Ethnographic Film-making: History, Techniques, and Ethics

Ethnographic film-making has been an essential element of visual anthropology. It helps in providing a record and a substance of more authenticity to the various field works conducted by the anthropologists. Robert Flaherty, one of the pioneers of the concept, has stated that the ethnographic element in a film can be achieved in multiple ways; which is sequentially elaborated in this article. This essay firstly highlights the historical context and trajectory of the ethnographic film-making. Besides this, it takes into account the differences that the ethnographic method share with the other branches of film-making like documentaries, short films etc. The article also looks at the different techniques that can be employed by the Ethnographic film-makers which ranges from choosing an apt location of the film to the background music of the scenes. It also ranges from selecting the customs and traditions that one wants to shoot to the rules of ethics that need to be followed. In addition to these, this essay also shares with the readers, illustrations of different iconic ethnographic films produced by the pioneers of those era.

Mastering Ethnographic Film-making: History, Techniques, and Ethics


Visual anthropology is a branch of anthropology, which employs visual representation as a means of research methods. For example- Photographs, Documentaries, video interviews etc. Similarly, Ethnographic Film-making is one of the ways of its representation. This branch of visual anthropology mainly encompasses the non-fictional films and its peculiarity lies in editing the live-action shots which later on gets converted into a centrally narrative film. Such ways of representations were historically used by the Western anthropologists for explicitly highlighting the socio-cultural features of the Non-western community. For example- the portrayal of the daily lives of the Inuits and the hardships faced by Nanook and his wife, Nyla to nourish their children in the Canadian Arctic was shown in the film ‘Nanook of the North’ directed by Robert Flaherty. Besides these, the significance of such Ethnographic Film-making also lies in providing a record of the field work conducted by the anthropologists, which later on could be used for further contemplations. It also helps in highlighting the different cultures, traditions, customs etc. of different tribes and communities living in distant parts of the world, which further is used for doing comparative analysis and helps in understanding the lifestyles, economic behaviour, socio-cultural understanding of the featured people.

Historical Background:

According to Karl Heider, one of the pioneers of anthropology, the history of the Ethnographic films traces itself back to the 19th century. However, it was the period between 1920s and 60s, that these visual manifestations gained momentum. The factors which helped the promotion of Ethnographic films were the availability of the synchronous sound-film instruments and mobile videotape recorders with a large capacity of recording. These equipments provided the film-makers with a new realm of creativity as now they didn’t have to stress much upon background narration or other ways of sound editing. Besides these, the aforementioned period witnessed enormous recognition of the fieldwork in anthropology. All these aspects combined together created an ample space for ethnographic research in the mainstream of visual anthropology. The establishment of ethnography became more profound with the publications of Radcliffe Brown’s Andaman Islanders, Brownislaw Malinowski’s work ‘Argonauts of the Western Pacific’, Margaret Mead’s research on Samoan Island etc. However, it is believed that Robert Flaherty’s film ‘Nanook of the North’ (1922) set a landmark in the trajectory of visual representations. Following these, films like Grass (1925), Chronicles of a Summer (1960), Dead Birds, Bathing Babies, Trance and Dance in Bali (1951) etc. set a subtle base for the growth of ethnography in a film. The Netsilik Eskimos Project of Pelly Bay in Canada, which was the largest reconstruction project, played a huge role in setting the base for the Ethnographic film-making.

Pioneers of the ethnographic film-making

The elements of ethnography was introduced gradually in the course of film-making and it was the result of efforts put in by a lot of great anthropologists of those times. Robert J. Flaherty was considered to be the ‘Forefather of the Ethnographic Film-making’. His film ‘Nanook of the North’ (1922) was the landmark in the early 20s. The work of Felix-Louis Regnault of shooting the unique process of pottery-making by a Wolof woman and Baldwin Spencer’s recording of daily chores of  Australian Aborigines, was commendable as it highlighted the explicitly mundane and implicitly basic works of the Aborigines. One of the pioneers of the visual anthropology, Margaret Mead who took nearly 200 photographs of the Samoan Islands and then along with her husband, Gregory Bateson, extended her visual methods to record people in Bali and New Guinea which accounted to nearly 33,000 photographs as the record of her fieldwork. Mead and Bateson were labelled to be the first anthropologists who considered films to be the part of anthropological research. Later on, Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin filmed ‘Chronicle of a Summer’ where they used 16 mm cameras and a synchronous sound equipment. They introduced a new technique of ‘intrusion of the film-makers’ in the film which created more impact. Rouch and Morin focussed mainly on actor’s behaviours, reactions and emotions in their film. Then, John Marshall’s film ‘An argument about a marriage’ was another landmark work as it shifted the focus from capturing individual’s behaviour to complex social networks. Similarly, Robert Gardner’s ‘Dead Birds’ and Timothy Asch’s ‘The Feast’ used techniques like outside team onscreening, showing the final films to the actors, carrying elements of visual suspense, limited narration etc. All these works helped in the institutionalization and bureaucratization of the ethnographic film-making in the year 1963.

