By Santasil Mallik
John Grierson’s understanding of documentary film as “the creative treatment of actuality” has acquired the status of a theoretical maxim, underscoring the fundamental fallacy that documenting the truth inadvertently involves recreating it. The formal techniques and narrative tropes employed in dramatising real-life events are not much dissimilar from the language of narrative fiction films – both involve creative intervention for diegetic purposes. However, the aesthetic rationale that distinguishes the documentary film is an obstinate attachment to the impression of truthfulness. In fiction, sounds and images react primarily to enhance the flow of the narrative. With synchronous and asynchronous pairing, when required, both components generate tensions and transitions for narrative progression. On the other hand, the relationship between images and sounds in documentaries has always been fraught with uncertainty because it attends to the abstract, unsettled notion of authenticity or objectivity rather than furthering pre-set narrative arcs. As the notion of documentary ‘truth’ has evolved over the years of the genre’s development, the language of sound-image relations has also variably transfigured.
In the direct-address ethnographic documentaries of the early twentieth century, sound and image interacted as an explanatory apparatus for a given subject. This style, which incorporates the “voice of God”, stems from the colonialist categorization of indigenous cultures. After the world wars, experimentations in film led to the radical dissociation of the authoritative voice in documentaries. For example, Jean Rouch’s concept of cinema vérité or the Maysles brothers’ concept of Direct Cinema aimed for an immediate, untutored approach to actual events by working with on-site sounds and visuals. However, later developments, such as observational and participatory documentary forms, embraced a more hybrid interplay of film codes that questioned the epistemological and aesthetic assumptions that define the idea of ‘truth’. The changing self-critical language of documentaries often follows the course of new directions in ethnographic practices. Bill Nichols rightly notes: “In documentary, the most advanced, modernist work draws its inspiration less from post-structuralist models of discourse than from the working procedures of documentation and validation practised by ethnographic film-makers.”
Significantly, cinematic experiments in ethnography enable ingenious modes of processing reality and establishing new epistemologies. A notable development in such cross-disciplinary practice is the “sensorial turn” of visual anthropology, focusing on the multisensorial dimension of unfolding realities. Here, the emphasis rests on using embodied subjectivity to interpret ethnographic knowledge rather than relying on rationality. In 2006, with the establishment of Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab (SEL), such methodologies were embraced by filmmakers and anthropologists alike to analyse ethnographic information through immersive, audio-visual experiences. Since then, with the “innovative combinations of aesthetics and ethnography”, the lab has produced several acclaimed ethnographic documentaries featuring radical experimentations in sound and visuals.
Leviathan (2012), one of SEL’s most notable productions in recent years, documents life on a fishing trawler in the North Atlantic Ocean, which is reeling from the exploitative economy of the global fishing industry. Directed by Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor, the film is a collage of shots captured by compact, waterproof GoPro cameras attached to the trawler’s hull, fishing nets, fishermen’s jackets, fish processing units, or randomly tossed onto the deck. The camera acts as an untrained eye, arbitrarily capturing fish entrails, preying seagulls, labouring hands, anchors, fishing hooks, or sea detritus. It undoes the filmmaker’s autonomy and thrives on accidental perspectives and sensations, which to a certain extent also veers towards the non-anthropomorphic. The sound is similarly unprocessed, capturing the glitches and distortions recorded through the plastic casing of the cameras. Consequently, the jarring and viscerally intimate experience touches upon the experiential materiality of commercial fishing. In Leviathan, the idea of authenticity departs from an objectively accurate reproduction of knowledge concerning life in the fishing industry; it nurtures an aesthetic sensorium that achieves intimacy with the affective and extralinguistic dimensions of industrial fishing operations.
