Course Description: Materiality and Ethnographic Film

When it comes to UC Berkeley, these days I feel more like a politically-minded voyeur than grad student. I’ve been following the Occupy movements in both Oakland and Berkeley online, but I’m half a world away, working and writing my dissertation out in the desert.

Still, I’m going to be teaching a Reading and Composition course next summer, and I used part of my weekend to come up with a course description:

Materiality and Ethnographic Film

Ethnographic film has a long and ambivalent tradition within anthropology. The theory, technology, and methodology behind making ethnographic films has changed radically during the last century, but often this historic context has been ignored. In this course we will critically examine a wide range of ethnographic films through the lens of materiality. Materiality, or the study of the relationship between people and things, allows us to think about technology and social interactions in new and compelling ways. What were people wearing and using in the film? How was the film made and how does this effect the scenes that were filmed? What can these films tell us as artifacts in themselves? In our “archaeological” examination of ethnographic film, we will read the current interdisciplinary literature regarding materiality and excavate the context of these anthropological artifacts. This course satisfies the second half of the University’s Reading and Composition requirement.

The Reading and Composition requirement is a two-part writing skills class that all undergraduates have to take to graduate. The first class is the basics of writing and the second class, which is what this course description is for, is for intensive reading and writing on a particular topic. The only prerequisite is that the student has taken the first class–no Anthro or Media Studies is required to take the class.

Anyway, it is my first course description and I have no idea if it sounds of any interest at all to undergraduates. Any thoughts? Too boring, complex, or obscure?

Dead Birds and Penis Sheaths

Part of grad student professionalization as nascent professors is developing your own class syllabi.  I already have a bit of experience in this from teaching Ancient World History at San Quentin, and Ruth allows a fair amount of my input into the classes we teach together.  Still, it’s good to have a few stock syllabi, especially for job applications and the like.

I’ve been trying to develop a syllabus for a class I’d really like to teach and this involves watching a lot (more) ethnographic films.  I’ve seen quite a few already, but access to these films is restricted at UC – we have to go into the media room and watch them in uncomfortable little cubicles.  Needless to say, my further research has been fairly limited.  That is, until UC gained trial access to Alexander Street Press’ Ethnographic Video Online.  It’s a pay model, but I’m really pleased with the format and the interactive follow-along transcript accompanying the movie.  Our trial access runs until May 4th and I hope it is extended, but in the meantime I’ve been soaking up as much ethnographic film as I can stomach.

Earlier this week I watched Robert Gardener’s 1964 classic Dead Birds. He filmed it among the Dani of West Papua, who at the time he characterized as having an “almost Neolithic culture.”  The film follows a day-in-the-life-of narrative structure, following the lives of a Dani man, woman, and child.  The narrative is done entirely in voice-over, with Robert Gardener’s solemn, commanding voice telling us the inner dialogues and motivations that drive the on-screen action of these people.  He notably characterizes the child Pua as being lazy, smaller, and more awkward than his playmates.  Poor Pua.

In 2007, Robert Gardener released a book about the film, Making Dead Birds, which includes his extensive notes while taking the film, along with an amazing collection of letters and photographs of his time with the Dani.  It reveals the impact that his stay had on the people, and of the reactions they had to his film, many years later.  In all, it’s a great resource, especially for the class that I’m planning.

One small consideration that adds to the challenge of teaching this material is the Dani’s gourd penis sheaths.  They’re pretty standard ethnographic fare–Peter Ucko published a comparative study of them in 1969 that is a classic (and at times hilarious) study of material culture.  They are a somewhat distracting feature of the film, with different morphological details and attachment schemes sometimes upstaging the interaction between people.  A higher-minded anthropologist would probably disdain my distraction, but it brings to mind cultivation strategies, processing times, and the possibility of even recognizing such a thing archaeologically.  So, Dead Birds makes the cut. I hope I get the chance to teach it!