Book Review: Film Festivals and Anthropology

To the best of my knowledge, to date no book has seriously undertaken an analysis of the history, current challenges and future outlook of the so-called ‘ethnographic film festivals’, rather unique gatherings that have historically had an ambiguous – and sometimes problematic – relationship with mainstream, text-based anthropology. For this reason alone, the publication of Film festivals and anthropology, an extensive and remarkable collection of some of the most relevant scholars in the field, should be warmly welcomed.

That said, the book’s originality lies in the diverse approaches adopted by its editors. Indeed, the book does not limit itself to being a mere reflection on ethnographic film festivals, but rather explores the possibility of conducting ethnographic research on film festivals, defined as a social event during which new relationships and paradigms of scientific assessment are generated.

These two perspectives are clearly delineated by the book’s structure. The first part presents a mapping of ethnographic film festivals from 1960 to the present. It is preceded by an excellent introduction summarising the global panorama of ethnographic films and by a moving preface in which Faye Ginsburg shares select personal memories of the Margared Film Festival of New York. Special attention is given to the task of the curator, whose crucial role involves both assessing the quality of submitted films and creating a ‘global narrative’ through the ‘montage’ of the different films that make up the entire programme. This first section also includes several accounts of some of the most prominent ethnographic film festivals of Europe and the USA, as presented in the first person by their founders or scholars involved in their development.

The second part of the book, considerably shorter, is perhaps the most innovative part of this volume. It compiles five chapters that propose a methodology and a theoretical framework for ethnographically analysing ethnographic film festivals. The reader will find, for instance, interesting reflections on how films, as social goods, increase their symbolic and economic value by circulating between different festivals or inspiring arguments regarding the festival as a ritualistic event during which ephemeral and egalitarian communities are created and dispersed.

9781443816830Film festivals and anthropology has the distinctiveness of being both highly informative and intellectually stimulating. And while the overall tone of the book is optimistic, the book does not neglect to mention some of the difficulties that ethnographic film festivals face today. These obstacles are diverse in nature, ranging from a lack of funding to difficulties in consolidating an audience in the digital age. Still, the most controversial debate underpinning the whole book refers to the definition of ‘ethnographic film’ itself and to the role that cinema (and other audio-visual products) have and should have in generating anthropological knowledge. The book only tangentially addresses this question and I would like to have seen more commitment from the authors and editors in this regard. A stronger conclusion could address this debate and make the work’s position on the subject more explicit. For instance, these festivals include (and often award) films whose authors and initial intentions have nothing to do with anthropology. These documentary films are often made with technical, material and economic resources to which no anthropologist (visual or otherwise) can aspire. This issue has a serious impact on the nature of the debates that take place during festivals, the relation between ethnographic cinema and academia, and the professional life of the filmmakers. Another example is the current (and necessary) introduction of ‘experimental films’ within ethnographic film programmes. It seems to me that some juries’ fascination with ‘formal innovation’ and ‘artistic approaches’ has led many festivals to incorporate productions based on weak research that is of questionable interest from an anthropological perspective. The purpose of these arguments is not to call for a ‘conservative movement’ within ethnographic film festivals, but rather to call attention to the need to redefine their raison d’être and their scope in order to make them meaningful within the general anthropological project.

All considered, I enthusiastically recommend this excellent work that is long overdue. Let us congratulate the editors and the authors for this relevant contribution, which is certain to become a reference for festival curators, anthropologists and filmmakers, as well as for any scholar interested in film studies and media studies in general.

Roger Canals, University of Barcelona

Social Anthropology, 26:1 (2018)

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