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Local Film Tweets

A Primer in Observation

In an intimate, 10-person course that spans one year and the globe, Harvard students document people and places.

By Marilyn D. Pennell

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Sonum, as observed by Bridget Hanna, in This Much I Know.

A 16-year-old Indian girl dressed in a beautiful silk tunic dances across the screen to the music of Bollywood.  She is upbeat, joyful and spontaneous.  A few moments later, the young woman is lying on a sofa, writhing in pain.  Sonum is suffering from the effects of polluted water in her town in northern India.  The problem stems from a medical college that dumped waste into a local river in Meerut, India, causing environmental illness among local people.  Sonum’s physical and emotional transformation, captured on video, is gut-wrenching and dramatic. 

These scenes are part of a 25-minute documentary video entitled This Much I Know produced by Bridget Hanna, a student in the Sensory Ethnography workshop, co-sponsored by Harvard University’s departments of Visual and Environmental Studies (VES) and Anthropology.  Hanna is one of 10 graduate and undergraduate students in this innovative interdisciplinary course in media anthropology, taught by Harvard professors Lucien Taylor and Jeff Silva.  The yearlong course immerses students in the theory and practice of art, ethnography, and documentary film. 

Though the course draws upon the traditions of documentary, ethnographic, and experimental film, there is “no firm root in any practice,” according to Silva.  Instead, the instructors challenge students to push the boundaries of traditional concepts and practices of both ethnography and filmmaking, “What’s important is we don’t impose ideology and style on students,” said Silva.  “Students can express themselves the way they want to, but they do it with a sense of understanding of what they are doing and why they do it.” 

What sets this ambitious program apart from the many film and documentary programs now sprouting up in undergraduate and graduate schools across the country is its emphasis on the exploration of culture through film.  Students come to the class from a wide variety of academic backgrounds.  Some have never picked up a professional video camera.  Working with the instructors and each other, they start out by learning how to use the tools of filmmaking and apply them in the production of a series of short audio and video works on a variety of themes. 

The students begin with the spring semester in the classroom and field, working on short films, watching films, and studying the visual aesthetics of film genres.  Many of the films screened in the workshop are “exemplary” and inspirational, said VES graduate student Verena Paravel, as she worked on a film project in one of the program’s editing suites, “[The professors] feed you with amazingly beautiful pieces of art and film.” 

Assignments include a series of production projects, including an audio-only soundscape; a silent biographical portrait; a portrait of a place; two interviews; an observational sequence; and a substantial work of media ethnography. Through these assignments, the students flex their creative and intellectual muscle and develop a keen aesthetic sense honed through intense group critiques. 

“The wonderful thing about this class is that nobody’s here to say ‘that’s great’,” said Stephanie Spray, “It’s a very vulnerable space, but people feel comfortable and it’s an honest critique.  You know what’s wrong, what’s good and where to go.” 

The sequence of assignments builds one skill to the next and the work is provocative.  One telling example is an observational film entitled La Recompensa, produced by student John Hulsey.  The film opens with a close up of the face of an unshaven man, singing in Spanish. 

As the man’s face moves in and out of the frame, the viewer is left to wonder, “Who is this man and why should I watch him?”  There is no narration and there are no traditional interviews. 

“So few eggs for so much work,” says the man. 

But the visual images and natural sound are so compelling that one cannot turn away.  The camera continues to observe the man and his companions as they dig for ants, through the day and into the night. 

“The importance of the class is that there is less training to manipulate technology and more training for us to find ways to experience the world,” said Hulsey. 

There is beauty in the images and sounds captured by the young filmmaker.  At the same time, the images and sounds almost make one’s skin crawl.  Hulsey’s approach to filmmaking seems to be a cross between the intellectual discipline of ethnography and the art of film. As he put it, “It’s about the essential reverence for the daily practices of people, none of which is privileged over the other.” 

Most importantly, films like La Recompensa and This Much I Know give the viewer an unfiltered sense of person and place.  And, a sense of place is the bottom line for these filmmakers.  In fact, the overarching goal of the Sensory Ethnography course is for students to use the art of filmmaking to better understand place and to inform their own cultural investigation.  As the students said so well, the films that they create are not just products but are part of a larger process. 

“We’re not being schooled to take our place in one genre of film,” said one student, “We’re trying to flesh out our own idea of what filmmaking is and what can be made from film.” 

However, there is also a strong emphasis on art and aesthetics in the students’ work.  The culminating course project is a 20-minute work of media ethnography “based on extensive participant observation, original research, and creative development in either film, sound, still photography, hypermedia, or a combination,” according to the course syllabus.  During the summer, the students take their work to the next level with in depth media ethnography projects, in the field.  Many travel to remote areas around the globe, immersing themselves in the culture.  In the fall, they return to Harvard to edit their work. 

“The reality of the summer experience is to be put in a place and only depend on yourself,” said Hulsey, who is now working on a film project about transnational migration in the Canary Islands. 

Other student media ethnography projects include: Alex Fattal’s film about the island of Belem in northern Brazil; JP Sniadecki’s film about three major events that are shaping the Sichuan area in China; Elizabeth Rose’s film about a bi-lingual town in Quebec; Verena Paravel’s film about globalization, shot in New York City; Bridget Hanna’s film about children and the effects of the 1894 Bophal gas disaster in India; Stephanie Spray’s film Kale and Kalele about an uncle and nephew in Nepal; and Alexander Berman’s film about reindeer herders in Siberia. 

In a group meeting with the students at a Harvard classroom, Berman recalled how he spent three weeks in a camp in the woods of Siberia with no refrigerator, eating whatever the reindeer herders hunted.  He said the experience was physically demanding and forced him to think about the material aspects of life that people often don’t consider. 

The current series of student media ethnography films are now in post-production.  Fine cuts will be screened at the end of January 2009 at the Harvard Film Archive.  Silva said that the audience for the students’ work is “an evolving question.”  Many students in previous classes have had their films screened at both artistic and ethnographic film festivals around the world.  (A year ago Noelle Stout’s Luchando screened at the Boston Latino Film Festival, for example.)  Some films are now in distribution. 

“What we really want to do is to make an impact on all the disciplines of anthropology, documentary film, and art,” said Silva.  “We want these works to engage with but also critique the conventions within these fields and hopefully to foster new dialogues within them.  We want these films shown within all possible contexts, academic, artistic and general audience." 

Click here for more information about the Sensory Ethnography course at Harvard and the student films.

Jeff Daniel Silva will be present with his documentary, Balkan Rhapsodies: 78 Measures of War, at 7 pm on October 20th at Harvard Film Archive.  The film takes place in former Yugoslavia, using the 78-day NATO bombing campaign in 1999 as its structural backbone.

Related Images: From John Hulsey's La Recompensa.
Still from Verena Paravel's Disoriented Stroll, under the 7 train in Queens.