Writing: Film :: Left Brain : Right Brain?
How should scholars think about the relations of documentary film to scholarly writing? This has debated for more than fifty years, and the following positions can be identified:
1. Writing is [Self]-Sufficient. This view is held implicitly, and sometimes consciously by those academics who are satisfied to teach and research through written forms alone. Many anthropologists have been willing to include photographs in monographs, and most textbooks use them too. But much teaching is through lectures, discussions and student reading, with no inclusion of photos or films as intrinsic components at any point.
2. Hierarchical Division of Labour: Again, often an implicit view expressed through the idea that writing is the dominant cognitive skill for recording ethnography, analysis and theoretical argument, but that photos, and perhaps films have their [subordinate] place, as supporting or complementing the all-important words. This is roughly the position of Kirtsen Hastrup, which will be evaluted in a moment.
3.Complementary Division of Labour: This is the view argued by many enthusiasts for “the visual” and it is expressed through arguments which elaborate the special characteristics of still or moving photographic images, for recording social actions in real-time. Sometimes these arguments are developed in a direction reminiscent of Carl Sagan’s popular contrast between the two sides of the brain, the left side being that which is specialised on linear cause-and-effect relations, logic, and the mechanistic structured relations needed in, for example, engineering; whereas the right brain is specialised in pattern-recognition, metaphorical linkages, intuitive understandings. So writing would link to left-brain activities, and film to right-brain. Since we need both brain specialisations to function effectively, the balanced interdependence of this “division of labour” calls for more use of film to meet the needs writing cannot meet. We respcet individuals who are clearly highly focused for one kind of brain-activity rather than the other, and very creative in their favoured mode . But “balance” is often arguably to be desired for most of us.
4. The Visual as Radical Challenge. This argument has been put forward in its most sophisticated form by the distinguished ethnographic documentarist David MacDougall, who is also known for his contributions to theory in documentary film. MacDougall suggests that well-wrought films can work to challenge deep-seated assumptions of a conceptually conservative character. This may be through portraying individuals “in depth”, rather than in the confines of the written “ case history”. Sometimes, the argument is developed that Visual Anthropology is poised to cause a major re-think within non-visual mainstream theory , but as it is made in writing, there is a sense of the advocate elegantly sawing off the branch on which s/he is ‘positioned.’
Because social researchers have often been single-minded about expressing themselves through the written word, it has sometimes seemed like an uphill battle to get them to take in what film and photography have to offer. In the early days of sophisticated ethnographic films being shown on British TV - the late 1960s and early 1970s, it was common for an academic to review a well-made documentary film, deplore the lack of information in the commentary, and complain that with the budget for this film, a goodly number of PhDs might have been funded. But as films usually work best if they use fewer rather than more commentary words, and television companies are not in the business of funding PhDs, these reviews tended to miss the value of the films as contributions in their own right. By the mid-seventies such films seemed to be sending a stream of young people to study anthropology [I write as a former admissions tutor] and today most British anthropology departments will have film showings as a routine complement to formal teaching, and will probably have an optional course which is focused on ‘Visual Anthropology’. The film-wallahs seem to be Home but not yet completely Dry.
There has been, inevitably, inevitably, a fight-back from some anthropologists sceptical of the inflated claims made for The Visual. Kirsten Hastrup  has set out her views at some length in a prestigious collection [[Crawford & Turton, eds.] She argues that writing can produce relatively “thick” records of social events, and give a illuminating sense of social contexts; it can show the significance of social spaces, providing an itinerary rather than merely a map; and lastly it epistemologically encompasses or contains the semantic aspects of films. Photography, in contrast gives thinner descriptions, dwelling as it must on visual forms, it shows places, merely, not spaces, and what ever its strengths, it must play second fiddle to textual anthropology.
Hastrup allows that film has some strengths, which she calls blow-up and show-up effects in allowing us to discover small but significant details not noticed by the ethnographer eyes during the fieldwork encounter. She is very far from denying film as being useful to the academy. She accepts the power of films in conveying the plurality of the world, their value as historical resources, and as means of advocacy. But then she draws her hard line:
"As for their anthropological value, however, films are not on equal terms with ethnographic writing. They are not in conflict, nor are they just complementary modes of expression, because they do not operate on the same logical level. Rather, they are hierarchically related. Writings may encompass the images produced by films, but not the other way round, just as anthropological writings about the 'Other' by logical necessity, are hierarchically related to the voices of this stylized 'Other' [Dumont, 1986,p266;Hastrup 1991]"
Her argument is elegant, and theoretically sophisticated, but it is flawed. It depends for persuasiveness on a powerful fieldwork-based incident, about which more in a moment, and this is reinforced by her initial approach, which is based on an exaggeration [her words] [which] “ consists in separating completely the visual and textual modes of representation, as if films had no subtexts and books never had pictures.” This exaggeration is fatal , a killer assumption, as I shall show in a moment. But first, let us address her high-impact field illustration.
