Ethnography/Documentary As Method


“And then, in filmmaking as in life, an early and genuine curiosity on both sides of the camera can produce a kind of spontaneity of its own; it sometimes leads to a kind of hearty and direct response to the camera (as when the pub owner drives up to the camera and puts on a performance) which can be extremely revealing”. Mark McCarty

This week’s readings put me in mind of the Anthony Bourdain show Parts Unknown. This show seems like an excellent opportunity to discuss the elements of ethnographic film as a technique and a tool as well as the value of such films.

The fact that this show is produced by and aired on CNN creates a certain assumption or expectation of objective reporting or scientific integrity. Though not a news broadcast, we suppose that there is a certain increased educational over entertainment value compared to Bourdain’s shows that aired on the Travel Channel. In addition to being a food and travel show, Parts Unknown inserts a political element that seems to intend to increase the ethnographic value of it. Now not only is Bourdain introducing us to the food traditions and behaviors of a given location and culture, he is contextualizing them politically, historically, and sometimes even economically. The show makes an effort to “evoke deeply positive feelings about mankind by communicating the essence of of a people” (de Brigard) through their food traditions. Bourdain is often very transparent about his struggles to synthesize his experiences into the kind of concise, neat, and hopeful messaging that his producers expect from him.

Which brings me to the “on the other hand” with regard to this show. Parts Unknown it not filmed according to the ethnographic tradition. It is not being filmed by a team of anthropologists. It is filmed in a matter of days rather than months. It is filmed for a television audience. It is filmed for both education and entertainment but not for research purposes. There are producers and a writing team and local fixers who orchestrate the action of each episode rather than attempting to simply capture behaviors in the most natural state possible. Conversations, meals, experiences, and action are all chosen and prearranged. The camera crew composes the scenes and shoots multiple takes, and before they hit the air the episodes are carefully edited; voice-overs are added.

Finally, although not pure ethnographic film, this show is certainly a cultural document. Not only does it have a certain amount of ethnographic value for the cultures it shows us, there is also great anthropological value for understanding the culture that produces such a show. Parts Unknown can tell us quite as much about Americans and our understanding of and interest in geopolitics as it can about the current climate in Istanbul.


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