Ethnographic Filmmaking and the Scientific Study of Religion

What happens when a social scientist uses a camera as a tool in ethnographic fieldwork? For a decade prior to pursuing graduate school, I worked as a composer, film editor and documentary filmmaker. When I began my formal study of the anthropology of religious communities, I decided to apply my filmmaking experience to my research process—to both the data collection and the research presentation. I thought it would be a rich way to retain the detail of my fieldwork, and a helpful way to humanize the data in my classroom, bringing directly to my American college classrooms the narratives of Indonesian women who wear hijab (full-length version here), kids in secular Jewish communities, religious activists Occupying Wall Street, ecumenical eco-activists in the Italian Alps, Benedictine monastery volunteers in Wisconsin, and hard scientists who study religious experience (also here, in shorter episodes).

When I am working on a documentary film, I encounter many dilemmas and decisions as I switch hats between filmmaker, anthropologist, and left-leaning political progressive. I try to truthfully represent what I encounter in the field, and regardless of whether I harbor a vested interest in subjects appearing in a positive light, I find that the field asserts itself in film in an unavoidable way. I can only film what is actually happening. Social movements are messy, people have their own agendas and motivations, and documentary film subjects have lives of their own. Not everybody I film says things that I agree with or support. Not every moment on camera is flattering for the subject. Sometimes I have an artistic agenda or idea of the “thesis” I want my film to advance, but it isn’t confirmed or demonstrated by anything I capture in film. So time and time again I have to surrender my control of the story that is being told. The world can only be filmed as it is, and in film these subjects are not obstructed by my descriptions, language choices, or interpretive frameworks. In some ways, ethnographic filmmaking provides quality control for social scientific integrity.

It is also important to consider how ethnographic filmmaking disrupts empirical research methodology. For example, I have found that using a video camera in a field site can be very distracting and disruptive for subjects. They become more self-conscious about who will hear what they say, and more concerned about their appearance (women more than men). Usually in the field I try to be a participant-observer, and to conduct field interviews as cultural exchanges, as somewhat mutual, connected conversations. But the presence of a camera usually renders me more into an observer who objectifies a person or a community activity for my own purposes. When I carry a camera my presence is conspicuous and voyeuristic, and my ability to participate and connect with people is hampered. I question how “authentic” certain perspectives or events remain when represented in front of a camera. The collection of social scientific field data may be compromised by the presence of a camera.

Ethnographic filmmaking is subject to many of the same constraints of traditional ethnographic analysis; the filmmaker is as “invisibly present” in the collection and ordering of data as is the ethnographic fieldworker. Film is a rich medium that may come across as “objective” or seem to represent “real life,” but the camera is still pointed discriminatingly at objects and happenings deemed interesting by the filmmaker.

The act of editing footage is a manipulation of the pure data. I believe that film conveys data in a more textured and vibrant way than do tables or transcripts, but it is still heavily shaped into meanings chosen by the filmmaker. Although the raw footage may stand for data, as soon as the film editing process begins, that data is processed and ordered according to the editor’s understanding and preferences. I edit footage into a streamlined artistic piece, with a musical soundtrack and a narrative structure, prioritizing pace, clarity and message in order to have a classroom-ready conversation-starter. With music and certain cuts, I can make certain characters seem funnier, smarter, more likable, or even antagonistic—thereby influencing the viewer’s experience of certain happenings. Even as I order this data to foster a conversation, I still want the viewing experience to be more entertaining and succinct than real life actually is. Thus it seems disingenuous to pretend that documentary film is an “objective” presentation of data.

The “run and gun” style of documentary filming also introduces some complexities around permissions and consent. When I interview someone in the traditional ethnographic style, I am required by Boston University’s Institutional Review Board to secure consent from the subject to use their information, and to explain to them how I will use it. The Review Board is in place to protect human subjects from unethical or risky consequences of research, and to ensure that subjects remain in control of their private information and image.

When I am filming “b-roll”—footage outside of a formal interview—the issue of consent becomes much more difficult. If I want to film a religious ritual, service, or public event, it is usually impossible for me to ask every person in every shot to sign a release contract. “B-roll” scenery is a crucial part of setting the stage for a documentary narrative and conveying action and context. But it is not subject to the same type of consent process that interviews are.

Ethnographic film is a sui generis medium for collecting and presenting sociological data, with distinct goals and outcomes. A film is a vibrant living document of religious life and thinking. But it cannot engage in conceptual social scientific “theorizing” about the construct of Jewish identity, the function of religion in social movements, or politics of the Muslim veil. More traditional academic formats are required for the work of theorizing religion. Taken together, the formats can provide a wide array of considerations and stimulate different types of reflection. The mediums can overlap, but they are still quite distinct in their potentials.

Am I an anthropologist or an artist? Can I be both or are they mutually exclusive? When the footage is edited, how exactly is the data set disrupted? I believe these questions abound for every ethnographic filmmaker.

I find that documentary film brings religious matters to life in a provocative and approachable way for college students–many of whom spend their days watching video clips on the internet anyway. Film commands their attention in a way that reading sometimes fails to do; in other words, film helps me speak the language of the people I am talking to. Beyond the university classroom, film fosters a common experience and allows viewers more interpretive leverage for discussing particular topics. But as a medium for ethnographic analysis, it has many limits that should be taken into consideration.

Photo courtesy of the author.

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One thought on “Ethnographic Filmmaking and the Scientific Study of Religion

  1. As a performer and researcher in Religion and culture, I encounter some of the same issues about theory and ethnographic detail. However, I found the practice of art- making a film, dance, drama, etc.- is very useful for working with theory. There are many new works on the performer as researcher that would be applicable here. But, it is essential to stop thinking of Religion as a scientific study, or even Anthropology. Religion is a study in the Humanities, and while it may be useful to find hard data and statistics, even Pew studies on religion are questionable because of how data is collected. What is wrong with Religion as a study of what it means to be human?

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