The last week of semester has ended, and the streets and boardwalks on the riverside already look more empty. It seems that the summer vacation has kicked in in Uppsala, and students have started to leave.
On Friday, I went to watch a film at the Fyrisbiografen called One Table Two Elephants. It was something that was co-organized by the CEMUS PhD Research Forum that I am an active member of. The students who mostly led the organizing, though, were on the other side of the co-organization and they were from the Master’s programme in Global Environmental History. This programme grew out of the undergraduate CEMUS course Global Environmental History (Global miljöhistoria), a spin off, one can say, an idea taken up by the former CEMUS director and long term CEMUS friend, Anneli Ekblom. Inspired by the CEMUS model on student-led education, they have a course called Current Debates and Themes in Global Environmental History, where it is a part of each student’s assignment to have the opportunity to invite guests and facilitate the discussion (see Anneli’s presentation at the Active Student Participation Days at Uppsala University here). I have had many friends take this program, so I was happy to see it in practice too.
When I watched the trailer to this film, i didn’t know what to expect.
I expected this film to be more artsy. I thought perhaps it would be one of those films that goes really slow and not much happens. What intrigued me, however, was the word “cinematic ethnography” and the themes that were decribed in the short Synopsis and from the email conversation with the directors that I was following: colonization, nature, and knowledge.
SYNOPSIS – 𝘛𝘩𝘪𝘴 𝘪𝘴 𝘢 𝘧𝘪𝘭𝘮 𝘢𝘣𝘰𝘶𝘵 𝘣𝘶𝘴𝘩𝘮𝘦𝘯 𝘣𝘣𝘰𝘺𝘴, 𝘢 𝘧𝘭𝘰𝘸𝘦𝘳 𝘬𝘪𝘯𝘨𝘥𝘰𝘮 𝘢𝘯𝘥 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘨𝘩𝘰𝘴𝘵 𝘰𝘧 𝘢 𝘱𝘳𝘪𝘯𝘤𝘦𝘴𝘴. 𝘌𝘯𝘵𝘦𝘳𝘪𝘯𝘨 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘤𝘪𝘵𝘺 𝘵𝘩𝘳𝘰𝘶𝘨𝘩 𝘪𝘵𝘴 𝘱𝘭𝘢𝘯𝘵𝘴 𝘢𝘯𝘥 𝘸𝘦𝘵𝘭𝘢𝘯𝘥𝘴, 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘮𝘢𝘯𝘺-𝘭𝘢𝘺𝘦𝘳𝘦𝘥, 𝘱𝘢𝘪𝘯𝘧𝘶𝘭 𝘢𝘯𝘥 𝘭𝘪𝘣𝘦𝘳𝘢𝘵𝘪𝘯𝘨 𝘩𝘪𝘴𝘵𝘰𝘳𝘺 𝘰𝘧 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘤𝘪𝘵𝘺 𝘦𝘮𝘦𝘳𝘨𝘦𝘴 𝘢𝘴 𝘸𝘦 𝘴𝘦𝘦 𝘩𝘰𝘸 𝘣𝘪𝘰𝘭𝘰𝘨𝘪𝘴𝘵𝘴, 𝘩𝘪𝘱 𝘩𝘰𝘱𝘱𝘦𝘳𝘴, 𝘢𝘯𝘥 𝘸𝘦𝘵𝘭𝘢𝘯𝘥 𝘤𝘵𝘪𝘷𝘪𝘴𝘵𝘴 𝘦𝘢𝘤𝘩 𝘴𝘦𝘢𝘳𝘤𝘩𝘦𝘴 𝘧𝘰𝘳 𝘸𝘢𝘺𝘴 𝘵𝘰 𝘤𝘳𝘢𝘧𝘵 𝘴𝘺𝘮𝘣𝘰𝘭𝘴 𝘰𝘧 𝘶𝘯𝘪𝘵𝘺 𝘢𝘯𝘥 𝘤𝘰𝘩𝘦𝘴𝘪𝘰𝘯. 𝘉𝘶𝘵 𝘵𝘩𝘪𝘴 𝘪𝘴 𝘢 𝘧𝘳𝘢𝘶𝘨𝘩𝘵 𝘢𝘯𝘥 𝘥𝘪𝘧𝘧𝘪𝘤𝘶𝘭𝘵 𝘵𝘢𝘴𝘬. 𝘗𝘦𝘳𝘩𝘢𝘱𝘴 𝘯𝘰𝘵 𝘦𝘷𝘦𝘯 𝘥𝘦𝘴𝘪𝘳𝘢𝘣𝘭𝘦. 𝘗𝘭𝘢𝘯𝘵𝘴, 𝘢𝘭𝘪𝘦𝘯𝘴, 𝘮𝘦𝘮𝘰𝘳𝘪𝘦𝘴 𝘢𝘯𝘥 𝘨𝘩𝘰𝘴𝘵𝘴 𝘬𝘦𝘦𝘱 𝘵𝘳𝘰𝘶𝘣𝘭𝘪𝘯𝘨 𝘦𝘧𝘧𝘰𝘳𝘵𝘴 𝘰𝘧 𝘸𝘦𝘢𝘷𝘪𝘯𝘨 𝘴𝘵𝘰𝘳𝘪𝘦𝘴 𝘢𝘣𝘰𝘶𝘵 𝘵𝘩𝘪𝘴 𝘱𝘭𝘢𝘤𝘦 𝘤𝘢𝘭𝘭𝘦𝘥 𝘊𝘢𝘱𝘦 𝘛𝘰𝘸𝘯.
