copyright 2016, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut
, No. 57, fall 2016

Are personal documentaries also ethnographic films?

review by Sharon R. Sherman

Scott MacDonald, American Ethnographic Film and Personal Documentary: The Cambridge Turn (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013), 415 pages.

How might one conceptualize ethnographic documentaries and personal documentaries in the same genre? In his book, American Ethnographic Film and Personal Documentary: The Cambridge Turn, author Scott MacDonald provides a viewpoint and examples that demonstrate just how personal ethnographic films become for those who make them. How were these filmmakers affected from being in the field and how did ethnographers recognize that they were documenting themselves at the same time they were documenting “Others?”

Supposedly focusing on “primitive” or “pre-industrial” cultures, early ethnographic filmmakers went outside their own borders to bring us a window into a world relatively hidden from modernization, a world they believed was in a process of transition. “Get it quickly, before it’s gone” was the underlying premise. Margaret Mead fueled the idea that learning about other cultures, documenting them before they disappeared, was a worthy and urgent task that would teach us to learn more about ourselves and the human condition. MacDonald echoes that sentiment:

“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.”

MacDonald begins the first section of his book addressing the films of three well-known ethnographic documentarians who conducted what became “salvage ethnography” and acquired filmic notoriety in the process. These influential filmmakers are John Marshall, Robert Gardner and Tim Asch. Their overlapping careers extended from the 1950s to the 2000s (Asch died in 1994). They worked on each other’s films (sometimes for sound, other times for editing) and were part of a close-knit circle whose most active work occurred during the 1960s and 70s. Almost all of the filmmakers MacDonald discusses have worked in Cambridge, Massachusetts, either at MIT’s Film Section or Harvard’s Film Study Center (and its Sensory Ethnography Lab).

MacDonald also mentions other filmmakers if the connection to Cambridge exists. For example, two other well-known Cambridge film teams who receive some recognition are Frederik Wiseman, famed for his documentation of institutions and his use of observational cinema; and the Drew Associates, a group initially put together by Drew to document the Democratic party’s Wisconsin campaign between Hubert Humphrey and John F. Kennedy for President of the United States for the ground-breaking verité film Primary (1960).

Historically, these filmmakers cannot be ignored because of their significance in the development of cinema verité, direct cinema, or observational cinema (all terms dependent upon the viewer, theorist, or filmmaker). MacDonald uses the term “observational cinema,” following that chosen by Bill Nichols. One could argue about these terms, insisting that cinema verité refers to the filmic style of Jean Rouch, direct cinema to North American films, and observational cinema to a term used most often by Colin Young at UCLA; but MacDonald makes it clear that these differences are minimal and semantic. The irony is that many of the first ethnographic films do not fall into any verité category.

For MacDonald, the films of those in Cambridge, prior to the personal documentary, do not merit the in-depth analysis and description he gives to the films of those who documented non-Western cultures. Such films are often not verité in any way. For example, Dead Birds (1963) by Robert Gardner is not in sync sound, one of the hallmarks of the new cinema style, but it is certainly ethnographic. In addition, U.S. projects coming out of Los Angeles from UCLA’s ethnographic film program or USC’s Center for Visual Anthropology are also rarely part of MacDonald’s story. For example, Tim Asch conducted work in Cambridge and then from 1983 to 1994 went on to teach numerous students who worked with him at USC. Of course, all of these developments occurred later. The creation of the Film Study Center at Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology was established early in academia, in 1958. Thus MacDonald’s focus seems quite appropriate. Today, programs in Visual Anthropology exist in institutions from Temple University to New York University to San Diego State, among many others in the U.S., and also internationally in such locations as Australia, Berlin, Peru, Barcelona and the University of British Columbia.

Because this book concentrates on Cambridge filmmakers, MacDonald begins his tale with that of John Marshall, rather than the usual device of documentary film historians opening with Flaherty. Marshall and his family went to the Kalahari Desert on numerous expeditions, most of which were sponsored by the Peabody Museum of Harvard University, and the Smithsonian. Family members documented aspects of San, aka !Kung Bushmen, aka Ju/’hoansi life in various forms. John’s mother, Lorna, created First Film (1951), edited by John; and both Lorna and Elizabeth, John’s sister, wrote ethnographies. Their overall objective was to document one of the last remaining groups of hunter-gather societies. One of their underlying premises, unstated, is that of cultural evolution. To discover what one’s own society was like in an earlier age, study other people living a more primitive life (Tylor, 1871). What might we learn from societies considered to be living our past in the present? Once in such cultures, anthropologists quickly discarded this notion, recognizing that people are more similar than different and each society is unique unto itself. Nevertheless, in her film Lorna explains that the people of the Kalahari are living a Stone Age existence.

