ethnographic films

Ethnographic film is film for a small geeky audience with an interest in micro-anthropological studies of audiovisual and experimental character. In short, it is about how to use the medium of film as an academic language to describe, analyze, intervene, and generate new knowledge about human life.

Movies can bring us close to human experience in ways that are almost impossible in ordinary academic articles. Ethnographic film is also a platform for dialogue between researchers and the people being studied, which are always co-creators of the analytic product.

As cinematic analysis starts from the very moment you turn on the camera, films provide unique insights into the creation of anthropological knowledge. Christian Suhr is in charge of persona film’s production of ethnographic film.


Descending with Angels

By Christian Suhr

‘Descending with Angels’ explores perceptions of illness and healing among Danish Muslim. In particular, I examine categories of mental illnesses that in a Western context often are described by diagnoses such as depression, anxiety, stress, schizophrenia, etc. In an Islamic context many of these illnesses are perceived as divine trials. Often these illnesses are understood as the result of harmful attacks by spirits, evil eyes, or magic.

The source of healing is ultimately provided by the divine which is addressed through the reading of Quranic verses, exorcisms, holy water, or the removal of dirty blood. I explore how these illnesses and their healing are experienced and understood by Muslim healers and patients. As part of my project I also look at how Muslim patients meet the Danish Psychiatric system. Here different interpretations of similar symptoms often give rise to conflicting discussions about possible treatments.

Ethnographic filmmaking is used as a method to get close to human experience. Video allow us access to human emotions and sensations in ways that are almost impossible in traditional academic writing. My forthcoming PhD-thesis I try to exploit the qualities of both written and cinematic means of expression. Overall, my project is about how humankind encounters the unknown and the invisible. Suffering is in its essence invisible and irreducible. In a healing process, it is, however, essential that the disorder is given some form or shape, so that action may become possible.

Film production can also be understood as a means of giving a tangible shape to the invisible. In my work I explore how montage and various other forms of cinematic manipulation can be used creatively to evoke the invisible.

New article co-authored by Christian Suhr and Rane Willerslev: ‘Can film show the invisible: The work of montage in ethnographic filmmaking’ (Current Anthropology 43(3): 282-301).

Unity through culture

By Christian Suhr and Ton Otto
58 min, 2011

Soanin Kilangit is determined to unite the people and attract international tourism through the revival of culture on Baluan Island in the South Pacific. He organizes the largest cultural festival ever held on the island. But some traditional leaders argue that Baluan never had culture. Culture comes from the white man and is now destroying their old tradition. Others, however, take the festival as a welcome opportunity to revolt against ’70 years of cultural oppression’ by Christianity. A struggle to define the past, present and future of Baluan culture erupts to the sound of thundering log drum rhythms.

Film Festivals, Screenings & Awards

The Intangible Culture Film Prize
The Richard Werbner Award for Visual Ethnography
Royal Anthropological Institute Festival for
Ethnographic Film (London, June 2011)
EASA (Paris, July 2012)
Taiwan International Ethnographic Film Festival (Taipei, November 2011)
SVA Festival, AAA Meeting (Montreal, November 2011)
Hawaii International Film Festival HIFF (Honolulu, October 2011)
The International Festival for Ethnological Film (Belgrade, October 2011)
VISCULT – Festival of Visual Culture (Joensuu, September 2011)
Days of Ethnographic Cinema (Moscow, September 2011)
The NAFA Festival (St Andrews, August 2011)
IUAES/AAS/ASAANZ Conference 2011 (Perth, July 2011)
Royal Anthropological Institute Festival for Ethnographic Film (June 2011)
Broadcasted twice at Taiwan Indiginous TV (Taipei, 2011)

Ngat is dead

By Christian Suhr and Ton Otto co-directed by Steffen Dalsgaard
59 min, 2009

What do anthropologists mean when they claim to study the cultural traditions of others by participating in them? This film follows the Dutch anthropologist Ton Otto, who has been adopted by a family on Baluan Island in Papua New Guinea. Due to the death of his adoptive father, he has to take part in mortuary ceremonies, whose form and content are passionately contested by different groups of relatives. Through prolonged negotiations, Ton learns how Baluan people perform and transform their traditions and not least what role he plays himself. The film is part of long-term field research, in which filmmaking has become integrated in the ongoing dialogue and exchange between the islanders and the anthropologist.

“Straddling the permeable genres of ethnographic, participatory, and narrator-driven documentary, this one-hour DVD will be an extremely useful teaching resource. It presents anthropological insights prompted by filmmaking grounded in long-term familiarity and involvement with a community. It also demonstrates the benefits of an anthropologically trained film crew. … As an ethnographic film that demonstrates the value and developing insights of long-term fieldwork,this is excellent.” — Mike Poltorak, University of Kent, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, Volume 16, Issue 4, December 2010

Film Festivals, Screenings & Awards

Freiburger Film Forum, Germany, 2009
Royal Anthropological Institute International Festival of Ethnographic
Film, Leeds, England, 2009
Prix du Patrimoine Culturel Immatériel, Jean Rouch International Film
Festival, Paris, 2008
Beeld voor Beeld, Bogotá, Colombia, 2008
DIEFF, Delhi International Ethnographic Film Festival, Delhi, India, 2008
13th Mostra Internacional do Filme Etnográfico, Brazil, 2008
IV Moscow International Visual Anthropology Festival, Russia, 2008
VISCULT 2008: The Festival of Visual Culture, Finland, 2008
SIEFF, Sardinia International Ethnographic Film Festival, Nuoro, Italy, 2008
XXII Pärnu International Film Festival, Estonia, 2008
Beeld voor Beeld, Amsterdam, 2008
Days of Ethnographic Film, Ljubljana, Slovenia, 2008
Worldfilm: Tartu Festival of Visual Culture, Estonia, 2008
BILAN, Jean Rouch International Film Festival, Paris, 2008
The International Ethnographic Film Festival of Quebec, Canada, 2008
XVI International Festival of Ethnological Film in Belgrade, Serbia, 2007
TIEFF, Taiwan International Ethnographic Film Festival, Taipei, Taiwan, 2007
NAFA, Nordic Anthropological Film Festival in Trondheim, Norway, 2007
Documentary Educational Ressources
Royal Anthropological Institute

Want a Camel, Yes?

By Christian Suhr and Mette Bahnsen

36 min, 2004 Want a Camel, Yes? By Christian Suhr and Mette Bahnsen 36 min, 2005 Want a Camel, Yes? takes us to the pyramids in Giza, Egypt. We are shown the interaction between camel drivers and tourists. Through price negotiations, conversations and interviews, we get an insight into how they imagine and understand each other and what they think constitute a good trip to the pyramids. Distribution: persona film