In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Ethnographic Film

  • Introduction
  • Definitions
  • Journals
  • Ethnographic Film as Research Footage
  • Theory
  • Critical Evaluation
  • Methods
  • Contemporary and Applied Ethnographic Film
  • Distributors

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Anthropology Ethnographic Film
Matthew Durington
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 April 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 September 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0110


Ethnographic film is the visual manifestation of anthropological practice organized into a lineal and moving media. While principally not created on actual celluloid film any longer, the moniker of “ethnographic film” is used for productions on a variety of tape and digital mediums. Although the form and content of ethnographic film has been questioned since its inception, it is often synonymously linked with visual anthropology as its defining practice. And, therefore, perhaps no other practice or concept in the lexicon of visual anthropology is more contested than ethnographic filmmaking. This is especially true as a number of nonlinear new media forms and modes of Internet distribution are becoming prevalent in the 21st century and open up opportunities for more individuals to use them. A number of questions surround the notion of ethnographic film. Who qualifies as an ethnographic filmmaker, and by what methods is it practiced in the larger field of anthropology? What is actually deemed an ethnographic film, and by what standards is it evaluated? Is film or video a legitimate methodological tool in anthropological fieldwork, and, if so, does it possess the capacity to convey or contain ethnographic knowledge in the same fashion as text based accounts? When contemplating the inclusion or evaluation of media in the ethnographic film genre one is often faced with the dilemma of what specific criteria, such as subject, practice, intent, and reception by an audience, define ethnographic film. Globally, there are numerous academic and training programs centered on ethnographic film production and theory that offer graduate degrees and certificates. Temple University’s Anthropology of Visual Communication program and the University of Southern California’s Center for Visual Anthropology are foundational programs in the United States that provide academic and production training on an undergraduate and graduate level in ethnographic film and visual anthropology. Manchester University’s Granada Centre for Visual Anthropology is another historic program in England that produces a large number of proficient documentary and ethnographic filmmakers. New York University’s Graduate Certificate Program in Culture and Media is fully integrated into the PhD program in anthropology. The program, which is interdisciplinary with cinema studies and the NYU Film School, emphasizes three aspects of contemporary work on culture and media: theoretical and historical approaches to ethnographic and experimental documentary, as well as postcolonial and indigenous media; ethnographic research on media practices throughout the world; and the production of ethnographic film/media. Harvard University’s Sensory Ethnography Lab offers a media anthropology doctorate and is affiliated with the Department of Visual and Environmental Studies, providing some of the most groundbreaking work in ethnography and visual methods. Visual anthropologist Peter Biella directs a program in visual anthropology at San Francisco State University. As ethnographic film increases in popularity, and access to audio-visual technology grows, the number of undergraduate courses focused on ethnographic film production continues to expand alongside the use of media technologies by professional anthropologists.


The term and conceptual meaning of ethnographic film is often used synonymously with the notion of visual anthropology as seen in the work of Hockings 2003, which provides broad analyses of a variety of perspectives. Ethnographic film is closely aligned with documentary film both in its history and form. Some have attempted to differentiate the two by categorizing films as either “ethnographic documentary” or “anthropologically intended cinema.” The most popular conception of ethnographic film is that it is a film about any non-Western culture, often considered to be exotic as critically noted in Ruby 1996. Ruby 2000 and Ruby 2005 argue for a strict definition of ethnographic film, limited to productions by individuals with anthropological training, preferably at a professional level combined with a media production background. Heider 2006, in a more expansive view, claims that any film can be considered ethnographic while providing a set of evaluative criteria to gauge ethnographic film for both research and pedagogy. The majority of texts discussing ethnographic film tend to focus on a series of Canonical Ethnographic Filmmakers who define the genre. Using Ruby’s parameters, many films largely accepted as ethnographic by their mere presence in ethnographic film festivals or discussed in ethnographic film literature would be excluded from any definition of ethnographic film. Heider’s conception of ethnographic film would include a variety of media produced without anthropological intent but that serve to embellish ethnographic knowledge. Perhaps somewhat ironically, the parameters of what actually constitutes an ethnographic film are not seen in the application of methods but are often dictated by a well-established genre of classic ethnographic films produced by a handful of individuals who are not necessarily anthropologists by trade. As discussed in Marcus 2006, the film Nanook of the North was not considered to be ethnographic by the filmmaker Robert Flaherty, although often heralded as the first documentary and ethnographic film by many. It is often viewed as ethnographic primarily due to Flaherty’s focus on a non-Western culture, long considered the main focus of anthropology, and the stated intent throughout the film to depict the “real life” of the Inuit. Ruby 1981 examines how, although Flaherty was not an anthropologist and, therefore, did not adhere to ethnographic methodology in his practice, he is often celebrated for the fact that he spent so much time with the Inuit and attempted to reflect an indigenous perspective, if not a personal relationship, in the construction of the narrative of the film by working with his main informant throughout the filmmaking process. Durington and Ruby 2011 offers a comprehensive definition of ethnographic film informed by a critical historical approach to the genre.

