Anthropological and linguistics articles from University of Western Australia

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Indigenous filmmakers...strictures 2005 Western Australia

Anthropology of Media 150.239

Essay #2


September 24 2005

Now that we are becoming more like the whites, however, we are going to need to watch these videos we are making of ourselves. Mokuka, Kayapo Leader 1991 (Turner, pg. 167).

Turner’s statement that “an indigenous video maker operates with the same set of cultural categories, notions & representations, principles of mimesis, aesthetic values & notions of what is socially & politically important as those whose actions he or she is recording” should be looked at in the specific context of his studies of the Kayapo in Brazil, and also be extended to a broader notion of indigenous filmmakers in general.

Embedded in Turner’s statement is a comparison with non indigenous documentation. He is saying that indigenous people share a cultural schema that allows them to film, interpret and focus differently than non indigenous filmmakers. It would be good to write a history of colonial photography here, but for lack of space in such a short essay, suffice it to say that colonial representation has been until recently one of hidden cameras and photographs of ‘other’ and has been marked with racism so characteristic of early 20th century Eurocentered filmmaking. (Edwards 1992, Scherer 1990).

The question for any anthropologist in interpreting or recording visual representation must be to determine what the meaning of a particular design or motif is. Who is the person in the photograph? Why was this photograph taken of this particular person, and then kept by that particular person? Turner’s statement suggests that these questions are answered best by someone who shares the same cultural schema, and that therefore an ‘outsider’ could never know these things, or better said, would not know them in the same way. (Banks, 1996).

…. aesthetic values and notions…Anthony Shelton’s writing about the Huichol people of northwest Mexico certainly supports Turner in his statement that the aesthetic is understood almost exclusively by other indigenous people, and that art is so bound by rituals that embody Huichol cosmology and value systems, that a non-indigenous person would be at a complete loss to interpret them accurately. (Shelton, 1992).

Turner is also saying that visual representation is more in consonance with the culture one is recording if one comes from that culture oneself.. There is in fact, widespread criticism from Aboriginal people on non indigenous filmmaking methods about close- ups on faces and fast cuts are not used by indigenous filmmakers, who prefer whole body and whole scenes (McDougall 54). Non indigenous filmmaking methods are often incongruous to indigenous people. Indigenous people, for example, never hide cameras, and they always allow the subjects to know they are being filmed. (Banks, 1995). Just for interest’s sake, I’d like to include an email I recently received from a non-indigenous filmmaker, David Dring. David’s film, Customary Law, was screened on TV in 2004. Here is the content of the email:

Thanks Marciah, interesting notion...academics always have a way with perception...or perceiving. True, a lot of indigenous people resent the intrusion, however if one has an insight, understanding, respect and shares similar aims quite often the non-indigenous and indigenous issue is overlooked. In this context the colour is 'blurred' because of the same sharing of values ie an greater awareness of social justice where we all live together as 'one'. An idealised notion but definitely not the 'noble savage' image bandied around in some notable Anthropologist works. In the instance of working with the Mowanjum people and Elders my own aspirations of 'film-making' and story were abandoned on arrival in Broome and I found myself presenting a story that had in some way 'found' me. The Elders had a message to present and an important one at that. I may have mentioned when asking an old man if he knew so and so and he turned to look up and said yes, that's me. He was the chief spokesperson for the story a group of Elders who wanted to present a story on Customary Lore.
In terms of rapport and filming from a certain angle, perspective, relating to culture; true we will never have their view of reality/dreaming because we are non-indigenous but certainly it doesn't stop us from being interested and recording a fascinating culture. A lot of people complain about the exotic notion film-makers present and I agree. They are sick and tired of being used or 'their names' being used to profit broadcasters and international tv stations. Personally I often have a conflict with documentaries undertaken that are purely profit and without the true consent of those people involved and their respective communities. Much of the time the whole Aboriginal issue is misrepresented by tv. True Westerners are intent on making a buck and this philosophy is a stark contrast from the indigenous caring of land and family. And Indigenous filmmakers are the 'true' representation of culture in a politically correct sense but in a free world where expression is not restricted and if given the opportunity - one isn't given the opportunity lightly- filmmakers will seize an opportunity to share a story and be part of the creative process and their incredible world philosophy - who wouldn't. Thanks Marciah....will catch up soon....I am planning a barbecue. Say hi to all. David.