Ethnographic Films Vs Documentaries

The Ethnographic films and documentaries though share similarities in their characteristics like being non-fictional in genre, but there lies ample differences in their techniques of filming.

Ethnographic films focus on capturing raw reality rather than looking for sound, narration, aesthetics or a larger technological use. The filmic event to capture is decided after doing an extensive research by the ethnographers and they comparatively spend more time with their subjects in order to have a good rapport with them. For example- For filming, the ‘Chronicle of a Summer’, Rouch spent an year with his subjects. However, the documentary style of film-making may not follow such a pattern. In documentaries, filmmakers may imaginatively recreate filmic events till it conforms the historical facts; but in ethnographic films social truth is the acceptable principle. Documentaries are made with the purpose to highlight certain event, trend or an issue but Ethnographic film-making are largely focused on socio-cultural themes which had been parochialized historically. Due to the differences in their purpose of filming events , documentaries focus on ‘highlighting facts’, however ethnographic films provide a bird’s eye view of the event. Some examples of popular documentaries are ‘Bowling for Columbine’ , ‘Paris is Burning’ , ‘Man with a Movie Camera’ etc. and that of Ethnographic films are ‘Forest of Bliss’ by Robert Gardner, ‘Leviathan’ produced by Verena Paravel etc.

Different modes of Ethnographic films

According to Bill Nichols, there are six different modes of Ethnographic films. These are-

  • Poetic Mode: It was introduced in the 1920s and it is considered to be abstract in nature as it showcases the metaphorical versions of reality. For example- Tears in a film can be showcased using raindrops, speed could be shown using the movement of leaves nearby. Films like ‘Glas’ by Bill Haanstra showcases the same.
  • Expository Mode: This mode got popularity in 1920s and it was mostly used in depicting biographies and science documentaries. It is referred to as the ‘Voice of God’ commentary as usage of background narration is the peculiar feature here. Such mode heavily relies on logic and tone of authority. Example- The Spanish Earth (1937) by Ernest Hemmingway.
  • Observational Mode: The availability of 16mm cameras and magnetic tape recorders made it popular in the year 1960s. It is characterized by no music or indirect narrations, longer takes and usage of synchronous sound. Filmmakers generally adopt ‘fly on the wall’ approach as they believe that small camera and tape recorders are non-intrusive while shooting a sequence. They largely focus on reviving a lived experience as shown in the film ‘New Boys’ by David MacDougall.
  • Participatory Documentary: It gained popularity in the 1960s when fieldwork gained enormous recognition in anthropology. Here, the film-makers participated themselves in the film and interview their subjects. Portrayal of good rapport-building is all conspicuous in this mode. The Cinema Verite Movement which acknowledges the employing of camera in a scene without influencing the stylized interaction of the filmmaker and the filmed is clearly visible here. For example – Chronicle of a Summer by Jean Rouch.
  • Reflexive Mode: In this mode, an explicit form of negotiation is shown between the filmmaker and the audience. Here, audience plays an important role as they have to jar themselves out of the zone of comfort and rethink about the film as a construct. For example – The Man with a Movie Camera by Dziga Vertov.
  • Performative Mode: This mode connects the stemming and shaping up of knowledge to one’s personal experiences. The influencing of filmic events owing to one’s memory and the emotional complexity; is a marked feature here. This mode employs emotions to understand our surroundings. Here, the film-maker may himself act as the subject of the film. For example- Nick Broomfield’s film ‘Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer’.

Attributes of the ethnographic films:

Suitable Camera angles: There are two types of shots which one can take. There are static shots and dynamic shots, depending upon the position and the movement of camera. A few type of shots which are often seen in ethnographic films are

Extremely close up– It focuses on the critical detailing’s of a micro area.

Close up– It is mainly used to show facial expressions and emotions.

Medium close up– It is also called ‘Head and Shoulder Shot’ as it encompasses both in the frame.

Medium shot– It is framed till the waist level of an individual and captures bodily activities of the actor.

Medium long shot– It covers three quarter of an individual thereby also known as ‘three quarter shot’.

Long shot– It covers the entire background of the sequence.

Extremely long shot– Here, background tends to be more significant than the actor.

Eye-level shot– It is a normal shot taken by a camera.

High-angle shot– It is used to give the impression that an individual is looking at a smaller element in a downward direction.

Low-angle shot– It is used when an individual looks at a tall element.

