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

  • Introduction
  • Foundations
  • Style and Form
  • On Representation in Ethnographic Film
  • Ethics of Documentary Filmmaking
  • Transnational Documentary Cinema
  • Film Production
  • Before and After Production

Anthropology Ethnographic Documentary Production
Harjant S. Gill
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 July 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0249


The term “documentary production” within anthropology characterizes the making and circulation of ethnographic research and scholarship which includes film and video as the primary medium of storytelling and communicating cultural knowledge. These categories evolve frequently and what constitutes a film as “ethnographic” cinema is a topic of lengthy ongoing debates. In his Oxford Bibliographies in Anthropology entry “Ethnographic Film,” Matthew Durington provides an overview of some of these debates in attempting to narrow down theoretical frameworks and parameters of filmic ethnography. Ginsburg’s 1998 essay “Institutionalizing the Unruly: Charting a Future for Visual Anthropology” (cited under Foundations) charts the lineage of visual anthropology on the development of the subfield as “born of a union between anthropology and documentary film” (p. 173). From its earliest application within ethnographic research, some scholars have approached filmmaking as a methodological and analytical tool that privileges scientific rigor while others regard it primarily as a medium for storytelling and scholarly output. Early adopters of using film within anthropological research, including Mead and Bateson in their 1977 article “On the Use of Camera in Anthropology” (cited under Foundations), have openly quibbled about the role of the camera and the filmmaker in capturing culture on film. These disagreements have been useful in broadening the boundaries of ethnographic cinema, inspiring filmmakers to experiment with different ways of making meaning, as it has been customary from the genre’s inception led by pioneering figures like Jean Rouch, Robert Gardner, and Trinh T. Minh-ha. For a threshold for what constitutes “ethnographic film and media productions,” we can turn to Jean Rouch, who in his essay “The Camera and Man” (cited under Foundations) insists that ethnographic filmmakers must apply the same anthropological rigor—“spend a long time in the field before beginning to shoot (at least a year),” and thereby possessing an intimate understanding of the communities among whom they work while mastering essential “film and sound recording skills” (p. 40). Building on insights offered by Rouch and by drawing on scholarship from documentary and media studies, the goal of this entry is to outline the fundamentals of non-fiction filmmaking geared toward anthropologists who are already trained in ethnographic research. This entry also insists upon a more inclusive definition of ethnographic cinema, one that does not rely on the filmmaker’s academic pedigree as the primary criteria for inclusion into what has historically been a rather insular enterprise. Instead, a section of this entry is devoted to highlighting voices and perspectives from historically marginalized communities—queer, feminist, people of color, immigrants, indigenous filmmakers, who have been sidelined within the discipline of anthropology with its vestiges of colonialism. Another section of this entry highlights the need to decenter the hegemony of North American and European gaze when telling cross-cultural stories by focusing on transnational ethnographic and documentary production, specifically from countries in the Global South.


Documentary cinema is a cinematic genre that broadly includes “non-fiction” films, and ethnographic cinema makes up a subgenre within that broader non-fiction genre. In their introductory texts on the subject, Nichols 2001, Renov 2004, and Aufderheide 2007 offer an overview of documentary cinema, categorizing ethnographic films as a subgenre. All ethnographic films can be classified as documentaries whereas, as Ruby 2000 and others have insisted, the criteria for documentaries to be classified as “ethnographic” or “anthropologically significant” are more nuanced and frequently contested (Durington and Ruby 2011, Trinh 1990). Jackson 2014 insists on a more inclusive approach to evaluating ethnographic film and media for its contribution to anthropological theory and knowledge production. Additional taxonomies of anthropological documentaries can also include films that are produced as a collaboration between anthropologists and filmmakers, like The Yanomamö Series, and/or documentaries prominently featuring the works of established anthropologists, for instance, Sam Pollard’s Zora Neale Hurston: Jump at the Sun (cited under Documentaries Featuring Anthropologists), José Padilha’s Secrets of the Tribe (cited under Documentaries Featuring Anthropologists), Brett Morgen’s Jane (cited under Documentaries Featuring Anthropologists) and Fabrizio Terranova’s Donna Haraway: Story telling for Earthly Survival (cited under Documentaries Featuring Anthropologists), and/or films that are relevant to the contemporary cultural debates on race, gender, sexuality, and social justice in anthropology including Marlon Riggs’s Tongues Untied (cited under Performative and Reflexive Films), Jennie Livingston’s Paris is Burning (cited under Portraits of Community) and Bing Lu’s Minding the Gap (cited under Made for Public Television). While most films that are screened at the major anthropological film festival each year (like the Margaret Mead Film Festival and the Society for Visual Anthropology Film and Media Festival) or distributed by educational distributors specializing in the Anthropological programming (like Documentary Educational Resources, cited under List of Major Distributors of Documentary and Ethnographic Film) tend to be ethnographic in nature, films that are not self-consciously ethnographic are also considered and are often included within these program or databases. In recent years, spaces for showcasing ethnographic film and media have become more inclusive, moving away from the kind of boundary-policing of the 1990s and the 2000s. Documentary film, as a genre as well as medium for storytelling, has much to offer anthropology, and given the ubiquity of media and media-based communications technologies in our interlocutors’ lives, it would behoove anthropologists to learn basic documentary production skills including how to operate a camera and an audio-recorder.