The films produced by the Marshalls, especially those created by John, are now famous examples of the documentation of one culture in depth. The most notable of these films is The Hunters (1957). Four hunters embark upon a two-week journey to kill a giraffe for food. Seen as ethnographic “truth,” the story unfolds in the editing room. The footage was shot on several forays and edited to appear as one hunt. Robert Gardner, who assisted with editing, said he wanted to select “the major emphasis and outline for any culture” in his films, especially, in this society of “men as hunters” (1957:351). The romanticized notion of people who had to hunt to survive was not actually true since the !Kung had become gatherers. The film’s representation of hunting as an activity is accurate, although its emphasis on hunting as subsistence is not. Karl Heider declared, “although the film is ethnographically faulty of the role of hunting in Bushmen life, its portrayal of the hunting itself remains unimpeached” (1976:32). Thus the narration and editing display a distortion of representing a “disappearing culture.”

Unlike MacDonald, I find the narration irritating. MacDonald explains that Marshall is initially following the “voice of G-d” narrators of his time period, but then transforms into evocative description:

“Once he has provided some context for what will become his focus on the hunters—the distinction between women’s gathering work and men’s hunting, the process through which boys become hunters, the poison that allows the !Kung arrows to kill large animals—the nature of Marshall’s narration turns increasingly literary and evocative not merely of earlier films and Nanook but of epic literature.” (25)

The narration is sometimes “mythic” for MacDonald. Other viewers have a different impression. Because the film was shot without sync sound, it relies on a narration that overemphasizes the obvious. Thus statements such as “they ate and ate and ate” spoken over visuals of the men eating insult the viewers’ intelligence (Sherman 1998:37).

That John Marshall’s films are significant is unquestionable. Marshall’s own sense of The Hunters as “artistic” (an approach which Marshall’s father did not like) led him to revisit the large quantity of footage he had originally shot. In his films that followed, he presented close-ups of interactions and, along with Tim Asch, created “sequence filming.” One overarching theme, such as hunting, could not be emblematic of an entire culture. Small sequences allow us to see the people as individuals and learn how they cope with life’s complexities. The films become windows into aspects of people’s lives rather than displays of so-called “primitive” or “exotic” people. MacDonald handles this saga well, describing other films and TV shows about the people of the Kalahari, as well as Marshall’s production of eleven films with the Pittsburgh police department and his role as the cameraman for Wiseman’s Titicut Follies (1967), a portrayal of the horrific conditions at the State Hospital for the Criminally Insane in Bridgewater, Massachusetts.

Those familiar with Marshall’s films may not have read Marshall’s written materials or interviews. MacDonald presents the backstory of the Marshalls’ awareness of the impact they had on the society they studied. Constructing roads to get into the San area, the Marshalls inadvertently led others to find and eventually destroy a way of life. The Bushmen become known by their representation in the fictional feature film The Gods Must Be Crazy (1984). Marshall includes a segment of the filmmakers telling the Bushmen how to act like themselves in N!ai: The Story of a !Kung Woman (1980), a film that includes footage of N!ai from childhood to the present. As MacDonald explains, Marshall’s view of the Kalahari lifestyle is Edenic, and this film is perhaps one of Marshall’s greatest accomplishments.

After a twenty-year absence (caused by the government of South Africa who refused him a visa), Marshall returns to find that his friends have been overrun by a reservation. They were taken from their lands as forced labor; some joined the army to earn a living. Starvation and thirst have decimated those trying to return to their homeland areas. Both N!ai and Marshall explain the present day situation. Marshall realizes that his youth and the beauty recorded in the 1950s are another Eden now lost. Marshall goes back to his earlier footage, creates a number of films or re-uses footage to see what might have already begun to occur in the earlier decades. Both he and the !Kung Bushmen have evolved, for better or worse. To the Marshall family’s great credit, they try to make life better for those now living in a squalid and difficult situation by creating a foundation that not only puts in place a water pump, but also convinces people to return to their own lands to learn to farm and raise cattle. The five-part TV series, A Kalahari Family (2002), recalls many of the changes, and Marshall incorporates his own experiences as part of the story. MacDonald explains,

“For Marshall, filmmaking was an ongoing pragmatic process that went well beyond learning enough to produce films that audiences might feel they were learning from. He himself continued to engage the people he had filmed and had made films about, and as his awareness expanded, he rethought the earlier conclusions about them that were evident in those films and demonstrated this revised understanding in new work.” (59)

