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02 November 2010

Questions of Voice in Documentary Filmmaking

The following is the introduction to an essay by Jay Ruby. This is a dilemma documentary filmmakers are faced with all the time:

by Jay Ruby

Visual Anthropology Review Fall 1991 Volume 7 Number 2
Note - original pagination has been preserved for citations purposes.
The Passenger, Michelangelo Antonioni's 1975 film is about a documentarian making a film about a national liberation front in an unspecified north African country. Mr. Locke, played by Jack Nicholson, tries to interview a rebel leader and has the following conversation:

Locke: Yesterday when we filmed you at the village, I understood that you were brought up to
be a witch doctor. Isn't that unusual for someone like you to have spent several years in France
and Yugoslavia? Has that changed your attitude towards certain tribal customs? Don't they
strike you as false now and wrong perhaps for the tribe?

Native: Mr. Locke. There are perfectly satisfactory answers to all your questions. But I don't
think you understand how little you can learn from them. Your questions are much more
revealing about yourself than my answer would be about me.

Locke: I meant them quite sincerely.

Native: Mr. Locke. We can have a conversation, but only if it is not just what you think is
sincere but also what I believe to be honest (emphasis mine).

Locke: Yes, of course, but...

The rebel leader now turns the camera around so that
Locke is centered in the frame.

Native: Now, we can have an interview. You can ask me the same questions as before.

Questions of voice, authority, and authorship have become a serious concern among documentary filmmakers and anthropologists. Who can represent someone else, with what intention, in what "language," and in what environment is a conundrum that characterizes the postmodern era. In this essay, I explore some of the responses to these problems by focusing on the relationship between documentary/ethnographic filmmakers and the people they film-in particular, the development of cooperative, collaborative and subject-generated films. The social, political and epistemological implications of filmmakers sharing or relinquishing their power is discussed.

The construction of the argument presented here is a consequence of my identity as an anthropologist interested in pictorial media as a means of producing culture. I find thinking about visual images as socially constructed communicative forms to be productive and the work of Sol Worth (1981), Larry Gross (1988), Howard Becker (1982), John Berger (1972, 1980), Faye Ginsberg (1989, 1991), and Alan Sekula (1978) useful.

Cooperatively produced and subject-generated films are significant because they represent an approach to documentary and ethnographic films dissimilar to the dominant practice. They offer the possibility of perceiving the world from the viewpoint of the people who lead lives that are different from those traditionally in control of the means for imaging the world. Subject-generated films and video are a tool used by some disenfranchised people in their efforts to negotiate a new cultural identity. For other indigenous and minority producers, making movies and television is a way into the profits and power of the established order. These films challenge our assumptions about the nature of documentary and ethnographic films and potentially offer us insight into the role of culture in the "language" of film. For the sake of brevity, I will use the term "documentary film" to stand for both documentary and ethnographic cinema for
the remainder of the essay.

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