I attended a screening of an ethnographic film at a prominent film festival a few years back, which left an impression… not just the film itself, but the interaction surrounding it. The program encompassed a series of films where the audience bought tickets for the entire program of screenings. I was particularly keen to see this film and coincidentally, was sitting next to the filmmaker during a prior screening, which enabled a series of conversations about his film, both before and after.
The film was about a slaves journey during a colonial period in Suriname, and for the most part, was quite obviously a modern-day reinactment, with the exception of one part — a tribal ritual ceremony. An adverse reaction to the western cameramen suggested it was not a reinactment. I asked the filmmaker about the scene in question and he told me it was a traditional death ceremony. Despite gaining permission to film and contributing alcohol to the bar ahead of time, he said the anger and halting of the ritual was an adamant stance for them to cease filming. It was after all, someone’s funeral.
The nature of the scene and how it was captured left me feeling uncomfortable afterwards. It touched on a series of discussions I was already having — one was with another video-artist about the challenges in capturing video material in a foreign culture, of which we hold some familiarity. He was Canadian-raised Tanzanian and derived similar reactions when capturing video in Tanzania. He said people became really angry. It seemed to bring resentments to the surface about the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’. The underlying sentiment revolved around ethical questions of whether he should be profiting from his intimacy with the local community — the notion of ‘starving artist’ tends to become lost in contextual reality of a developing country.
The filmmaker of the ethnographic epic in Suriname, I believe, had lived there for several years as part of the Peace Corps. Presumably he had learned enough of the language and entrenched himself in the community sufficiently, but being obviously western draws attention and is difficult to mask… or I wonder if, maybe, he could have considered more subtle use of the video camera for the scene in question.