Another SEL production, Laura Huertas Millán’s La Libertad (2017), explores the weaving and local artisanal practices of indigenous matriarchal communities in Mexico’s Oaxaca region. Throughout a significant portion of the film, the visuals linger meditatively on an ancient pre-Hispanic weaving technique preserved by the indigenous women of Mesoamerica. These scenes adopt an object-oriented approach, closely focusing on hand movements, gestures, object textures and quotidian rhythms related to indigenous textile weaving. Alongside, the soundtrack transmits personal reflections from the women; traversing the history of their family and community. In several parts, instead of someone speaking on camera, a succession of voices weaves the associations of hands and objects on the screen, “substituting talking heads for talking hands…” Such playful interactions between the soundscape and images create an ambient narrative flow without being textually demonstrative. By focusing on domestic spaces, a weavers’ cooperative, and a textile museum, the film illustrates the interspersed political modalities of subjective memory, communal history, and the place of indigeneity in contemporary society.
Ernst Karel and Veronika Kusumaryati’s Expedition Content (2020) take the sound-image relationship to new heights, probing its role in navigating ethnographic archives. The film uses sound recordings taken by Michael Rockefeller, a college graduate who participated in the 1961 Harvard Peabody Expedition to document the indigenous Hubula people of New Guinea. During the expedition, Rockefeller mysteriously disappeared while collecting ritual objects. In an extraordinary adventure of pure sonic ethnography, the almost-imageless film interlaces the found audio journal from the expedition with sparse fieldwork footage and minimalist visual cues. With an overlaying grainy texture, the recordings disclose Rockefeller’s visual descriptions, equipment noises, fragmented conversations of the Hubula people, and ambient echoes caused by birds, animals, and ritual singing and chanting. The nominal use of visuals reinforces the material significance of the aural archive, detailing voice textures, murmurs, or unclear utterances made by the indigenous race. Against the hegemony of visual evidence, the project foregrounds a novel form of encoding history by composing a sound collage from a panoply of voices. Rockefeller’s absence, as well as history of colonialism, anthropology, and extractivist expeditions, create an unsettling/uncanny effect throughout the picture. It mounts a critique of ethnographic verity in colonialist discourse, offering a self-critical examination of both anthropology and its disciplinary history.
Innovative approaches in filmic ethnographies have historically intersected with avant-garde tradition, as shown by Jean Rouch (Chronicle of a Summer), Trinh T. Minh-ha (Reassemblage), Chris Marker (Sunless), and Jonas Mekas (Lost, Lost, Lost). These filmmakers’ formal experimentations evolved not as self-referential exercises, but as a continual reassessment of the concept of ethnographic truth. The idea is not to obtain an exact representation or reproduction of reality, but rather to shape the emerging reality with innovation and creative ingenuity. Indeed, the expanding semantic potential of sound-image interactions in ethnographic documentaries has prompted a rethinking of the principles of representation. In recent years, there has been a rise in the production of such experimental ethnographic documentaries from the global South, and this has turned the history of colonial anthropology and associated methodologies on its head. Ana Vaz’s Apiyemiyekî? (2019), Paula Gaitan’s Light in the Tropics (2020), Prantik Basu’s Rangmahal (2018), or Yashaswini Raghunandan’s That Cloud Never Left (2019) are examples of prominent works that engage in new-form ethnographic storytelling involving hybrid compositions of fiction, myths, folklores, historical archives, and testimonies to map the complex reality of postcoloniality. A double-edged relationship, experimentation in film creates new directions for ethnographic methods; reciprocally, expanding the boundaries of ethnographic methodology encourages the emergence of new film codes.
- Davis, Laura (2018). Laura Huertas Millàn’s Ethnographic Fiction and Its Influences. MUBI Notebook, https://mubi.com/notebook/posts/laura-huertas-millan-s-ethnographic-fiction-and-its-influences
- Nicholls, B (1983). The Voice of Documentary. Film Quarterly, 36 (3), 17-30. https://www.jstor.org/stable/3697347
- Sensory Ethnography Lab, Harvard University. https://sel.fas.harvard.edu/
Santasil Mallik is an experimental filmmaker and a research scholar from Calcutta, India. His research interests revolve around visual culture, photography studies, postcolonial avant-gardes, and different modes of image-text relationships. As a practitioner, he engages with alternative documentary processes and experimental video art, exhibiting them at various film and media festivals globally.