JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

MacDonald discusses Gardner’s films about artists and also his cinematography for The Nuer (1971), but then proceeds to Rivers of Sand (1974) about pastoralists. Again, Gardner’s effort would be controversial because he sees those he studies in Rivers of Sand, the Hamar of Ethiopia, as people of pain. MacDonald points to the influence of other ethnographers’ films, and also the relation between cultural change and Gardner’s own awareness of it. Just as the Vietnam war may have affected Gardner’s seeing the focal point of Dani life in ritual warfare, Rivers of Sand (1974) reflects his consideration of gender relations, an idea not only suggested by the dynamics of Hamar women’s situation, but also his awareness of feminism. MacDonald recognizes this possible underlying cultural shift to emphasize the portrayal of Hamar relationships:

“Gardner has always been reasonably astute about the cultural currents evolving around him, and the emergence of a powerful feminist transformation in American society in general, and in American academe in particular, during the 1970s is reflected in Rivers of Sand. Indeed, Gardner’s decision to focus on the Hamar seems to have reflected his own developing gender awareness.” (75)

Concentrating on “the essence” of a society has made Gardner the subject of numerous anthropological critiques (see, for example, Ruby 1991, 1992, who has stated that these films do not represent anthropological issues). MacDonald notes, “I see Rivers as an amalgam of feminism and surrealism.” (77) That the grinding stones were used as a metaphor for women who become worn down, for example, is explicitly stated in an extensive interview with Omali Inda. Like N!ai, this person carries the film. But, much to the chagrin of anthropology students, the film does not offer a cultural overview (I sat in an outraged audience who attended a screening in Bloomington at Indiana University in 1974).

For Gardner’s work that follows, MacDonald aligns Gardner with other filmmaking styles. Forest of Bliss (1986) shot in Benares, India, seems to have certain parallels with city symphony documentaries, a discussion of which in MacDonald’s book becomes somewhat of an historical tangent. Gardner makes life in Benares appear as if it were occurring on one day from morning until night. Like in Dead Birds, mortality is a central issue. The film depicts the burning of bodies and shows the “burying” of bodies in the Ganges.

Two years later, in Ika Hands (1988), Gardner depicts daily life in Mamingeka. Here he concentrates on the spiritual actions of one individual who is considered a mystic. Gardner also appears in the film. MacDonald presents each of Gardner’s endeavors, often seeing them as metaphors for larger aspects of life. He includes “The Screening Room,” an ABC Boston affiliate program in which Gardner interviews numerous filmmakers. The series lasted from 1972 to 1981 and gave filmmakers a platform to interest audiences in the educational significance of their films.

As the head of the Film Study Center, Gardner aided in the production of a number of films. He created the non-profit Studio7 Arts and continued to support the filmmaking of others. Like Marshall, Gardner was a major force in the development of ethnographic film. Unlike Marshall, as MacDonald demonstrates, Gardner’s idea was to make artistic films. Their beauty startles those of us who have seen them. Gardner wrote an autobiography based on his journals, and others have reviewed and analyzed Gardner’s films, so that MacDonald has much data upon which to draw. Perhaps most valuable is MacDonald’s arranging of these films, his conscientious digging for connections and obscure references that only a small group of ethnographic film “fans” might know. Adding to this mountain of documents, MacDonald’s own insights lend a new look, a fresh analysis.

MacDonald applies a similar polish, albeit shorter, to the films of Timothy Asch. Although Asch taught at many universities, including Harvard, he received his B.A. from Columbia, and also studied with photographers Ansel Adams, Minor White, and Edward Weston in California. Margaret Mead suggested to Gardner that Asch was someone who would work well with Marshall. Rather than his work at Cambridge and his collaboration with Marshall, I believe Asch’s work on the Yanomamö of southern Venezuela made with anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon from 1968 to 1975 is his hallmark. A number of documentaries that they created out of the 80,000 feet of film they shot are used in anthropology classes and discussed in histories of ethnographic film. Altogether, sixty events were shot (Asch 1975:398). Chagnon’s The Fierce People (1968) is often the companion text that students read when they see these films. In terms of style, using Marshall’s idea of sequence filming, Asch concentrates on one event, for example, The Feast (1968), breaking it up into sequences. The film opens with still shots and translations to situate the viewer. The second part is in sync sound with English subtitles sparingly used. This technique shows the Yanomamö as real humans rather than “noble savages.”

