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Cameron Breslin '11
Cameron Breslin '11

Breslin '11 Documents Ethnography Through Film

By Alexandra Ossola '10  |  Contact Holly Foster 315-859-4068
Posted August 2, 2010
Tags Emerson Grant Scott MacDonald Student Research
Long thought to be the most objective of artistic mediums, film is slowly being acknowledged as subjective, the camera impacting its subject matter like in any other art. In conjunction with an Emerson grant and advised by Visiting Professor of Art History Scott MacDonald, Cameron Breslin ’11 is analyzing early ethnographic documentaries to determine how accurately and objectively they portrayed their anthropological subject.

Having spent the last semester in Tanzania studying wildlife conservation politics and living for some time alongside a Maasai family, Breslin was struck by the rift between outsider’s exoticized understanding of an ethnic group and the people themselves. He decided to combine this realization with his study of film, in which he has deeply immersed himself at Hamilton.

“During the first few decades of the 20th century, filmmakers were recognizing that film had the capability to document in ways that other mediums did not,” Breslin explained. “They thought that film as a medium had the ability to preserve, actively and objectively representing a people.” Anthropologists found that film was useful as well; by collecting moving images to document a group of people’s practices, anthropologists could analyze cultures, even as those practices underwent change or even disappeared, a field of study called salvage ethnography. Some filmmakers decided to make anthropological films to represent and document these cultures before they died out, creating a genre called ethnographic documentaries.

Breslin initially set out to examine how such films used the depiction of culture to represent environmental concern, but as he watched such films, he discovered something he didn’t expect: the issues of environmental concern were well-represented, but something about the relationship between the audience and the subject matter made him uncomfortable. “It felt exploitative,” he said, “as if the people were being represented not for the sake of being represented, but for another purpose.”

Ethnographic documentaries are a notoriously difficult genre to do right. Over the past 50 years, academics and filmmakers alike have acknowledged that film is absolutely not objective; it is influenced by the director’s interference (or even staging of scenes), the film’s editing, the imposition of a narrative on the documentary and simply the effect the camera has on the people being filmed. Ethnographic documentaries are almost always problematic, Breslin has noticed, because the filmmaker is often an outsider, leading to questions of biases, prejudices and resulting subjectivity.

Breslin is closely analyzing the films of John Marshall and Robert Gardner, two early and influential ethnographic filmmakers, in order to better understand the different approaches taken by filmmakers within the genre.

Speaking of John Marshall’s The Hunters (1957), which documented the bushmen in the Nyae Nyae region of Namibia as they hunted giraffe in the Kalahari Desert, Breslin said, “Some of Marshall’s early films were perfect definitions of ways to do it wrong.” Marshall imposed a narrative on the documentary, adding a voiceover, to make the film full of action and achieve a satisfying resolution. “Marshall exoticized the bushmen… but at the time he still didn’t really know what to use his films for,” Breslin observed. But Marshall spent more time with the Bushmen, and his final film, A Kalahari Family (2002), reflected the deep appreciation he had developed for the Bushmen. The film incorporates footage collected over almost 50 years and tells the story of the bushmen’s journey from hunter-gatherers to their situation today in contemporary Namibia.

Breslin is also analyzing the films of Robert Gardner, another ethnographic filmmaker who worked around the same time with the Dani people of New Guinea. Speaking of Gardner’s film, Dead Birds (1965) Breslin noted, “This film makes a really dramatic story, but if you’re thinking about intent and the presentation of the subject matter, you see that the filmmaker’s main intent was to make a story from the people and to use their lifestyle as springboard for his metaphor.”

Finally, as part of his Emerson research, Breslin attended this summer’s Flaherty Film Seminar held at Colgate University. There, he was exposed to present-day documentary films, including contemporary examples of ethnographic films. Breslin will be looking at such modern analogs, in particular by the filmmakers Michael Glawogger and Nikolaus Geyrhalter, to examine the present state of the genre and the changes it has experienced.

Breslin is a graduate of Gill St. Bernard’s School in Gladstone, NJ.

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