Anthropology and documentary film have always looked at and learned from one another. Visual anthropology, defined as anthropologists making use of, for instance, film and photography to collect data in their studies came into being at the moment these technologies became available. But much has changed in recent years – both in the way visual anthropology uses the film medium and indeed within the documentary film inspired by anthropology. More recently, we have seen a wealth of documentary filmmakers with a background in anthropology, who have created such films as Afghan Muscles (2006), Pig Country (2010), How to Pick Berries (2010), Mumbai Disconnected (2009), Pit No. 9 (2010) and Flags, Feathers and Lies (2009). The films are different in many ways, and it would not make any sense to put them into the same box just because they are all made by people with a background in anthropology. But something special between anthropology and documentary film is occurring, and, perhaps especially in the Scandinavian countries, is hard to overlook according to Jakob Høgel, who is creative director of New Danish Screen, a support programme at the Danish Film Institute with a specific emphasis on talent and originality. Høgel, who has a background in anthropology, sees an interesting development in visual anthropology:

“Originally visual anthropology and ethnographic films were defined by the fact that they were made by anthropologists and depicted indigenous peoples. Most of these films were boring, purely descriptive and plagued by a false notion that the camera simply had to be a fly on the wall and only used to collect data. Now we see a generation of visual anthropologists who are far more interested in the analytic dimensions and are more experimental in their approach to film. The camera is seen not merely as a collection tool but as an entirely new way to reflect, “ says Jakob Høgel, who believes that there is a continuum between distinctly anthropological films and documentary films. The anthropologist has a starting point in the scientific and the analytical, whereas the documentary filmmaker will often focus on the dramatic structure and the cinematic form. It is in the meeting between these two approaches that interesting things happen:
Jakob Høgel
“Anthropology can give documentary an analytical level and some methods by which you can get the analytic into the dramatic structure. If the filmmaker does not become aware of what is analytically interesting in the topic they are about to make a film on, one is left to random events,” says Jakob Høgel.

Parts of the documentary production can be said to have much in common with the anthropologist’s fieldwork, which is always a cultural encounter between an outsider and a “native”, whether it is an African tribal group or workers in a factory in Europe. Both the anthropological fieldwork as well as documentary filmmaking takes place as part of an investigation based on personal contact, and during this study, dilemmas about relationships will occur. When anthropologists introduce a camera to the fieldwork, the camera’s presence is able to put these dilemmas into focus. Film makes the fieldwork extremely obvious and the anthropologist’s presence is made clear, leading to an almost built-in level of reflection. You cannot hide as documentary filmmaker or as anthropologist. You could not hide as an exclusively writing anthropologist either, but the camera manifests the presence in a more radical way.


With the camera as a companion the anthropologist and filmmaker will likely be more able to reflect and discuss what they saw and how they saw it. From Jacob Høgel’s point of view there is still much unknown territory that anthropologists and filmmakers can visit together;

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