David Dring’s position is in contrast to Turner’s position, but does re-state some of Turner’s premises about cultural notions, cultural schema, and cultural representation.

Turner’s statement alludes to this reality when he talks about’cultural catagories’ and mimetic procedures. For example, attention to landscape and ‘real time’ shooting is common in Warlpiri video production. Eric Michaels proposes that such techniques of filmmaking are directly linked to the way that Warlpiri relate to the land. (Michaels, 1988). Eric Michaels also believes that video and television intrude into the Aboriginal community at Yuendumu to a far greater extent than other discourses--greater potential force than guns or grog or paternalism ( Michaels, 1988 )


“notions and representation” What are the notions to which Turner alludes? There are notions of politics of representation, authenticity and the scripting and inventing of social identity by indigenous people. There are notions about where members of the indigenous community view videos (eg town houses owned by chiefs or leaders) and what the significance of that is. There are notions of what the video equipment itself means, and who can use it and why. All these things are embedded in Turner’s statement. (Meadows, 1989).

Turner uses the illustration of a 17 year old filmmaker, a native of the Kayapo village where a naming ceremony is performed. The indigenous filmmaker is able to capture the sequential order, uniformity of movement and spatial trajectory for a naming ceremony, something that a non indigenous filmmaker (according to Turner) would not have been able to represent fully. (Ginsberg, 1997).

One Aboriginal critic suggests that it is because indigenous people prefer to see ‘whole bodies and whole events’ (MacDougall 54). Attention to landscape and ‘real time’ shooting is common in Warlpiri video production. Eric Michaels proposes that such techniques of filmmaking are directly linked to the way that Warlpiri relate to the land. (Michaels, 1988)

...“principles ofmemesis”… Turner’s example of Kayapo Indians making videos of historic encounters and internal political events illustrates that the already existing mimetic tradition (recording the entrance into a new village, appointing of a chief etc) lends itself perfectly to video reproduction, and that once again, his statement that the cultural schema is already collaborative would hold true. (Turner, 1992). Taussig’s (1993 ) concept of mimesis as a transformative and revelatory power that transforms the original by creating a new version that reveals the truth or ‘inner logic’ of the original would support Turner in his statement. Is this process best done by an indigenous person? Turner says yes.

“the indigenous video maker draws upon his or her own cultural categories and forms to guide the camera work and editing process…” (turner, p. 171) Turner’s usage of the 17 year old video maker in a naming ceremony who focuses on the repetition of the dance steps, the location of the tribe, trajectory. kinship representation illustrates that the social form is made more perfect, or more authentic, by a member of the village, and implies that this same representation could not have occurred with a non indigenous video maker.

He states that Kayapo share a sense of what is beautiful, what is social and what is moral.

His example is very similar to the work of Anthony Shelton, in his writing of Wisconsin Chippawa. (Shelton, 2003).

Turner’s statement suggests that indigenous filmmakers have an innate understanding of the socio-political conditions of their subjects. That is, Aboriginal people would best understand issues concerning aboriginal law, land rights, black deaths in custody, health and aspects of identity and therefore could best represent them. The Walpiri, for example, are greatly concerned about the drift of young community members to urban centres where many succumb to grog and grog-related violence, and methods of videoconferencing have evolved to try to help with community issues such as these.

Turner’s statement embodies empowerment issues. The Tanami Network Trust,

started in the Warlpiri community, demonstrates that technology itself is not a threat, but that technology can be empowering. The Tanami communities use of satellite videoconferencing technology represents a radical opposition to postmodern notions that a system of social control and power is inherent in mass media. (Walpiri Media Association, 1990).

There is another major issue with filmmaking in indigenous communities, and that is one of video cameras themselves having a type of cultural significance. Turner illustrates this when he mentions that donating a camera brought about unexpected consequences, and that someone he was working with was exiled from the group.

“ I stumbled into long-standing rivalries and personal animosities that I was unable to reconcile or mediate to the satisfaction of all parties.” ( Turner,p.169).