Bird’s eye view shot– It is called an ‘Overhead Shot’ as camera is placed at the right angle (90°) above the subject.

Worm’s eye view shot- It gives an impression that an element is being looked at by the worm’s lens.

Appropriate Sound: The appropriateness of sound establishes a connection between the visual and the aural. Filmmakers use synchronous sound, non-synchronous sound, dubbing, narration of ‘added information’ or narration catering to ‘visual relevancy’. However, the filmmakers need to be careful with the narration as it sometimes leads to information redundancy and information overloading. The pitch, frequency and beat of the sound must be in sync with the visual display. For example- In the film ‘Glas’, it’s only through the changes in the frequency and musical beats that the entire process of glass-making is shown.

Besides that, contextualisation in the Ethnographic films are extremely important. For example- In films like ‘Trance and Dance in Bali’ and ‘The Bathing Babies’ by Margaret Mead are best illustrations of cultural and the behavioural contextualisations. It is clearly based on the explicit theory of social function and stability. Elements of cultural relativity was also shown in it. In addition to these, every ethnographic film must supplement the texts as Margaret Mead took nearly 33,000 photographs to substantiate her work. In the ethnographic film, proper sequencing needs to be present marking the beginning, the peak and the end. The concept of smooth depiction of acts within the acts, the clear portrayal of different angles, the decoding of various ethical questions and selectivity in terms of being objective or subjective; all these marks the features of the ethnographic film.

Ethical challenges:

According to Pauline Spiegel, the question of ethics is always involved in the making of Ethnographic films. Historically, anthropologists used to get the label of being the ‘honorary member’ of the community which they were shooting but later on, such rules got changed as the film-makers, without taking consent of the subjects, filmed them. MacDougall’s article on ‘Whose Story is it?’ highlights the flexibility of boundaries of negotiation that exists between the filmmaker and his subjects. Often it is observed that due to the commercial pressures and the lack of self-censorship, the film-makers often defeat the purpose of ethnography. For example- The Netsilik Eskimo Project which was the largest reconstruction project of the 20th century, never got completed due to the commercial pressures. Pauline Spiegel, in his work ‘The Case of a Well-Mannered Guest’ stated that the film-maker shall maintain a balanced position between being victorious to the position of intimacy that has been granted to them as well as the position of stranger in order to avoid the personal biases and prejudices. However, it is the obligation of the filmmakers to avoid any kind of misinterpretation, exploitation and abuse of their subjects and promote stylistic conservatism between them.

Relevance of Ethnographic Films:

With the technological advances in the equipments of shooting and editing, films are relatively easy to make. From 16mm camera to 35mm camera of rangefinders, point and shoot and single lens reflex to sound recorders recording high frequency diegetic sound has made the film-making an important tool for spreading awareness, preserving culture and for social stability. In the contemporary times, the Ethnographic films and documentaries share a blurred line of difference. The documentaries on cultural heritage sites or depiction of War period etc.; all comes under the shade of ethnographic films. Historically it was limited only to the professional film-makers, but now this realm is open for all to realize and capture the ethnography in the world around them. With ethnographic films, a coherent contextualisation takes place which results in better understanding of other’s cultures and avoid misinterpretations of any form. Though these films are bounded by the scope of time and space, but it is always open for further considerations and future contemplations.


To conclude, ethnographic films have been a profound methodology of research in the visual anthropological field. It not only helps in finding the covert cultures but also tends to universalise them. Ethnography in a film is a complex of reality, ethics, balanced attributes and depiction of filmic events. The role of the film-makers, their relationship with the audience and the subjects, the extent to which the visual supplements the text; all these elements influence and shape the trajectory of the ethnographic films. Thus, the film-makers shall be extremely tactful in dealing with these highly malleable domains.


Ethnographic films(2014).

Heider, Karl G. ‘The Attributes of Ethnographic Film’. In Ethnographic Film, Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006. Pp. 50-109.

Jacknis, I. (1988). Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson in Bali: Their Use of Photography and Film. American Anthropological Association. pp. 160-177.

MacDougall, ‘Whose Story is it?’ In Visual Anthropology Review, Volume 7, Issue 2, Pp. 2–10, September 1991

Nichols, Bill. ‘What types of Documentary are there?’ In Introduction to Documentary. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001. Pp. 99-137.

Spiegel, Pauline, ‘The Case of the WellMannered Guest’ in The Independent Film and Video Monthly, April 1984. Pp. 1517

Visual Anthropology and Ethnographic Film.

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Pushpanjali is a Sociology student at Miranda House with a keen interest in reading fictional novels, discerning aesthetics within the ordinary, and expressing her complex emotions through writing. She is dedicated to championing various facets of feminism and is committed to leveraging her viewpoints to effect positive change in society.