I was aware of ethnographic approaches using films as a method. In fact, I am considering using photography in my own PhD project, and that would sometimes be discussed under a larger heading of Visual Anthropology. I have a friend who is taking a Master’s programme in this, so I had heard a little bit about what the approach is generally setting out to do. But I had never watched a full-length film that uses this approach. I thought it was a great opportunity to give it a try, even though I must admit, I had my skepticisms. After all, I am not a movie person at all, and sometimes artsy things feel, well, too artsy, if you get my drift. Sometimes I just won’t get it.
So watching this film, I was pleasantly surprised. I think it was especially meaningful for me that we got to have a short (30-45 min) conversation with the directors after the film.
The film followed the black, hip hop break dancers that are trying to bring in their own cultural roots into modern dancing techniques, as well as biodiversity conservation efforts based on Western science, mainly enforced by white folks. The film also contrasts different types of knowledge and knowing, such as traditional knowledge and knowledge based on Western science.
I’m not sure what to say about it, without sort of, well.. I don’t know if you can “spoil” this kind of film by telling about it, really. But it’s also nice to not give you too much preconception and my own interpretations about it, in case you get the opportunity to watch it (and I do recommend it if you get the chance).
So perhaps in this spirit of “not spoiling it” for you, I can maybe share my reflections about using films as an ethnographic method.
What struck me was the lack of (explicit ) explanation. Throughout the film, there was no voiceover narrator. There were not even translations, texts or subtitles for the non-English parts. This surprised me, especially because there is at least one scene where there is a long-ish conversation in the local language. My other friends reflected that this made them feel uncomfortable. I was thinking how for me it made me feel like I was there in person. Getting a glimpse of an interaction of something I am not even expected to, or maybe even supposed to, understand. I think about how ethnography might expose you to very intimate situations sometimes. I have not experienced this yet. I think about how I would react, if there is an emotional conversation in the family, for example.
In the discussion afterwards, I asked about the directors’ reflections on using film in ethnography as a method, compared to, for example, writing ethnography. They pointed to this part about ‘not explaining’ too, that in the beginning Henrik, one of the directors, had the urge to explain in the film. And this is something that is different, he said. They decided to keep it open in the film. Jakob, the other director, also said that some people think of researchers making films as science communication, where you just transmit “knowledge” that is already produced, in a one-way format towards the audience. He said that this was something they were trying not to do. Rather, I interpreted their style to be that you can almost unpick the situation together with the watchers of the film. Although obviously the film is edited and put together with intention, and they have a few parts when you see the makers in the screen (which made me at least aware of this), I also appreciated this new openness.
One friend, doing a PhD in biology, reflected that it was so obviously different from reading an academic article. Usually, in an article there is one main message. The main message is supposed to be really clear, and there is a clear logic leading to it. This film was not like this, to say the least. There might be many messages, but definitely not a One Message that everyone will take away. After watching it, we can discuss how we should interpret what we saw. In that sense, I felt like the researchers, in the form of film directors, were opening up to co-research with us.
I took away that they are challenging the notion of knowledge, where and who gets to create and claim knowledge. And this is also a central theme in the film, as I saw it. Who has what types of knowledge about nature or their culture identity, and how that has implications for example, in the way they go about conservation efforts.
And I liked it a lot.
It shakes up something that we are used to, or what we take for granted. It challenges me to think how I could take this with me in my own research, when I will be (I think) writing ethnography if I follow the plan I have now.
Could I also create a sort of openness in my text? How could I interweave different story lines that may or may not connect with each other? When we are used to having clear, one take home messages, and academia is all about explaining things (that’s the whole idea about theorizing, isn’t it?), can you have a text that opens up a co-interpretation with the reader? Or would that just be critiqued and rejected as descriptive and having no theoretical contribution?
For whom the film is made for was another interesting question. They said they made it primarily for the people there. And that is a position I want to have in my research and writing, too. I just need to keep thinking about what that actually means.