Following Turner’s notion that political and social issues are best responded to by indigenous filmmakers is the crucial issue of the adoption of technology. Inuit communities in Canada voted to refuse offers of satellite dishes until the Inuit Broadcasting Corporation had control of content, recognising the dangers of the new broadcasting technology. In the Torres Strait Islands and in Aboriginal Australia, some communities have threatened to return their satellite dishes unless some form of local control - through training and maintenance support--is forthcoming. (Corker p. 43-44; Doolan; Meadows). Turner’s statement embodies the central issue of ownership and funding.

Turner is saying that indigenous filmmakers necessarily share the cultural schema, linguistic representation, symbolic representation and understanding of political and social priorites as the people they are recording. He is also saying that a non indigenous person has a different focus, film technique and political priority (as an embedded concept). Underpinning his statement are his studies with the Kayapo in Brazil.

Turner’s statement has many truisms that would be supported by anthropologists such as Marcia Langton, Faye Ginsberg, Anthony Shelton, Eric Michaels and others. However there do exist non indigenous filmmakers who have lived with indigenous people long enough to be able to take on their lens, and deliver a cultural product that meets indigenous standards. The film Customary Law by David Dring is a good example of a non indigenous filmmaker who has managed to make a film of a similar genre to indigenous filmmakers. Turner’s statement is in consonance with a general trend in Aboriginal communities in Australia, Canada, Alaska and South America to gain control over their own media and cultural reproduction. His statement does not say conclusively that non-indigenous filmmakers in the future won’t be able to reproduce indigenous culture to indigenous standards of authenticity and memesis.


Banks, Marcus. 1996. Ethnicity: anthropological constructions. London: Routledge.

Customary Law . [film]. 2004. Western Australia. DAVID DRING , writer and filmmaker.

ABC film documentary.

Edwards, Elizabeth. 1992. Anthropology and photography . New Haven: Yale

University Press in association with The Royal Anthropological Institute, London.

Ginsberg, Faye. “Indigenous Media: Faustian Contract or Global Village” Cultural Anthropology 6:1 (1991): 92 - 112.

Ginsberg, Faye. 1992. “Screen Memories: Resignifying the Traditional in Indigenous Media. Media World: anthropology on new terrain. Ginsberg, Abu-Lughod, Larkin B.

Berkely: University of California Press.

Langton, M. 1994. Aboriginal art and film: the politics of representation. In Race and Class: Aboriginal Australia: Land, law and culture. Vol. 35. No. 4. Institute race relations, Russell Press, Nottingham, pp. 89 - 106.

Langton, M. 1997. Grandmother’s Law, Company Business and Succession in Changing Aboriginal Land Tenure Systems. Galarrwuy Yunupingu. Our Land is Our Life: Land Rights--Past, Present and Future, St. Lucia: Queensland University Press.

MacDougall, David. 1987. “Media Friend or Media Foe?” Visual Anthropology 1:1 pp.54-58.

Meadows, Michael. 1989. “Getting the Right Message Across: Inadequacies in Existing codes make Imperative the Development of a Code of Conduct for Australian Journalists Reporting on Race.” Australian Journalism Review 10: 140-153.

Michaels, Eric. 1986. Aboriginal Invention of television Central Australia 1982-1986. Canberra: Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies.

Scherer, Joanna Cohan. 1990. Special issue of Visual Anthropology 3.’ Picturing

cultures: historical photographs in anthropological inquiry.’ Harwood Academic Publishers.

Shelton, Anthony. 2003. Existence + the Aesthetics of Everyday life among the Huichol of Northwest Mexico. Yale University Press. New Haven.

Taussig, M. 1993. Memisis & Alterity: A particular Study of the Senses. Routledge. New York.

Turner, Terence. 1992. Defiant images: the Kayapo appropriation of video’,

Anthropology Today 8 (6): 5D16

Walpiri Media Association. Japaljarri Making Boomerang at Mt. Allen. VHS videotape.

Yuendumu. 1990.

Yuendumu Community Education Centre. 1990. Communications in the Tanami: A Report on a satellite-linked workshop held between Yuendumu, Lajamanu, and Sydney. Yuendumu, 1990.


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