Reviewer biography

Current Reviews

Review Articles

Book Reviews Archive

Documentary Film: Science and Art in Close Encounter within an Intercultural Dialogue

Film Festival Beeld voor Beeld, 17th edition
7——11 June 2006; Amsterdam, Netherlands
Event website: http://www.beeldvoorbeeld.nl.

Reviewed by Martha Blassnigg
University of Plymouth


The following review of the Beeld voor Beeld festival in Amsterdam discusses the bridging of the traditional divide between art and science in the field of documentary film.

The Beeld voor Beeld ("Image by Image") in Amsterdam is a small annual film festival showing ethnographic and anthropological films. It has been running for 17 years and provides an exhibition venue for recent international and national productions within a critical forum of discussion and exchange. The festival is organized by SAVAN, which is the foundation for Audiovisual Anthropology Netherlands, and it is hosted by the Tropentheater of the Royal Tropical Institute (KIT), (the former Amsterdam Colonial Institute), which specializes in international cooperation and intercultural communication. As much as it provides a showcase for new films, it also offers an insight into the state of Visual Anthropology.

Visual Anthropology, generally speaking, conveys the use, production, distribution, exhibition and a theoretical meta-discussion of audio-visual material in the context of ethnographic fieldwork as well as social-anthropological research in general. It emerged from cultural and social anthropology and became established as a discipline in the 1950’s. The earliest attempts to record the cultural context and particularity of human behaviour on film dates from the very origins of film. While Felix Louis Regnault is recognized as having produced some of the first researchable footage (Ruby, 1996), even earlier film materials, such as the audio-visual documentations by Thomas Edison in 1894, already foreshadow some of the current concerns and problems in Visual Anthropology. Felix Louis Regnault, however, was not a technologist like Edison but a scientist with open-ended questions. He was a physician who applied chronophotography to study culture specific human locomotion and produced some of the first ethnographic footage from the Paris Exposition Ethnographique de l’Afrique Occidentale in 1895 in the typical evolutionist, Eurocentric perspective of the time. However his work announced the two kinds of cinema that have developed: a technology of science, and a technology of entertainment. This dichotomy has persisted throughout the 20th century in discussions, which at its heart challenge the idea that technology produces "objective" images. In film theory this discussion is around terms such as "realism" versus "fiction", "authenticity" or "reliability" which also extend to the practice and theory of documentary film. In this debate, the genre of "ethnographic film" traditionally holds the observation of a relatively objective reality as its main function, in contrast to de-constructed, self-reflexive and the more artistic approaches of contemporary filmmakers generally more broadly classified as "anthropological films". The relative subtlety of this opposition is where the distinction between science and art (and/or entertainment) dissolves and the human agency as transmitter of knowledge moves to the foreground. In this sense, broadly speaking, every film (fiction or scientific, could be considered "anthropological", as it is communicated and produced by human agency, and diverse cultural aspects and contexts are implicitly and explicitly at work. [1] Beeld voor Beeld has recognized this possibility and has broadened its focus on films with anthropological content alongside the more specific, traditional ethnographic film genre.