MacDonald very briefly mentions James V. Neel, the first organizer of the expedition and a geneticist, who studied the Yanomamö medically to vaccinate them against what he perceived as the threat of measles. MacDonald makes little reference to the measles epidemic that might have been brought about by Neel inoculating the Yanomamö.

Although barely discussed in the scholarship until years after this event glossed over by MacDonald, Patrick Tierney in Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon (2000) accused the scholars of being part of a biomedical experiment that caused hundreds of deaths among the Yanomamö. Much has been written about the perceived scandal (most famously Tierney’s article, “The Fierce Anthropologist” in The New Yorker, October 9, 2000; see also Tierney’s book 2000), but perhaps, more important, the controversy ended anthropology’s study of indigenous peoples. Postmodernism also eliminated ideas about such groups. Indigenous cultures now began documenting and reading and writing about themselves. The shift to the internal study of anthropologists began.

I cannot blame MacDonald for not taking up this controversial thread but it is a significant part of Asch’s story. Chagnon was also accused of “doctoring” the film The Ax Fight (1975). MacDonald does provide a detailed account of The Ax Fight and how it underscored the filmmakers’ awareness of their changing understanding of what had occurred. Asch re-edited the film twenty-five times in one semester. MacDonald explains how Asch was

“examining the footage itself and learning how various versions of the material affected audiences. Each film screening made them aware of their relationship to representations of the experiences of others.” (125)

Asch later worked with wife Patsy Asch and anthropologist Linda Connor (who is not mentioned) documenting Balinese healers. In 1982, Asch became the director of USC’s Center for Visual Anthropology. Asch’s films in Bali are basically passed over.
 
Asch’s awareness of “truth” was shattered and he considered anthropology at

“the end of an era. … The whole idea of making an accurate representation blew up in my face” (quoted in Ruby 2000:128).

In MacDonald’s book, this statement by Asch provides a segue into MacDonald’s discussion of the personal documentary, a seemingly different approach than that taken by anthropologists, yet one that MacDonald demonstrates does have a strong connection to ethnographic film:

“[I]n the films of the Marshalls, Robert Gardner and Timothy Asch, the quest to objectively document long-surviving cultures under the threat of transformation by the relentless spread of modern life led first to idealized fantasies, then to careers in which the personal lives, beliefs, and the filmmaking and teaching activities of the filmmakers themselves became increasingly central. The inverse has tended to be true in the history of personal documentary. What began as a variety of attempts to depict and analyze the filmmakers’ most personal feelings and activities has increasingly become ethnographic evidence about life in the United States, including the changing role of filmmaking within family life” (134).

The personal documentary emerges at Cambridge in the midst of the tumultuous '60s and '70s. Now carrying sync-sound portable camera units that only required two people (camera and sound), filmmakers could rush to keep up with events as they occurred. Recognizing how daily life presented themes for the camera, these filmmakers eventually turned the camera inward to documenting the ordinary, sometimes recording events spoken of by older family members recalling the past, and at other times looking at life’s interactions within marriages, births, and friendships. The women’s movement had much to do with the shift, as the motto “the personal is political” became the harbinger of social and personal change.

MacDonald, well known for his analyses of the avant-garde filmmakers (for example, Avant-Garde Film: Motion Studies (Cambridge Film Classics, 1993); and Avant-Doc: Intersections of Documentary and Avant-Garde Cinema (Oxford, 2014), explains that these avant-garde films were precursors of the personal documentary, which regularly examines the familial. For example, Stan Brakage, often referred to by MacDonald, records events with a hand-held camera, and looks into his own marriage. His expressive depiction of a couple’s behavior is clear in the idiosyncratic editing of such films as Window Water Baby Moving (1959). The film became an experimental yet controversial one for showing Brakhage’s wife’s vagina as she gives birth to their daughter. MacDonald notes that few have seen it. Brakage thought he could only be present if he was making a film or else he would faint. Jane turns the camera on him to capture his reaction.

