The Teaching of Anthropological Documentary: Paradoxes and Controversies.

Receipt: July 20, 2022

Acceptance: August 11, 2022

The anthropological documentary. A theoretical-practical introduction

Carlos Y. FloresCentro de Investigaciones Multidisciplinarias sobre Chiapas y la Frontera Sur, 2020, Mexico, 242 pp.

The new book by Carlos Y. Flores provides an excellent opportunity to reflect on some crucial issues for visual anthropology and allows us to discuss certain paradoxes and controversies found within anthropological cinema. To begin with, we could question the very category of "anthropological documentary", which could well have been "ethnographic cinema" -perhaps more consolidated in the medium at the international level- or some other of the various terms proposed by different authors (cinetnography, ethnocinema, ethnofiction, etc.). It is not that one name is more correct than another, but the choice of any of them inevitably emphasizes certain nuances and presuppositions, while at the same time it distinguishes itself from other possible ones, thus blurring and delineating the contours of the type of cinema that we anthropologists make or study. It is always productive to discuss in depth our categories and conceptual foundations, and the reading of this book implicitly leads us to this task.

The anthropological documentary. A theoretical-practical introduction collects and systematizes several postulates of classic and contemporary authors of international visual anthropology that have not yet been translated into Spanish. Thus, it constitutes a valuable didactic material that was sorely needed for the training of Spanish-speaking students. The book has a double potential: it can help anthropology and social science students to approach documentary film production; but it can also help documentary filmmakers and film students to better understand the anthropological value of their praxis.

The content of the book is the product of several years of research in the field of visual anthropology, a strong interest in audiovisual production, as well as a long teaching experience on the part of Carlos Y. Flores. Theoretically it is very well grounded, drawing on multiple bibliographical and filmographic sources, references from different disciplines and schools of thought, as well as from different genres and film traditions.

I would like to highlight two great strengths in this work by Carlos Y. Flores. On the one hand, it brings a critical perspective, very conscious and sensitive to the power plots behind the audiovisual representation of diverse cultures and different social groups. On the other hand, its originality lies in the fact that it approaches the field of anthropological documentary mainly from its expressions in Mexico and Latin America, but without neglecting historical milestones on a global scale. However, based on the great respect and admiration I have for the author, I would also like to point out some aspects of the book that I consider debatable.

Considerations about text and image

I find it problematic that throughout the book the author recurrently refers to audiovisual language and filmic works as "visual texts" or "audiovisual textualization". In a footnote (p. 12), Flores explains and justifies in what sense he uses the terms "text" and "textualization", with a broad criterion that also includes "documents, images, sounds and so on". And certainly, if we refer to its etymological origin, "text" comes from Latin textumwhich refers to weaving. Thus posed, textualization, according to the author, can be understood as a textile, as the construction or weaving of a discourse from different elements ("photographs, paintings, films, videos").

However, beyond this conceptual precision, I still find it delicate to nominally homologate image with text, especially in a book aimed at those who are making their first incursions into audiovisual production. Several decades ago, Margaret Mead spoke of the difficulty of visual anthropology to distance itself from anthropology, described as a discipline of words. This separation seemed crucial to her in order to legitimize and consolidate a different kind of anthropology, one that is founded and built around the power of the image. More recently, the anthropology of the senses and sensory ethnographic cinema have also insisted on the need to free the image from the weight of verbal language. According to their postulates, images are much more than linguistic signs. If images are reduced or equated with textual figures, they lose much of their poetic, aesthetic, epistemological and evocative force. Therefore, I do not consider it convenient to subsume or simplify the power of the image to the textual domain; I would rather propose to treat it differently and think of it as a special entity, autonomous and independent of the textual discourse, with its own qualities, limits and scope.

Beyond the politics of cross-cultural representation

Another aspect that I would like to discuss in relation to this book is that the emphasis on the critical perspective, focused on the asymmetries and power disputes behind the audiovisual representation of cultures -which is undoubtedly an absolutely necessary perspective-, can overshadow or make invisible other equally important dimensions of the image, such as the aesthetic, performative, sensorial and affective quality of the filmic experience, and even its non-representational character.

That said, I find the author's proposal that the styles or forms of representation in documentary cinema can be understood as "power devices" very original and suggestive; I believe that this intuition could be expanded and developed further to understand how the modes of representation contain in themselves keys to interpret the political networks behind the films, regardless of their content. In this sense, it would also be interesting to reflect on how these modes of representation become and constitute schools, traditions, artistic currents or filmic subgenres.

The specificity of documentary filmmaking

When we talk about ethnographic cinema, the discussion almost always revolves around what makes a film ethnographic, but we rarely ask ourselves in what sense it is pertinent to call it ethnographic. cinema. Something similar happens in the book; it masterfully discusses the anthropological nature of certain documentaries, but a more substantive characterization of the documentary genre itself is eluded. As we have already pointed out, the text concentrates mainly on the politics of cultural representation, from a critical anthropology, but hardly addresses the documentary as a film genre, with its specificity, its challenges and its potentiality.

