On April 2, Lithuanian documentary filmmaker and anthropologist Mantas Kvidalavicius was killed at the age of 45 in the city of Mariupol on the front lines of the Russian-Ukrainian war. The anthropology community and the documentary community mourned in unison.
The camera in the hands of Mantas focuses on the common people rather than the dignitaries. He has studied disappearances and torture in the North Caucasus, violence in anti-terrorist operations in Chechnya, and finally moved into Mariupol to gaze at the daily lives of civilians under fire.
The day before Mantas was killed, another younger documentary filmmaker and longtime Reuters contributor in Ukraine, Maxim Levine, was found dead in a village north of Kyiv, Ukraine. There was heavy shelling near the village.
Documentary breaks into anthropology
The subversion of daily life by the war is undoubtedly the most worthy of recording scenes. But there is one other type of scene that fascinates documentary filmmakers to continue to delve deeper into, and that is the state of life in early humans.
This rough survival mode, which has been subverted by modern people, still exists in some primitive tribes in remote areas. Therefore, taking a camera to photograph exotic peoples that make the outside world feel mysterious has become the lifelong career of many anthropologists.
”Anthropological documentaries” were once called “ethnographic films,” but the definition of the concept is often divided. It is generally believed that films showing other cultures, exotic peoples and exotic customs are all anthropological documentaries. However, some scholars believe that only documentaries shot by professional anthropologists, using ethnographic fieldwork methods, and aimed at peer review, can be included in this category.
Documentary filming was initially neglected in the anthropological community, as a side product of academic expeditions or expeditions.
By the 1930s, anthropologists Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead were conducting anthropological investigations in Bali. They really use film and photography as the core recording method. The documentary, collectively known as the Character Formation Series in Different Cultures, showcases the life of Balinese islanders, including baby showers, childhood rivalries, cultural acquisition, and family life.
Recent anthropological documentaries have gradually curbed their curiosity about exotic cultures. Documentary makers no longer stand on the cliffs of “civilization” overlooking the cultures of others. They are fully aware of the power relationship between the photographer and the subject.
Today, anthropologists with cameras turn the camera back and forth, examining both “them” and “us.”
He goes on to propose the idea of ”ethnographic fiction”, showing that documentaries and feature films are inherently indistinguishable.
“Nanuk of the North” stills
“Noble Savages” and Their Dissatisfaction
Earlier anthropological documentaries often portrayed “noble barbarians”.
”Noble Savage” expresses an optimistic belief in human nature in its natural state. The romantic vision of the “noble barbarian” can be traced back to the Age of Enlightenment in the 18th century, and the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau reveal a similar concept. For a long period of time, Western scholars imagined primitive culture as the Garden of Eden and used it to criticize various problems in Western society.
Robert Flaherty, the “father of documentary”, has a similar romantic belief in primitive culture. After the success of Nanook of the North, completed in 1922, Flaherty said: “I wanted to show the dignity and character that these [Inuit] people had while it was still possible. In the future white people will not only It will destroy their character and destroy the race.”
Although Flaherty believed that the Inuit had a stronger spirit, he did not believe that the Inuit culture could withstand foreign shocks and believed that Their culture has been tainted by exposure to the outside world.
Stills of Mariupol
“Spiritual Master” stills
Many of Flaherty’s later films bear the same imprint of romanticism. Such as “Mora Bay” filmed in the Samoa Islands in the South Pacific in 1926, “Aran Islander” filmed in Aran Island near Ireland in 1934, and “Louisian” filmed in the swamps of Louisiana in 1948 The State’s Story. These films ignore the complex local social relations and only highlight the opposition between man and nature.
With the rise of the cultural elite of the Third World, Flaherty-inspired anthropological documentaries have begun to be questioned – the image of “noble barbarians” and the theme of “man against nature” are completely imposed on foreign cultures by Westerners Stereotype.
Jean Rouch’s experiment
Following the disillusionment of the “noble barbarian” imagination, the scientific objectivity of the documentary has also been questioned.
Anthropologists and producers with knowledge of anthropology have come to recognize the power relationship between documentary filmmakers and their subjects. They began to explore, what does the content of the documentary mean to the subjects?
In Mantas’ documentary images, the focus is not on the two sides of the confrontation, but on the indestructible life of ordinary people.
