Beyond observation

A history of authorship in ethnographic film

By Paul Henley

Beyond observation


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Book Information

  • Format: Hardcover
  • ISBN: 978-1-5261-3134-8
  • Pages: 568
  • Publisher: Manchester University Press
  • Price: £85.00
  • Published Date: February 2020
  • BIC Category: PERFORMING ARTS / Film / Genres / Documentary, SOCIAL SCIENCE / Anthropology / General, The arts / Documentary films, Society & social sciences / Social & cultural anthropology, ethnography, Society & social sciences / Anthropology
  • Series: Anthropology, Creative Practice and Ethnography


Beyond Observation offers a historical analysis of ethnographic film from the birth of cinema in 1895 until 2015. It covers a large number of films made in a broad range of styles, in many different parts of the world, from the Arctic to Africa, from urban China to rural Vermont. It is the first extensive historical account of its kind and will be accessible to students and lecturers in visual anthropology as well as to those previously unfamiliar with ethnographic film

Among the early genres that Paul Henley discusses are French reportage films, the Soviet kulturfilm, the US travelogue, the classic documentaries of Robert Flaherty and Basil Wright, as well as the more academic films of Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson. Among the leading film-makers of the post-war period, he discusses Jean Rouch, John Marshall and Robert Gardner, as well as the emergence of Observational Cinema in the 1970s. He also considers 'indigenous media' projects of the 1980s, and the ethnographic films that flourished on British television until the 1990s.

In the final part, he examines the recent films of David and Judith MacDougall, the Harvard Sensory Media Lab, and a range of films authored in a participatory manner, as possible models for the future.


Introduction: Authorship, Praxis, Observation, Ethnography

Part I: Histories: Ethnographic film in the twentieth century
1 The long prehistory of ethnographic film
2 Expeditions, melodrama and the birth of ethnofiction
3 The invisible Author: films of re-enactment in the postwar period
4 Records, not movies: the early films of John Marshall and Timothy Asch
5 Reflexivity and participation: the films of David and Judith MacDougall in Africa and Australia
6 Entangled voices: the complexities of collaborative authorship
7 The subject as Author: indigenous media and the Video nas Aldeias project

Part II: Authors: Three key figures
8 Jean Rouch: sharing anthropology
9 Robert Gardner: beyond the burden of the real
10 Colin Young: the principles of Observational Cinema

Part III: Television as meta-author: Ethnographic film in Britain
11 Ways of doing ethnographic film on British television
12 Beyond the 'disappearing world' - and back again
13 The decline of ethnographic film on British television

Part IV: Beyond observation: Ethnographic film in the twenty-first century
14 The evolution of Observational Cinema: recent films of David and Judith MacDougall
15 Negative capability and the flux of life: films of the Sensory Ethnography Lab
16 Participatory perspectives

An epilogue: Return to Kiriwina: the ethnographic film-maker as Author
APPENDIX: British Television Documentaries produced in collaboration with Ethnographic Researchers

Textual references
Film references


Paul Henley is Professorial Research Fellow at the Granada Centre for Visual Anthropology at the University of Manchester and an ethnographic film-maker. He was previously the founding director of the Granada Centre, 1987-2014.

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