  • Aufderheide, Patricia. 2007. Documentary film: A very short introduction. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    A short and concise introduction to documentary film with useful working definitions and overview of some of the subcategories included within 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, 190–208. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    Durington and Ruby offer a concise history of ethnographic film; where and how it started, who were its early practitioners, and how the subgenre has grown and evolved over the last five decades. They also elaborate on the establishment of visual anthropology as a subfield motivated by visual inquiry, rounding out the edited volume that includes other forms of visual engagements in anthropological research alongside ethnographic film.

  • Ginsburg, Faye. 1998. Institutionalizing the unruly: Charting a future for visual anthropology. Ethnos 63.2:173–201.

    DOI: 10.1080/00141844.1998.9981571

    Authored by one of the pioneering figures in visual anthropology, this essay explores the history of the subfield along with linkages between theory and practice, and how ethnographic film engages with the world outside of the academy. Ginsburg also chronicles the marginalization of visual anthropology within sociocultural anthropology and documentary film as an academic subfield that has struggled to gain legitimacy.

  • Jackson, John, Jr. 2014. Theorizing production/producing theory (or, why filmmaking really could count as scholarship). Cultural Studies 28.4:531–544.

    DOI: 10.1080/09502386.2014.888925

    In this important essay, Jackson analyzes established classifications of ethnographic “theory” and “practice” as it is conventionally applied to film and new media productions, making an assertive case for reworking of disciplinary boundaries and definitions to be more inclusive and afford more legitimacy to extra-textual and multimodal forms of scholarship.

  • Mead, Margaret, and Gregory Bateson. 1977. On the use of camera in anthropology. Studies in Visual Communication 4.2:78–80.

    An energetic exchange between Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson on the placement of the camera. Mead prefers the device to be affixed to a tripod and placed in a corner like a telescope looking in, whereas Bateson advocates for a more aesthetically-driven handheld approach to form a narrative out of only the most interesting moments captured by the camera. Their differing views elucidate a long-standing bifurcation within anthropology on the utility of film as either a scientific rigorous research method or an artform used for storytelling.

  • Nichols, Bill. 2001. Introduction to documentary. Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press.

    Focusing largely on what would be considered as unconventional documentaries that do not fit seamlessly in the documentary film canon, Nichols offers an expansive and more inclusive definition of non-fiction film. Moving beyond fixating on the documentary form, Nichols unpacks issues related to power, ethics, and politics of representation.

  • Renov, Michael. 2004. The subject of documentary. Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press.

    A collection of essays devoted to exploring the topic of cultural representation along with other historical and theoretical frameworks that shaped documentary cinema with a particular focus on questions related to subjectivity, intimacy, and autobiography. The framework of “domestic ethnography” encourages us to rethinks the notion of the “other” in ethnographic depictions.

  • Rouch, Jean. 1974. The camera and man. Studies in Visual Communication 1.1:37–44.

    In this seminal essay, Rouch discusses his approach to filmmaking, and how Vertov’s ciné-eye newsreel along with Flaherty’s participatory camera approach influenced cinema-vérité. Rouch also lays out his fundamentals for ethnographic filmmaking: long-term fieldwork, mastering the basics of camera and sound-recording, avoiding the reliance on music to create dramatic tension, presenting the full rough cut (“from head to tail”) to people who were filmed, and above all, making films accessible for the “largest viewing public” (p. 43).

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

    A distillation of nearly thirty years of writings on visual anthropology and ethnographic film by one of the field’s leading historians. Essays engage in important conversations about representation, ethics and reflexivity that has come to define ethnographic film as a distinct genre.

  • Trinh, T. Minh-ha. 1990. Documentary is/not a name. October 52 (Spring): 76–98.

    DOI: 10.2307/778886

    Trinh’s seminal essay offers a forceful critique of non-fiction films as a genre, specifically how knowledge in the form of reality that documentary films purports to present is taken for granted. Calling attention to our basic assumption about what constitutes a “documentary,” Trinh cautions against reproducing preexisting colonial and masculinist hierarchies of knowledge production.

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