  • Durington, Matthew, and Jay Ruby. 2011. Ethnographic film. In Made to be seen: Perspectives on the history of visual anthropology. Edited by Marcus Banks and Jay Ruby. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226036632.001.0001

    A critical historical approach to the history of ethnographic film that attempts to situate a variety of films as examples of a distinctive field of visual inquiry for the discipline of anthropology as part of the larger intent of the essays in the edited volume.

  • Heider, Karl. 2006. Ethnographic film. Austin: Univ. of Texas Press.

    Originally published in 1976, alongside Hockings Principles of Visual Anthropology, Ethnographic Film is considered one of the canonical early texts on the relationship between ethnography and filmmaking. Heider creates a broad set of evaluative criteria for both ethnographic filmmaking and the determination of a variety of films as ethnographic for research and pedagogical purposes.

  • Hockings, Paul. 2003. Principles of visual anthropology. Berlin: De Gruyter.

    Originally published in 1975, this book is considered a classic in the field of visual anthropology. It contains several essays, including an introduction by Margaret Mead, and is still widely used as a primer for the field of visual anthropology. It was revised in 2003 to include additional essays and adjoining updates to original essays in the edited volume. Paul Hockings is also the editor of the journal Visual Anthropology.

  • Marcus, Alan. 2006. Nanook of the North as primal drama. Visual Anthropology 19.3–4: 201–222.

    DOI: 10.1080/08949460600656543

    The author, like many others, revisits the classic film Nanook of the North by the filmmaker Robert Flaherty to consider its place in documentary and ethnographic film history, focusing on the dramatic aspects of the narrative to assert a new genre. The article is unique for its forays into behavioral psychology and cultural geography.

  • Ruby, Jay. 1981. A re-examination of the early career of Robert J. Flaherty. Quarterly Review of Film Studies 5.4: 431–457.

    DOI: 10.1080/10509208009361064

    A comprehensive overview of the career of Robert Flaherty that bolsters the standing of the film Nanook of the North as a predecessor to documentary and ethnographic film. Ruby discusses a variety of contextual issues involved with the production of the film, including Flaherty’s personal life and the distribution of the film.

  • Ruby, Jay. 1996. Visual anthropology. In Encyclopedia of Cultural Anthropology. Vol. 4. Edited by David Levinson and Melvin Ember, 1345–1351. New York: Henry Holt.

    Ruby offers a concise and succinct encyclopedia entry on the history of visual anthropology with a section addressing the concept of ethnographic film. Despite its brevity, Ruby is able to set forth a critical evaluation of ethnographic film historically.

  • Ruby, Jay. 2000. Picturing culture explorations of film and anthropology. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    A thirty-year culmination of various thoughts and critical approaches to visual anthropology and the practice of ethnographic film by one of the founders of the field. Ruby argues for a set of criteria to situate visual anthropology and ethnographic film as a theoretically sound scientific endeavor in order to bolster its standing in anthropology at large.

  • Ruby, Jay. 2005. The last twenty years of visual anthropology: A critical review. Visual Studies 20.2: 159–170.

    DOI: 10.1080/14725860500244027

    One of several concise and succinct evaluations of visual anthropology and the practice of ethnographic filmmaking by one of the leading figures in the field.

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