American Ethnographic Film and Personal Documentary: The Cambridge Turn, a book by Visiting Professor of Art History Scott MacDonald, has been published by University of California Press in Berkeley. The publication is the result of a project for which MacDonald received funding from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 2012 as an Academy Scholar.
The book is about two forms of documentary film that have been nurtured in Cambridge, Massachusetts over the past half-century or so: ethnographic film, which traditionally has involved filmmakers going to far-flung locations to document pre-industrial cultures on the verge of transformation and personal documentary, for which filmmakers have recorded and interpreted their personal experiences with family and friends. From MacDonald’s perspective, “Going to a new and different environment tells us as much about our ‘normal’ environment as about the new and different place, and exploring our personal lives can be a way of discovering the complexity and strangeness of our own lives and culture.”
Over several decades MIT’s Film Section and Harvard’s Film Study Center (and more recently, Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab) have brought creative faculty and students together to produce a considerable body of interesting and widely influential cinema. MacDonald’s book is a critical history of what seems to him the most interesting of this work.