I have to mention the French anthropologist and documentary filmmaker Jean Rouch, who has completely changed the face of anthropological documentaries.
Jean Rouche’s early work was also heavily inspired by Flaherty. He admired Flaherty’s close relationship with his subjects, but after earning his doctorate in anthropology, he began to reflect on his previous approach.
In 1955, Rush screened one of his most well-known works, The Necromancer, at the Museum of Anthropology. This documentary shows a soul possession ceremony in Ghana (then the British colony in Africa, called the Gold Coast). Role.
Jean Rouch explained at the end of the credits that the ceremony was both an expression of their colonized state and a temporary release from it. The documentary shocked audiences in Europe and was banned in the UK and Ghana. African audiences also began to worry that Europeans would consider themselves uncivilized. But the film still won the grand prize at the Venice Biennale.
“I, a Negro” stills
Anthropologist Mantas Kvidalavicius (middle) killed in Ukraine
Jean Rouche continued to experiment with documentary filmmaking despite criticism from all sides. He goes on to propose the idea of ”ethnographic fiction”, showing that documentaries and feature films are inherently indistinguishable. He experimented with the subjectivity of his subjects, often by means of fiction, fantasy, and role-playing.
In “I, a Negro,” shot in 1957, dockworker O’Meron Ganda played himself, and the voiceover included his own narration. Rush hopes that in this way, the subjects can fully participate in the filming of the documentary and master the interpretation and reflection of their own life.
Later, Jean Rouch borrowed the concept of “cinematic reality” of Djiga Vertov, emphasizing that the authenticity of anthropological documentaries is actually constructed by the camera, the subject and the photographer. In his view, the discipline of anthropology is “the eldest daughter of colonialism” and “a means by which groups in power interrogate groups without power”.
“We are part of the Other”
For a long time, many Western anthropologists have argued that non-Western cultures are in decline and that traditional ethnography is a narrative of “saving the culture.”
American anthropologist Marshall Sahlins criticized this view in his 1998 speech “What Is Anthropological Enlightenment”. He uses examples to show that non-Western cultures are not weak in the face of the expansion of modernity. On the contrary, modernity often has to succumb to those peripheral cultures that are constantly revived.
Sullins puts forward the view that “we are part of the other”. This means that different groups and cultures are mutually accomplished and interdependent. Our war with the other challenges our human identity, it is a war against ourselves.
In fact, this point of view has been reflected in Jean Rouche’s sharing documentary production, and now it is accepted by more and more anthropological documentary filmmakers.
Anthropologist Mantas Kvidalavicius, who died in Ukraine, devoted his short life to studying and photographing violence. Mantas did not set his sights on this land after the Russian-Ukrainian war. In 2014, he came to Mariupol to do fieldwork and shoot the documentary “Mariupol”. In 2019, he published an academic paper titled “Permanent Ceasefire: The War in Eastern Ukraine and the Showcase of Everyday Life”.
In the documentary, Mariupol in 2014 had long lost sight of Catherine II’s ambition to develop an empire, and was immersed in the depressed post-Soviet atmosphere. The tense standoff between Ukrainian government forces and Russian-backed separatists has gradually become a daily routine for locals.
The documentary images of Mantas seem to be neutral, but it does not mean that he has no attitude towards war. In fact, his focus is not on the warring sides of the confrontation, but on the indestructible life of ordinary people. In the face of the devastating forces of war, everyday life shows resilience beyond imagination.
Mantas once said in an interview: “My film is not about war, but about everyday life around the war zone, about everyday life going on even if there is a war.”
Under Mantas’ lens, the people of Eastern Ukraine are not passive victims of violence. They actively call on the aesthetic and emotional resources of everyday life to combat ubiquitous and ready-to-occur disasters. This perspective also has extraordinary significance for the audience: in the face of war, we are not powerless, and everyone can rebuild their own order of life.
Nearly a century ago, anthropologists and documentarians faced a vast world filled with far-flung, exotic cultures. Now due to advanced imaging technology, war, violence, poverty, and suffering have become so close to us, and we are becoming more and more numb to all of them.
Anthropologists with cameras bring back images of others from afar, and those images don’t seek out horrific effects. Instead, they are unusually calm and affectionate. Our numb sensibilities and comprehension gradually awaken, and we begin to examine our own lives, and our own sense of powerlessness is relieved.
This, perhaps, is the point of anthropological documentaries.