Numerous examples of personal documentaries made in Cambridge follow. Miriam Weinstein, part of the new generation of female filmmakers, made four films about her middle-class life. MacDonald describes them all, but I found her use of the camera to “persuade” her future husband Peter to marry her the most poignant and pragmatic of her films. In My Father the Doctor (1972), Weinstein’s interview with her father includes his disappointment that she did not study to be a doctor and thus, according to him, use her brain. In Living with Peter (1973), Weinstein talks with Peter about getting married. We Get Married Twice (1973) and Call Me Mama (1976) continue her personal feminist filmmaking.

The films and impact of Edward Pincus are presented in detail. Pincus is known to many of us as the author, with Steven Ascher, of The Filmmaker’s Handbook (first published in 1984 and used as a popular textbook). After making a few political films, Pincus turned the camera on himself. His Diaries (1971-76) are described in detail, perhaps, because, as MacDonald notes, the films have not been in distribution since the 1980s (although the Harvard Film Archive has hosted retrospectives). Pincus also taught future generations of filmmakers at MIT and Harvard.

Diaries is a tour de force is tracing one family’s struggle with open marriage, a not uncommon occurrence in the 1970s as couples began to experiment with breaking traditional mores. Pincus, in particular, “opens” the marriage by bringing another woman into the fold and into the film. She would be the first of many as the film echoes the sexual revolution underway. Pincus’s wife Jane is depicted as uncomfortable at the beginning, but by the end has taken on several lovers of her own. Throughout the series, Ed and Jane’s children also contribute to the picture of the family. Pincus’s idea was to shoot his family for five years, then not edit the footage until five years later. The ten-year project eventually became five films edited together into a total of 200 minutes in 1980. It is, as MacDonald says, “a personal epic,” a family sacrificed and exposed to the ever-present camera. The secrecy of sex and marital relationships kept hidden in the 1950s are now personal and open. The book covers this epic in great detail, so much so that I found myself wanting to see it. Pincus moved his family to Vermont and started a flower farm as a means of escaping from a mentally ill man who threatened to kill him and his family, and who did kill civil rights attorney Allard Lowenstein in 1980. In 2007, Pincus returned to filmmaking and made a film with Lucia Small about Hurricane Katrina. Discovering that he had acute myeloid leukemia, Pincus began a film about his own death. He died at the age of 75 in 2013.

The personal documentary assumes several different forms over the years, and MacDonald chronicles the filmmakers who adopted this approach in a fashion not unlike cinema verité. In addition to Weinstein, who had been Pincus’s student, MacDonald addresses the films of Alfred Guzzetti, Ross McElwee, Robb Moss, Nina Davenport, Steve Ascher and Jeanne Jordan, Michel Negroponte, John Gianvito, Alexander Olch, Amie Siegel, Ilisa Barbash, and Lucien Castaing-Taylor. Barbash and Taylor had studied filmmaking at USC with Timothy Asch and later established the Sensory Ethnography Lab at Harvard. In and Out of Africa (1992), their film about dealing in indigenous art, has had meaningful distribution, as has the film Sweetgrass (2009). Their book, Cross Cultural Filmmaking: A Handbook for Making Documentary and Ethnographic Films and Videos (1997), has become a standard reference for classes in anthropology and film.

Of these personal documentary filmmakers, perhaps Ross McElwee is best known to a wide audience. After decades of films without narration, McElwee introduces Sherman’s March (1986) with a narration by Ricky Leacock. The in-joke, to those who knew Leacock, one of the founders of cinema verité in the United States, is that he abhorred narration. As MacDonald presents McElwee’s training at MIT, he points to Ricky Leacock and Ed Pincus as McElwee’s models, with Leacock’s Happy Mother’s Day (1963) and Ed Pincus’s Diaries being perhaps the most prominent examples affecting McElwee’s own development as a filmmaker.

McElwee is the preeminent autobiographical filmmaker of the personal documentary. Seven films take us from a focus on his friend Charleen (1979), whom McElwee saw as a representative of the South, to Backyard (about his own parents and the contrast between them and the African Americans they employed), to Sherman’s March: A Meditation on the Possibility of Romantic Love in the South during an Era of Nuclear Weapons Proliferation (1985), ostensibly about McElwee following Sherman’s march during the Civil War, but looking for the love of a Southern woman. What makes McElwee’s work stand out is his use of narration in the present tense of the film, the present tense of his edit of the film, and that of the projection of the film. These three time periods blend in a meta-dance of “reality,” displayed by McElwee’s films. MacDonald explains how McElwee situates himself from the opening scene:

“McElwee develops both his McElwee character and our consciousness of him as director, confirming the comic mood … and beginning the complex approach that made Sherman’s March a breakthrough not only for McElwee but for autobiographical filmmaking” (200).

