Ethnography of the 'Self' in Video of the Villages

Video in the Villages Presents Itself (A Preview)

This is a preview of a documentary film about “Video in the Villages Project”, a project founded in 1987 to introduce film-making to indigenous peoples in Brazil, primarily in the Amazon where they are concentrated, to produce ethnographic videos or documentaries for their own purposes.

I found this particularly interesting as it was a white Brazilian independent filmmaker (Vincent Carelli) who started this project, with the aim of providing indigenous Amazonian Indians a platform for self-representation, to finally confront the white Brazilians and their often negative representations of (and racism towards) the Indians.

This film, which is filmed and directed by Carelli in collaboration with a native filmmaker Mari Corrêa, points out certain purposes of ethnographic/documentary filmmaking held by the native Indians. While these points are based on filmmaking, I find that they are useful in understanding the motives behind and advantages of ethnography in general.

1. To record traditional practices, e.g. festivals, rituals, dances, so that they will not be lost in time.
From the film, this seems like a main purpose of filmmaking by the Indian natives – “They like to see themselves.” While such films can be done by foreign ethnographers or filmmakers, I find that native representations may be better for such purposes as not only do they have the knowledge of what is important in what is being filmed – i.e. they will know what to take note of and to capture – but they are also familiar with the people being filmed. This familiarity can be an advantage in terms of being allowed to capture something that may otherwise not be accessible to an outsider, e.g. sacred rituals. In my opinion, it also reduces the problem (although not completely in the case of someone carrying a camera) of the “observer effect”, i.e. changes in the behavior of those observed due to the awareness of being observed. These points are also applicable, I feel, to written ethnography.

2. To share cultural practices with other native groups.
“They also like to see the culture of other peoples. They begin to understand the culture of peoples of other regions through video.” For this particular purpose, film is highly apt as “pictures speak a thousand words” and images transcend language barriers between different peoples.

3. To challenge negative stereotypes and representations of themselves by the “whites”.
From the film, it appears that the natives view that majority of the whites have misunderstood them – i.e. they do not agree with the way they are being represented by the white Brazilians. I find this a particular important aspect of native ethnography, as one problem about ethnography is that it is mostly premised on the observations and interpretations of the (often Western) ethnographer – and it is inevitable that his/her own cultural values and beliefs will have some influence over what he/she sees, records and analyses.

Therefore, native ethnography, carried out by people who have the knowledge of who and what they are observing, can therefore challenge or support traditional ethnography. While of course it does bring in problems as raised by yummycheese here, I would argue that native and traditional ethnography are both useful as complementary points of view that positively add to the field of anthropology/ethnography.

More information about Video in the Villages can be found here.

The source of the above YouTube video,here, also has many interesting previews of ethnographic videos, including some of the Ju/’hoansi/!Kung San, which may be useful in providing a visual aid to complement the Richard Lee text. Enjoy!

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