Another central (and most explicitly communicated and relevant) concern of the festival is to create a dialogue between cultures. In the opening speech, Eddy Appels emphasized that through the inside-view of anthropologists, art (film) is able to surpass stereotypes and transcend boundaries and become a political statement by challenging the pre-conceived ideas on other cultures. This aspect was also given voice in the lecture "Africa Imagined" by Paul Faber, curator of the Africa-wing of the Tropenmuseum, who discussed the use of film fragments from documentary films for exhibition contexts. [2] One strategy for filmmakers to create a dialogue instead of monologues or hegemonic outsiders views is through so called "community based projects". In these the film is produced, sometimes even initiated, by the community or the subjects themselves with the objective of transferring knowledge or raising political awareness even as far as to pass over to the subjects in the film making process. It is an approach that attempts to bridge the unequal distribution of resources between the parties——particularly with regard to the access to technology. These initiatives are supported by organizations such as Witness (http://www.witness.org/) and UNESCO in an attempt to reinforce human rights and political empowerment. One of UNESCO’s projects from the Information- and Communication Technologies for Intercultural Dialogue program [3], "The Gold of Pidlisan" by the Dutch filmmaker Wiek Lenssen was screened at the festival. It was a project that was realized among and through collaborations with indigenous communities in the Philippines and critically investigates the consequences of the large-scale mining industry in the Cordileras Mountains. Following the screening, Ton Guiking, former director of the festival, anthropologist and filmmaker, convened a roundtable consisting of the filmmakers Wiek Lenssen, Jan Willem Meurkens and Miranda van der Spek, who have all trained indigenous people in the film making process. They discussed the involvement and training of indigenous filmmakers and the political implications of this transfer of knowledge and skills by showing fragments of their recent projects [4]. One of the problems, for example, that was identified in the discussion of Wiek Lenssen’s project was that for filmmakers, there are often not enough resources available to spend sufficient time with the communities. In addition, the community members could not afford a long-term investment of their time alongside their normal work and other commitments——this reiterates a problem that seems to occur more and more for cultural anthropologists who traditionally have spent extensive amounts of time with the communities they study and are now often unable to. The conflict revealed here lies between scientific and artistic knowledge and the social and political contingencies of daily life.

The broad spectrum of approaches in the film programme revealed other points for discussion, for example on ethics, politics and aesthetics.
Beginning with a day of student films, and during the following four-days, a wide range of approaches within Visual Anthropology became evident through the screenings. For example, a documentary "fiction", "Kiran over Mongolia" by Joseph Spaid (Mongolia, 2005), about a young Kazak man who sets out to learn the traditional way of hunting with eagles by a eagle master was based on observational research. Spaid wrote the script after travelling in Mongolia and, subsequently, cast amateur actors who fitted the story in order to reinforce several authentic aspects. This is an approach that clearly fudges the boundaries between fiction and documentary. In contrast to this exception, the film "Practice and Mastery" by Rossella Schillaci (Italy, 2005) for example, was filmed in a more classic ethnographic style and showed a sophisticated balance between an observational style and interviews with the brothers Antonio and Vincenzo Forestiero. The two brothers appeared not only masters in the making and playing of the zampogna (bagpipe) in the region of Basilicata in Southern Italy but also in featuring as charming characters for the lead in this informative as well as entertaining film. Ethical issues were discussed in formal and informal gatherings; for example, there was a crucial discussion among visual anthropologists around the ethical responsibilities of the filmmaker who fails to intervene when a violent scene develops in front of the camera.

The festival also offered two outstanding examples of a reflexive approach to anthropological filmmaking. The first, Aaron Glass’ "In Search of the Hamat’sa: a Tale of Headhunting" (Canada, 2004). Glass’ film featured in the student program and is part of his PhD research on the Hamat’sa ceremonie of the Kwakwaka’wakw (mistakenly called Kwakiutl). His thesis examines the ethnographic representation and performance history of the Hamat’sa, but on the way it also explores the history of anthropology and critically reflects on the complex relationships between anthropology, museums, and the local communities. In contrast, Michael Yorke is a distinguished documentary filmmaker from the UK who presented the 72 min. version of his film "Holy Men and Fools" that presents the story of a pilgrimage across the high Himalayas with Uma, a retired Swedish model accepted by the Indian Sadhu community, and Vasisht, a charismatic young Indian holy man. The film is narrated through a self-reflexive account of the journey by Yorke himself who explained that after a first version of the film in a pure observational style that was also longer, he has reconciled the narrative lines of the two very strong characters through the binding thread of his personal involvement with them during the filming process. Although both films were very different, they showed how intellectual ideas can be developed through technological mediation and the explicit presence of the filmmaker. What these few examples reveal (and there are many more that could be mentioned——for the complete program, see: http://www.beeldvoorbeeld.nl) is that the festival is more than an exhibition of films; it is a forum for discussion and exchange thanks to in-depth Q&A sessions convened by specialists in the field (anthropologists, filmmakers, music theorists, etc.).