She describes trying as an ethnographer to observe and photograph a “remarkable cultural event” in Iceland in which 40 male farmers came together in a large barn to judge the quality of 120 rams. Comments were made on several aspects of the rams, but the decisive factor seems to have been the size and weight of the ram’s testicles, and Hastrup suggests that their owners were competing as men in a potency contest, a view which seems fanciful. There were sexual jokes and laughter, and side-long glances at the ethnographer, who eventually left out of “sheer embarrassment”. Later, her photograps proved disappointing – “completely uninteresting backs of men and rams”. And then: “This is the point: the nature of the event could not be recorded in photography. The texture of maleness and sex which filled the room had been an intense sensory experience, but it was invisible. The reality of the total social event had been transformed into a two-dimensional image, a souvenir [cf Sontag 1979,p 9] For me it invokes a particular memory, for others the information is very limited.” [Hastrup 1992:9]
There is clearly something interesting in this judgement, but it is not fully persuasive. The interesting thought is that representations necessarily miss elements of what was present. An uncaptioned still photograph evidently misses smells, animal body sounds, and the jokes of the men. But a written account evokes these – it does not reproduce them as they were available to the senses. A written text is a reduction to lines on a page of what was a much more complex phenomenon in which the five senses were simultaneously engaged. Because Hastrup writes well, my imagination as a reader is stimulated to “fill in” the smells, the sounds and the jokes, and even imagine the feel of the ram’s testicles in a man’s hand. But Hastrup has not “recorded” that event. She has evoked it. In this respect, both text and image are highly reductive of much more complex events and sensations. They are more alike than different.
I accept that writing has more possibilities in terms of the layering which Goffman has termed “frame analysis”.
But Hastrup’s “exaggeration” strategy renders her argument misleading. Precisely because we most commonly use photographs with captions, [whether written underneath, or a verbal comment such as “This is my brother in 1985”] I can imagine some highly effective photographs of this event, which would have evoked it much more thickly and persuasively than the disappointing photos Hastrup ended up with. We would need to have pushed into the circle of men judging, and got shots of a man’s hand grasping a ram’s testicles, while other men look on. As Hastrup admits, here a male ethnographer might have had the advantage. Then we could add the jokes which the men were making while this went on, by way of captions. Of course , using still photos, the smells and the animal sounds and Hastrup’s experience of embarrassment would still be missing. In a film the lthese could be conveyed, for in a reflexive reportage film Hastrup could herself tell us “There is a powerful smell of men, animals and sex in this space.”
We almost never expect a photograph to “speak for itself” – to appear without a caption. Nor do we commonly make films without
words, whether those of the speaking subjects, of inter-titles, of commentaries. Once Hastrup allows that in most practical applications, we can use photos to amplify and enrich a written text, and words to elucidate images, the power of her comparison is greatly diminished. The abstract logic of her argument and comparison are reduced in impact when we compare real-world mixed strategies of usage, words-with-pictures, and pictures-with-words.
So what is left? Here are some comments which try to tease out the comparative qualities of the two media as they normally occur:
1] Particularity: Films dwell upon particular places, but the people who use these places can explain them to us so that their significance as social spaces becomes accessible.
2]Privileged Images: because films show particular people in such a way as to make them stand out memorably, films normally act as instruments of empirical particularism which can privilege the person seen and heard whether they are more generally typical and representative, or not. This can be a problem. The issue is discussed by documentary film makers as “casting”. Where a film may concentrate on a handful of vivid people, a written text can deal with a range of people, a few foregrounded, named and known in depth, a greater number briefly adduced, and some appearing as statistical aggregates. Writers face fewer problems about the privileging of foreground persons – balance is easier to achieve.
3] Unusual/Typical : Films can show particular ethnographic subjects at particular moments in rather misleading and untypical ways. Film lacks a visual mechanism for the kinds of qualifications academics make in footnotes. If we show a man who happens to be a polygamist when 95% of the men in this society have only one wife, it needs a special phrase on the sound track to make this clear, and to stop the polygynist getting out of hand.
4]Abstraction: The written word is the form which is most effective for complex abstract arguments, and “high theory”. There are documentary films which present complex arguments, but film specialists are often inclined to see these films as plodding “lectures with moving images”. They favour films which use the inherent concrete empirical particularity of the medium, particularly its real-time recording functions. Film can work well for dramatic historical narrative, and it can be effective in ironic or poetic juxtaposition. Chaplin’s hungry little tramp is always oppressed by a huge overfed policeman - film “arguments” often work best by implication rather than by an explicit statement.
5] Real-Time Records: Film, particularly modern video forms, allow long uninterrupted real-time records of moving images and sounds, integrally related . They can thus produce records which record the phenomenal flux of specific events in a continuous stream. This can allow play-back, and re-analysis. The playback can be shown to the people who participated in the event and their explanations of who was there, what was being done, why it was happening can be recorded and re-integrated with the record, or merely stored to aid the ethnographer in a future written representation. This is particularly valuable for rituals and all social performances – dances, myth recitals, battles, house building, pottery making, heart surgery, pottery production. No ethnographer can write effective notes as efficiently and tirelessly as a video camera records.
6] Point of View: as Hastrup argues, a record may be thin, and unilluminating. A camera does not think or analyse. And it can only operate from the viewpoint of the moment. Whatever it records, other things must go unrecorded. An ethnographer with a rapid eye movement may “take in” a detail which would be missed had the camera been handled in a normally deliberate and “steady” manner.
The ethnographer potentially sees and understands much more than the camera.
7] Criteria: film-makers like films to use the film medium to its best. Other things being equal, a film with fewer words and no commentary may be preferred to a film with a rich wall-to-wall expository/explanatory commentary voice. Text—focused academics tend to prefer films with fuller explanations, and to be feel uneasy if explanation is withheld. They may be led to accept that “more words” will distract a viewer from seeing what is “in” the film.
But at the end of the day, an academic has as much right as a filmmaker to include explanations which help the mind to come to rest, particularly if the academic imagines other academics [rather than purist film enthusiasts] as the end-users.
We are ending this essay by adding on the text written by Howard Mophy for the book Journey to the Crocodile’s Nest. This monograph was written to accompany a film called Madarrpa Funeral at Gurka’wuy, directed by Ian Dunlop. In his essay Morphy succinctly makes clear the different properties and limitations of monograph and film when both are concerned with the same subject.