Many viewers, especially students, see only the iconic films, The Hunters and N!ai: The Story of a !Kung Woman. The larger story remains generally untold. Those studying Marshall’s film collection will learn much from MacDonald’s carefully detailed account of the other films:

“Marshall’s achievement as a film artist is fully evident only to those who have experienced films and videos about the Ju/’hoansi and have understood them as a single ever-evolving meta-work.” (59)

Pragmatism underscores MacDonald’s discussion throughout the book. All films are presented on multiple levels: the experiences filmed, the filmmakers’ process, and the audience’s spectatorship. Rather than presenting “facts” to viewers, the filmmakers’ commitment to “lived experience” includes the shooting and editing of the film, so that we, as the viewers, respond to what we see the subjects experiencing. As MacDonald points out, the filmmaker’s experience may be left implicit or made explicit. For Marshall, the “lived experience” of both the San and the Marshall family demonstrates how filmmakers learn from filmmaking and how we perceive what they present to us. If we were to only see Gardner’s Dead Birds or Marshall’s The Hunters, that premise is lost. Because MacDonald provides the links to this lived experience, the reader is privy to seeing beyond the frame.

MacDonald’s chapter on Gardner is similar to his presentation of the Marshalls’ films. Unlike the Marshalls’ concentration on one culture, Gardner filmed in many different locations. He wanted to express the artistry of film and of culture. Gardner made some short films in the Pacific Northwest, but these films are less well known than his later ones. Dead Birds (1963) was shot in a watershed period before portable sync sound and color film became commonplace in documentary. It is a feature-length film about the Dani of New Guinea that became Gardner’s signature film for many years. He was part of an expedition, from which various materials emerged, including the book Under the Garden Wall by Peter Matthiessen (1962), and another film about the Dani produced by Karl Heider. Dead Birds was later studied along with these supplementary materials.

Shown over and over in anthropology classes, Dead Birds became the subject of much controversy. Because it was not in sync sound, Gardner narrated. What viewers and academics found presumptuous was Gardner’s voice telling audiences what some of the people in the film were thinking, especially the two main characters whose lives become symbolic of the whole. These persons, Wejak, a warrior, and Pua, a young swineherd, become Gardner’s biographical models, much like Flaherty’s use of Nanook. In Dead Birds’ narrative structure, ritual warfare is the “essential” theme Gardner chooses, and the events in the film underscore that premise. Gardner uses montage, much like Vertov, to build emotion. Like Marshall’s The Hunters, Dead Birds is structured and edited to make audiences reach Gardner’s conclusions. Gardner has explained,

“I seized the opportunity of speaking to certain fundamental issues in human life. The Dani were then less important to me than those issues” (1972:34).

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 little mentioned 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.

MacDonald, as noted above, takes up the tales of many other filmmakers, some as notable as Leacock. Known for Monterey Pop (1968) and his role with Drew Associates, readers will find that Leacock influenced a whole new generation of filmmakers when he taught at MIT’s Film Section. An entire book could easily be devoted to his dedication to observational cinema and his impact, and indeed many books about cinema verité include extensive material on Leacock.

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.


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Barbash, Ilisa, and Lucien Castaing-Taylor. 1997. Cross Cultural Filmmaking: A Handbook for Making Documentary and Ethnographic Films and Videos. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Chagnon, Napoleon. 1968. Yanomamö: The Fierce People. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Gardner, Robert. 1957. “Anthropology and Film.” Daedalus 86: 344-52.

_______. 1972. “On the Making of Dead Birds.” In The Dani of West Irian: An Ethnographic Companion to the film “Dead Birds,” ed. Karl G. Heider, 31-35. New York: Warner Modular.

Georges, Robert A., and Michael Owen Jones. 1980. People Studying People. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Heider, Karl. 1976. Ethnographic Film. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Leacock, Richard. Valerie LaLonde, ed., 2012. The Feeling of Being There: A Filmmaker’s Memoir. Meaulne: Semeïon Editions.

Matthiessen, Peter. 1962. Under the Mountain Walls: A Chronicle of Two Seasons in the Stone Age. New York: Viking.

Pincus, Edward, and Steven Ascher. 1984 (first ed.). The Filmmaker’s Handbook. New York: New American Library.

Ruby, Jay. 1991. “An Anthropological Critique of the Films of Robert Gardner.” Journal of Film and Video 43: 3-17.

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