Annotation: Lansing, Stephen. 1990. The Decolonization of Ethnographic Film

Lansing, Stephen. 1990. The Decolonization of Ethnographic Film. Visual Anthropology Review 6:13-15, 81.

As the author writes, anthropology’s positivist approach, and the idea that anthropology is almost a branch of natural history is “probably gone for good,” and has become “replaced with a more equivocal picture of a scholar who becomes engaged with the people he or she is studying in a complex web of exchanges of interactions” (13). However, as Lansing argues, visual anthropology has not engaged much in the shifting theoretical debate, for instance, on anthropological authorship. For visual anthropology to be taken seriously, Lansing calls for it to be seen in the context of ethnography, and not as a branch of documentary film. Lansing sites an example the “Fogo Process,” which pertains to a collaborative film method used in Fogo Island in Nepal. The Fogo Process included “Approval Screenings” wherein the people filmed and their communities were allowed to give comments, an activity which became more complex as the audience become more engaged. An interesting development from this project was the production of a film called “Our Community, Our Message,” produced by the women community members themselves. The women also became in charge of the consecutive film training sessions for their fellow community members. Lansing argues that visual anthropology (film, in this case), provides a catalyst for communities to discover themselves. However, with the women taking control of the camera, Lansing asks, “Are we, in truth, afraid to relinquish control?” (15). Does the need for a visual anthropologist vanish when the film subjects begin to speak for themselves? Finally, the author (81) concludes that, first, there remains an unconscious positivism at the heart of the documentary tradition which accepts film as an uncomplicated representation of “reality.” Second, collaboration in filmmaking and negotiation of meaning, as seen in the Fogo film process, could be seen as a shift away from Orientalism, or the spectacularization of the exotic peoples – one of visual anthropology’s main subjects.

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