Early Ethnographic Cinema

À travers le Portugal
P: Société Française des Films Éclair. Fr 1912
Dutch and Engl. titles
Print: EYE collection

Released in the US as a split reel along with the comedy Willy veut déjeuner sans payer (1912) and the documentary Le travail des femmes à Porto (1911).

“The concepts of supplementarity, in general, and ethnographic voice or sound, in particular, invite us to rethink the instabilities of early ethnographic cinema. Visual ethnography has long been described as a supplement. Visual anthropologist Karl Heider most famously used the term to demote ethnographic cinema to a kind of second-order ethnographic practice. Heider writes, ‘No ethnographic film can stand by itself. An ethnography is a written work which may be supplemented by film.’ Bringing Derrida and Heider together: early ethnographic cinema is inscribed within a two-fold process of supplementarity and free-play. It supplements the bodies and landscapes it aims to represent. It also supplements ethnographic writing. As a practice of secondary and vaguely defined utility, early ethnographic cinema welcomes the unexpected and the contingent in a way that its written complement actively tries to sew over. They contribute an order of displacement and decentering to a set of practices that are always and already operating on unstable ground. Put another way: these films do not have any obligations to coherence. As the visual supplement to the written supplement, they are the unnecessary extra, the imprecise something else. But in their shapeless imprecision, they show us the imprecision that has been there all along, lingering beneath the authority of the written word.
Early ethnographic cinema does not fill in the gaps of what remains unsaid. These films do not complete the evidentiary ethnographic whole. Rather, what we find across early ethnographic filmmaking is a field of freeplay, drawn to the noises and voices that cannot be put into words. Indeed, this silent cinema operates as a repository for the sensory excesses that disrupt written ethnographies with inarticulable and untranslatable pleasures. These films are condensations of feeling and flesh, dancing bodies and body parts. And, most importantly, in the silence that stretches across the dances and music making of the early ethnographic images, these films remind us of their own boundaries, of the voices and sounds that we still cannot hear.”
Katherine Groo

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