the boat, we as the viewer are so immersed into that environment that at times it seems as if we can smell the fish and the ocean while watching the film. Because of how the way this film was shot with immersive audio and camera angles and perspectives that allow the viewer to take on the different points of view from many different parts of the ship, when we get to the scene where some fishermen are cleaning and shucking clams and oysters, it seems as if we already know our way around the ship, and in return get a better glimpse of the harsh lifestyle of working on a fishing boat.

Lastly, we can compare these two films in the way of how the directors and even the subjects of the film are able to observe and provide commentary on their own behavior in the film, and about the amount of realism that is in the film. In Chronique d’un été, we see at the end of the film the subjects and the directors watching the film as soon as it is finished and edited together, and then we see the lights come on and the director asking what they thought of the film [1:17:18-1:21:24]. After observing the film, we see the subjects discuss, and at times argue, with one another about the behaviors of each subject and asking questions about if what they saw from each subject was authentic and real or was it all made up for the camera.

For Leviathan, one particular scene in which we see someone observing their own behavior is when we see the captain of the ship sitting on the kitchen table at the bottom of the ship and watching a TV show about a fishing crew [1:09:16-1:13:32]. In this scene we see the captain exhausted from his work and practically falling asleep on the kitchen table while we see him watching the show and we hear the show is Deadliest Catch, a popular TV show that documents the lives of those on fishing boats during the working season.

In this way, we can observe in the unusual and uncommon practice of the subjects of the ethnography talking and observing themselves each of their films and take the place of the audience themselves. Through this practice, it seems at times that the viewer and the subject in these scenes can be portrayed as the same. In an article by David MacDougall, he writes about the positives and negatives of the nature of ethnographic films and states that since all films are cultural artifacts, many films can tell us as much about the societies that produced them as about those they purport to describe (MacDougall, pg. 405).

In this case for both films, the subjects are asked to portray their societies behavior in a realistic way to combat of how many other films and individuals assume some aspects about their behavior without completely understanding the influence of the individual’s society. For Chronique d’un été, when we see at the end of the film where they discuss what about each subject displayed realistic behavior, it seems as though they are the only individuals who can realistically converse and argue about certain behaviors shown in the film because they know the society in which the subjects live in. We as the viewer get to not only see the subjects in their interviews and edited together, but we also get to see their reaction to the film and critique or praise certain parts of the film in an unfiltered manner.

In Leviathan, it’s quite apparent the parallel between the exhausted captain of a fishermen boat watching a TV show about his life but with a different crew. While the TV can provide many with the idea of the trials and situations that these fishermen are put in for entertainment purposes, it isn’t until we see who is watching the program in the scene that the viewer can fulling understand the difference between the entertaining aspects of this job, to the harsh reality that wouldn’t make it into the program for good ratings. Without realizing it, the captain who is worn-out from this job displays a strong critique of the reality of the TV program that he is watching without even saying a word.

In conclusion, the films Chronique d’un été (1960) and Leviathan (2012) discuss how human nature can be captured in its most authentic form through the concept of realism as it is understood in the field of anthropology. By observing and comparing various clips from both films, we can see how the directors, and even at times the subjects, were able to portray the realism of their films by how they attempted to seek realism in their cultures, through realistic senses like sound and sight, and provided a discussion about the realistic behaviors shown in each film. While realism may be a challenging task for any ethnographer to accomplish in their films, this concept is important whenever an anthropologist wants to document the real-life actions and behaviors of a specific culture in order to preserve the true and realistic aspects they observe.