Visual anthropology review

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Although many prescient critiques have exposed the problems with filmic representations of other cultures, few authors have ethnographically investigated the way such representations are actually received by specific audiences. This paper tries to close this gap by investigating undergraduate perceptions of Bob Connolly and Robin Anderson’s 1983 film, “First Contact.”

Reliance on text-internal interpretations of cultural representations is partly due to disciplinary specialization: many critiques have come from literary scholars (e.g. Barker, Hulme, and Iversen 1993; Said 1978; Torgovnick 1997), who do not necessarily place a premium on ethnographic investigation, reader-response theory notwithstanding. Yet in anthropological circles as well, a similar situation prevails, especially when it comes to filmic representations. As Jay Ruby (2000:181) notes, “[T]he current state of knowledge about how viewers respond to ethnographic film (or any film, for that matter) is limited.”

Wilton Martínez, one of the few anthropologists to take ethnographic film reception seriously, showed how revealing such studies can be. Examining student responses to films shown in an introductory anthropology class in the late 1980s, Martínez (1990, 1992, 1995) demonstrated that many anthropological films confirmed rather than challenged students’ preconceptions of “primitive” Others—that despite the instructors’ best intentions, the films did more harm than good by perpetuating stereotypes.

Martínez’s studies have served as important cautionary tales, but unfortunately they remain almost the only ones of their kind. To be sure, recently scholars have begun to pay attention to what audiences make of non-filmic anthropological representations, especially in museum and tourism studies (Brettell 1993; Crick 1989; Garland and Gordon 1999; Jones 1993; Meisch 2002; Tomaselli 1999, 2002). Yet despite this new research direction and all the concerns in recent decades about audience reception of media texts like television serials (see Spitulnik 1993), few researchers have sought to replicate or extend Martínez’s studies of “ethnographic” or “anthropologically intended” films.1 Martínez’s studies essentially remain what they were almost 10 years ago: “the only sustained theoretical work on the audiences of ethnographic films” (Banks 1996:121). As Ruby (2000:183, 190-191) notes, Martínez’s work remains “the most extensive study of the reception of ethnographic film by college students….”2

Yet, as Ruby also points out, a chasm remains between the intentions of instructors who use ethnographic film (to reduce ethnocentrism) and the folk models of the audience viewing the films (students’ stereotypes of other cultures) (2000:186). For this and other reasons, Ruby has called for research on the reception of ethnographic films: “It seems only logical to suggest that if anthropologists wish to use film to convey their knowledge to others, they must learn more about the audience’s construction of meaning—that is, conduct ethnographic studies of film reception” (2000:181).

To answer Ruby’s call for research, in this paper I will investigate undergraduate perceptions of Connolly and Anderson’s film “First Contact (“FC” hereafter). There are several reasons why I chose to investigate this particular film, and why doing so promises to tell us something we don’t already know. First, this award-winning film is often shown in undergraduate anthropology classrooms, which, as relatively controlled environments, constitute “an ideal place to ethnographically explore the reception of films” (Ruby 2000:190).3 Second, “FC” is complex. This film offers contrasting view points, lacks a heavy-handed narrator’s voice-over, and encourages the reader to form his or her own conclusions, so viewer responses are not necessarily predictable. In fact, “FC” has already received clashing interpretations in print: some scholars see it as a liberal critique (Ruby 1995), while others see it as a text open to racist interpretations (MacBean 1994, 1995); and the director hotly disputes all such charges (Connolly 1996). As these exchanges indicate, this film is ripe for a study of viewer response. Finally, “FC” offers a good test case of Gananath Obeyesekere’s charge that Westerners have created a “myth model” of European explorers who become deified by natives upon first contact. This charge, which initiated an intense debate with Marshall Sahlins, shows that even more is at stake here than the validity of Martínez’s findings: fundamental questions are raised about how and whether anthropologists can ever know cultural others.

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