In a similar tradition with other ethnographic/ anthropological film festivals in Europe, such as the Göttingen International Ethnographic Film Festival or the Nordic Anthropological Film Association Filmfestival, Beeld voor Beeld presents documentary films with anthropological content as a dialogue between diverse cultural contexts, combining the exhibition of films with discussions that make the processes of film making, distribution, reception and the inherent ethical and political implications apparent to their audiences. Highly specialized festivals, such as Beeld voor Beeld provide a fruitful exchange between film form and content, between the makers, the protagonists, and their audiences. However, it is to be hoped that Beeld voor Beeld will remain truthful to its roots in the rigorous methods of Cultural (Visual) Anthropology as its core and foundation and does not become (another) victim of film festivals successes. As it inevitably expands, the committee should be alert to the tendency of some other more general documentary film festivals to foreground a predominantly social-political agenda and confuse commercialization with popularization. Most importantly, the festival also serves as an intellectual (theoretical/academic) resource and forum where the field of Visual Anthropology is being continuously shaped by contemporary reflections and interventions. Festivals such as Beeld voor Beeld are crucial for promoting close encounters between the arts and the sciences in the genre of documentary film, but also consistent with an anthropologist’s worldview, to bring an interpretation of these themes together in a reflexive process that includes public perception. In this way, Cultural Anthropology is a crucial tool in the understanding of the relationship between art, science and technology.


[1] "These naïve assumptions about the differences between the art of film and the science of anthropology are slowly being replaced by a conception of film as a culturally bound communication usable in a variety of discourses." (Ruby, 1996)

[2] Paul Faber presented three edited fragments from documentary films that will be displayed in the new Africa exhibition in the Tropenmuseum (opening this summer). Two of the filmmakers of the original material happened to be present in the audience and joined a lively discussion about the adaptation of film for new contexts relative to the film director’s original intentions. Finally Faber gave a private tour through the exhibition space still under construction and explained the locations and mediation of the film material in their specific exhibition lay out. (For more information on the Tropenmuseum, see http://www.kit.nl/)

[3] "Preserving indigenous peoples’ cultural resources by fostering access to ICT, thus contributing to narrowing the digital divide is the aim of new project entitled "ICTs for Intercultural Dialogue: Developing communication capacities of indigenous peoples (ICT4ID)", which UNESCO has recently launched as the direct result of the International Forum on Local Cultural Expression and Communication held in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic on 3-6 November 2003." (See http://portal.unesco.org/ci/en/ev.php-URL_ID=14203&URL_DO=DO_TOPIC&URL_SECTION=201.html)

[4] Filmmaker Jan Willem Meurkens showed fragments from his film "From the Inside Out" (Colombia, 2005), of which a quarter is filmed by indigenous cameramen. Meurkens showed the extraordinary example of the film skills from the 17 year old Plinio Tanimuka who was trained by his father Gilbert who himself has been trained by Meurkens. (see http://www.ftio.nl/)

Visual anthropologist Miranda van der Spek presented fragments from the project "Focus on Water", produced by OLAA, the Organization for Latin American Activities, and Miranda Productions. Is consists of a collaboration between school classes in Bolivia and the Netherlands on specific local water related topics, which the 11-12 year old pupils express through audio-visual media. (See http://www.enfocando-el-agua.org / http://www.waterinbeeld.org - only in Spanish and Dutch).


Rony, Fatimah Tobing. 1996. The Third Eye. Race, Cinema, and Ethnographic Spectacle. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

Ruby, Jay. 1996. Visual Anthropology. In Encyclopedia of Cultural Anthropology. Eds. Levinson, D. and Melvin, E. New York: Henry Holt and Company, vol. 4:1345-1351 (See also http://astro.temple.edu/~ruby/ruby/cultanthro.html)

Cited websites:


For more links to related festivals/institutions see: http://www.beeldvoorbeeld.nl/eng/links/index.html









Updated 1st July 2006

Contact LDR: ldr@leonardo.org

Contact Leonardo: isast@leonardo.info

copyright © 2006 ISAST