Expanded Visions: A New Anthropology of the Moving Image
Author: Arnd Schneider
Publisher: Routledge, UK
In his book Expanded Visions: A New Anthropology of the Moving Image, Professor of Social Anthropology at the University of Oslo Arnd Schneider provides various perspectives on the relationship between anthropology and the moving image, exploring new avenues for audiovisual research. This book is the latest in Schneider’s series of works on the intersection of anthropology and the visual arts and adds to his contributions to the field, including editing 2017’s Alternative Art and Anthropology: Global Encounters and 2020’s Art, Anthropology and Contested Heritage.
The key themes explored throughout the book are the ways in which moving images, and experimental film approaches, can be used to challenge and transform conventional ways of thinking about anthropology. By incorporating audiovisual elements into research and representation, anthropologists can gain a more nuanced understanding of their subjects.
Expanded Visions: A New Anthropology of the Moving Image is divided into eight chapters, each of which offers its own perspective on the relationship between film, art, and anthropology. The chapters draw from experimental works and provide an overview of how the moving image is being used to expand the boundaries of ethnographic research and representation. It includes the chapter «An Anthropology of Abandon: Art―Ethnography in the Films of Cyrill Lachauer», which addresses how film can be used to explore themes of abandonment, displacement, and cultural loss. The chapter analyzes the work of German artist and filmmaker Cyrill Lachauer, whose films, including Dodging Raindrops – A Separate Reality (2017), Amerika (2020) and Sunken Cities, Floating Skies (2020), are used as case studies. Schneider argues that Lachauer’s films are effective because they combine a variety of visual and narrative techniques to create a complex and nuanced portrait of people, places, and landscapes. Lachauer’s films feature a range of different voices, from the artist’s own poetics to interviews with local people, and use a variety of visual techniques, including static shots, moving camera shots, and close-ups of objects and landscapes, to create a rich and immersive visual experience. Throughout the chapter, the importance of experimentation and hybridity in Lachauer’s films is emphasized. By combining elements of art, ethnography, and cinema, Lachauer is able to create a new and innovative mode of visual storytelling that allows him to explore complex and nuanced themes with an ontology that would be difficult or impossible to do through more conventional modes of representation.
In the chapter «Stills that Move: Photofilm and Anthropology», Schneider discusses the use of photofilm, a form of documentary that combines still images and sound, in anthropology. He argues that photofilms offer a more substantive way of looking at the world, as they combine the visual and temporal aspects of film with the stillness and detail of photographs. By using photofilms anthropologists can create a new kind of visual representation that expands our understanding of the world and the people studied. The chapter draws on specific examples, including ethnopoetic work by Leonore Mau and Hubert Fichte, which illustrates how photofilms can reveal hidden or overlooked aspects of the subject through a twice-lived (visual and audible) «reanimation». It is argued that by breaking the image down into a series of stills, combined with sound, the resulting photofilm is able to create a more detailed representation of the subject than traditional film or photography. At least according to May and Fichte, photofilms are able to provide a soul to the lifeless still through the sound and movement of film.
Its final chapter, «Can film restitute? Expanded Moving Image Visions for Museum Objects in the Times of Decolony» explores the use of moving images in museum exhibitions. Chris Marker and Alain Resnais’ film Statues Also Die (1953) is regarded as an early example of anticolonial cinema and an influential work in the philosophy of Gilles Deleuze. The film employs a neo-montage construction format, which allows the filmmakers to manipulate the viewer’s gaze and challenge traditional museum narratives. The film’s exploration of the commodification and appropriation of African art through European museums and shops (ie. losing authenticity due to their for-sale nature, in the Deleuzian sense) aligns with Deleuze’s philosophy of the image as a tool for destabilizing dominant ideologies. The film’s fragmented narrative, juxtaposed images, and spoken commentary create a new representation that challenges the viewer’s preconceived notions about African art and colonialism. By analyzing the impact of the film’s construction format and its alignment with Deleuze’s philosophy, the chapter «Can film restitute? Expanded Moving Image Visions for Museum Objects in the Times of Decolony» demonstrates how moving images can be used to challenge dominant narratives and promote a more nuanced understanding of cultural heritage. In this vein it offers a discussion of important moving image works (such as Theo Eshetu’s The Return of the Axum Obelisk, 2009) which problematize the return of looted artefacts to their original locations – in this case of an ancient obelisk, which had been stolen by Italian Fascists in 1937 and was returned to Ethiopia only in 2008. The movement for the return of artefacts is gaining significant steam recently. In particular, London’s Horniman Museum returned six looted Benin City artefacts back to (now) Nigeria in November 2022. Unfortunately, the British Museum – the final boss of looted artefacts who denied access to Marker and Renais’ Statues Also Die (somewhat) ideological successor If for Others (2013) filmmaker Duncan Campbell – has yet to engage with the topic also. As do most US museums and private collectors.
In the chapter, and key case study, «On the Set of a Cinema Movie in a Mapuche Reservation», Schneider discusses how the filmmaking process impacted the community being studied. It is argued that the process of making a film is not just about capturing images, but also about creating relationships and exchanging knowledge. By examining the relationships between filmmakers, actors, and the community being studied, the author shows how moving images can be used to create a more collaborative and participatory form of anthropological representation. Successfully integrating this approach prevents a descent into the book’s primary concern, «hyperrealism». That is to say when the image itself becomes more authoritative than the subject presented. Given Schneider’s first-hand participation on the set, and inherent interference at a production level, the chapter largely acts as a warning against the existing routines and economic realities of traditional filmmaking.
The book also explores the potential for using moving images in more experimental ways, such as the chapter «A Black Box for Participatory Cinema: Movie-making with Neighbors in Saladillo, Argentina.» In this chapter – a contrast to the warnings of «On the Set of a Cinema Movie in a Mapuche Reservation» – the author describes a participatory film project in which the community being studied was also involved in the process of making the film. The black box serves as a platform for the subjects being studied to take control of the representation of their own lives, providing a more empowering and engaging experience for both the subjects and the audience. This approach challenges traditional anthropological representation by creating a more collaborative and participatory form of representation that reflects the perspectives and experiences of the people being studied, resulting in a deeper understanding of cultural perspectives. Anyone familiar with contemporary ethics in documentary production, will know the importance of cultural participation in non-fiction production. It is a vital aspect of a fair and even documentary, especially when dealing with issues of marginalized communities. In short, communities must be able to tell their own stories.
A multi-disciplinary value
Expanded Visions: A New Anthropology of the Moving Image argues that film can be a powerful tool for cultural representation, providing a new lens for anthropological research and enabling a more nuanced, empathetic, and inclusive form of representation. He also highlights the importance of experimentation and rethinking traditional methods of representation, particularly in the context of decolonization and post-colonial studies. But I wrestle with questions about the seemingly absolute nature of representation – is representation finite? Is participatory production finite? Or is it fluid? If so, how does one travel down a fluid path without inherently using outdated protocols, even if they were appropriate at one time? I wonder (out loud, sometimes) why identity is so often framed as finite and absolute in current social contexts. Doesn’t self-identity shift with age, experience, location, etc.? Personally, I fear that the absolute nature of such contemporary debates ultimately acts against the progress of their own self-interests. In the context of Expanded Visions: A New Anthropology of the Moving Image, I continue to wonder.
Expanded Visions: A New Anthropology of the Moving Image can nonetheless prove to be a valuable resource for students and scholars of anthropology, film, and the visual arts, alike. However, with the rapid rise of immersive media (VR/AR), artificial intelligence, and even more tactile approaches like 3D Printing and projection mapping, the next step in Schneider’s academic journey is surely not far away.