There are more and more studies and treatises on the theory, philosophy and history of documentary film, on its contemporary forms, its avant-garde and new trends, its connections with other fields of knowledge and artistic disciplines, both in English and Spanish and in other languages. Likewise, beyond the academy, in museums, festivals, film libraries, from film criticism and curatorship, in recent years there has been a large number of essays and reflections on documentary film. I fully understand that it was not the aim of this book to delve into this subject. corpus of knowledge, but it should not be underestimated either.

On the other hand, I consider that the issue of circulation and distribution of ethnographic cinema or anthropological documentaries is mentioned somewhat sparsely in the book. The question of audiences, reception, audience formation, as well as the distribution and exhibition of films in festivals, exhibitions, congresses or academic forums, as well as the uses of documentaries by organizations or social movements as an instrument of political struggle and social transformation, could give much food for thought from an anthropological perspective, considering cinema as a total social fact, as a very complex and revealing cultural phenomenon of contemporary worlds.

Basic guide for audiovisual production

In the second part of the book, which deals with the techniques and skills necessary for audiovisual production, some very interesting paradoxes come to light. First, it is essential to recognize that a manual of filmmaking techniques will always be limited in scope; it can never fully resolve the practical teaching. It must be emphasized that audiovisual production guides never replace the need for praxis; it is essential to learn as you go along, by trial and error: you learn by messing up, and no one experiments on someone else's head.

The second technical dilemma is that the content of this book, like that of any practical guide, is in danger of becoming outdated and anachronistic very soon in the face of the dizzying advance of technology. Various aspects of camera and microphone use are explained in great detail. But today's cameras do not resemble those used in the early 2000s and they will certainly not resemble those to come in the next few years. What to do in the face of this dilemma? In addition, the new generations of "digital natives" students do not usually resort to this type of instruction any more, they are somehow born with the chip integrated or use YouTube tutorials to answer specific questions.

One last concern regarding the practical part of the book. Despite the fact that the first part exposes the great variety of forms that the anthropological documentary can take, the practical part only deals with one type of production: the testimonial documentary based on interviews. The book focuses in a wonderful way on the process of preparing, conducting and videotaping an anthropological interview. But some notes or tips on the making of other less conventional styles of anthropological documentary are missing, for example, the recording of a self-reflexive or essayistic voice-over narration; the handling of cameras and microphones in direct or observational filmmaking; the use of archival material of various kinds; or tips for the realization of a more contemplative or multisensory film.

Present and future of the anthropological documentary

In the book's historical account of the evolution of anthropological documentaries in Mexico, there is an abrupt break towards the end of the century. xx. Authors such as Nicolás Echevarría and Alfonso Muñoz are mentioned, but almost everything that has occurred since the beginning of the xxiThe article overlooks new developments that have implied a qualitative revolution in the genre. A reflection on current movements, institutions, laboratories, networks, collectives, as well as on contemporary trends in anthropological documentary, such as multisensory ethnography, as controversial as it has been influential in recent years, is missing.

The book also offers just a taste of the new narrative forms generated by new digital technologies, which have given rise to innovative anthropological films that employ virtual reality, artificial intelligence, 360-degree cameras, drones, or that approach interactive, expanded, transmedia or interactive cinema. web doc. Although the reflection on these new languages, supports and interfaces would be the subject of a different publication, it would be worthwhile to point out the anthropological dimensions that are enhanced or disrupted (for example, authorship and authority, the participatory, collaborative or interactive nature, non-linear narratives, the possibility of polyphony and intermediality) and their implications for ethnographic work and anthropological knowledge.

Form is substance

In conclusion, I would like to emphasize that The anthropological documentary is a fundamental book for Ibero-American audiovisual anthropology, which will undoubtedly contribute significantly to the training of new generations. From now on, it will undoubtedly be part of the basic bibliography of the courses taught by those of us who are dedicated to teaching in this field. In this sense, I am very pleased with the coherence between the book's content and its dissemination strategy. It is an open access e-book for free download, which ensures its adoption by students and teachers, who are precisely the interlocutors sought by this work. The form of distribution is, in this case, part of the substance and one of the most substantial contributions of this book.

Antonio Zirión Pérez is a professor and researcher in the Department of Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley. uam-Iztapalapa). Member of the National System of Researchers, level 1. Doctor in Anthropological Sciences by the uam-I, Master in Visual Anthropology from the University of Manchester and ethnologist from the National School of Anthropology and History. Author and coordinator of several books and articles specialized in visual anthropology, ethnographic cinema, urban culture, senses and emotions. He is also a photographer and documentary filmmaker, with two published photo books and documentaries that have received important national and international recognition. For more than fifteen years he has worked as a cultural manager, curator and juror in various museums, exhibitions and competitions of film, photography and visual arts, and as a programmer in international documentary film festivals such as DocsMX and Ambulante.


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