He clarifies,

“McElwee is present simultaneously as a character within the action and as a commentator on the action” (200-01).

Throughout his seven films, culminating in Photographic Memory (2011), audiences see McElwee’s life unfold. He becomes the man with the camera, carrying it everywhere. Eventually we meet his future wife Marilyn, witness the birth of his son and the adoption of his daughter, and the depiction of his relationship with his son who has become a grown man. At one point, McElwee observes,

“It seems like I’m filming my life in order to have a life to film” (207).

McElwee’s The Five O’Clock News (1996) illustrates this filmic life as a news team comes to document him and he documents them doing so. McElwee then takes his camera on a journey to document events of the type that the daily news crews cover. Like Sherman’s March, The Five O’Clock News enjoyed a great deal of play on television.

But what happens when life becomes less eventful, MacDonald queries:

“It seems an occupational hazard of autobiographical documentary that at some point what has seemed both an engaging and convenient subject for cinema--the filmmaker’s personal and family life—becomes a limitation. … [O]nce the problems with parents, love, life or personal loss have been dealt with cinematically, what then is the autobiographical filmmaker to do?” (227)

McElwee’s films serve as a connection between ethnographic film and personal documentary that MacDonald brings to the forefront. McElwee’s Sherman’s March is a film made by a man who has now become a Northerner:

“Obviously it would be somewhat of a stretch to call Sherman’s March an ethnographic film, and yet, McElwee’s lovelorn character is in large part a disguise that allows him to create a memorable and intimate panorama of a region of the country and the people who live there that can seem as natural as the worlds we visit in Robert Gardner’s Dead Birds and Deep Hearts” (205-206).

For those of us who may find it difficult to see all this meaning implied by McElwee’s life on camera, the films may seem to focus on people from someone else’s country. To me, the films are self-indulgent—too personal to “see” one’s own life reflected in any way. For Pincus’ films, the time frame and directness appear relevant; for McElwee’s work, I find myself not caring. Ironically, when I explain that films that I make are documentaries, people often respond with a comment about having seen and enjoyed McElwee’s Sherman’s March, or the films of Michael Moore, another documentary filmmaker who places his own personality at the center of his investigative work.

The Cambridge filmmakers might be seen as a clique, albeit one of the most influential groupings of documentarists. UCLA’s ethnographic filmmakers, from Colin Young to David MacDougall, comprise yet another such group. Other than quotes about certain films and their makers, however, MacDougall only appears in one line in this book despite his having taught at Harvard for a brief time. MacDougall is certainly worthy of greater discussion but he doesn’t quite fit the mode MacDonald has established. MacDougall was one of the first scholar-filmmakers to write about ethnographic film. And one might devote greater detail to Ricky Leacock rather than Robb Moss, to whom MacDonald devotes an entire chapter. For an overview of the ethnographic movement at large, Eliot Weinberger’s “The Camera People” (1992) provides a historical perspective not limited to Cambridge.

MacDonald’s book paints a master stroke detailing connections between ethnographic and personal documentaries, the avant-garde and the personal documentary, literature, and the 19th century landscape paintings that he sees in some of these subjects and about which he has also published. MacDonald takes the reader up to the present with examples of documentary reflexivity and hybridity. He also remarks that the personal, in today’s technological universe, may become a threat to privacy. We need only to “stay tuned” to perhaps see MacDonald take up this topic in greater depth for his next book.

The present book is detailed and indicative of the many categories of film that overlap. As a filmmaker and an academic folklorist, I have always maintained that filmmakers are actually documenting themselves when they shoot “others” (Sherman 1998). MacDonald’s connection between the ethnographic and the personal documentary is a fitting and eloquent book topic that draws attention to the blurring of lines between filmic categories and styles. This book may also explain what ethnographic film is in a manner that speaks to an educated public. While writing this review, I found myself asking colleagues who were not in film studies or anthropology what they thought about ethnographic film. It was an unknown concept to them. I am optimistic that MacDonald’s book will enlighten them.