Ethnographic Cinema

Robert J. Flaherty – Nanook of the North (1922)

In this silent predecessor to the modern documentary, film-maker Robert J. Flaherty spends one year following the lives of Nanook and his family, Inuit living in the Arctic Circle. (IMDb) Read More »

Robin Anderson & Bob Connolly – Joe Leahy’s Neighbours [+ Extras] (1989)

This film is the follow-up to First Contact. It traces the fortunes of Joe Leahy, the mixed-race son of Australian explorer Michael Leahy, in his uneasy relationship with his tribal neighbours. Joe built his coffee plantation on land bought from the Ganiga in the mid 1970s. European educated, raised in the highlands of Papua, freed by his mixed race from the entanglements of tribal obligation, Joe leads a Western lifestyle governed by individualism and the pursuit of affluence. Read More »

Makoto Satô – Aga no kioku AKA Memories of Agano (2005)

Satō Makoto discovered documentary film when he visited Minamata (well known as the former site of an environmental disaster) as a student, and worked on Katori Naotaka’s The Innocent Sea. While touring Japan with the film, he met people who lived by the polluted Agano River in Niigata and decided to make a film about them. Living there with seven crew members for three years, Living on the River Agano was completed in 1992 and showed people who live with the river and work in agriculture and fishing, quietly probing the cruelty of nature destroyed. Ten years later, and after attending several funerals of people who appeared in the first feature, the team returned to the area. The resulting film Memories of Agano is a ghostly poem on people, fields, stories, songs and buildings receding into absence, the power of images and the strength of sound to revive the past. Read More »

Victor von Plessen – Kopfjäger von Borneo aka Headhunters of Borneo (1936)

Baron Victor von Plessen’s “Kopfjäger von Borneo” (1936) is a magnificent early ethnographic film. A painter, ornithologist and ethnographer, von Plessen (1900-1980) apparently was an independent spirit of independent financial means. There is absolutely no indication for the fact that this was produced in Third Reich Germany, but this might nevertheless account for the relative obscurity into which this film has sadly fallen. Read More »

Nikolaus Geyrhalter – Elsewhere (2001)

In 2000, the final year of the twentieth century, Nikolaus Geyrhalter and his crew set out with a video camera to film twelve, self-contained ethnographic episodes, each encapsulating a month-long document of the lives of people who perform their quotidian rituals in a figurative Elsewhere, as follow: Read More »

Dennis O’Rourke – Cannibal Tours (1988)

Quote:Cannibal Tours is a 1988 documentary film by Australian director and cinematographer Dennis O’Rourke. While it borrows heavily from ethnographic modes of representation, the film is a biting commentary on the nature of modernity. Read More »

Michael Pilz – Himmel und Erde AKA Heaven and Earth (1983)

Michael Pilz’s 285-minute Himmel and Erde is an essay film or an ethnographic documentary about life in the Styrian mountain village of St. Anna. It contemplates the finite lot of individuals as part of a continuum of human experience in the natural world. Himmel und Erde, which translates to Heaven and Earth, was recorded between 1979 and 1982. The documentary invites the viewer to contemplate the disruptive effects of technology on economic and social ties through circumscribed vignettes of village life which are oft repeated either as recycled footage or variations on a theme. The film is a meditation on time, nature, and the struggles of man, as well as a record of a lifestyle ceasing to exist. “If you let it happen, the film will pull you into its cosmos; it is one of those works that teaches you to see and listen again.” Read More »