After reading Jeff Todd Titon’s Representation and Authority in Ethnographic Film/Video Production, I found myself pondering over the question of “how can an ethnographer [or anyone in that matter to] make the strange familiar, yet keep it strange” (Titon p.89)? The honest answer seems to be ‘not possible’; yet such frank response often doesn’t have much of a foothold in the minds of professionals. Many may argue that minimization of “directorial control”, application of “lengthy, continuous sequence shooting” and limitations on “zooming and editing” (Titon p.90) will potentially allow ethnographers to familiarize the strange without eradicating its strangeness. On the other hand, it is also arguable that the ‘compressing of time’, editing of the scenes, and telling the viewers “what to see and what to think” (Titon p.92) via narration eliminate the possibility of representing a cultural practice in its own natural light.
As a result, we often find many filmmakers singling out one of the most accentuated characteristics of a group as the theme of their film to portray the group as such. This type of practice is socially criticized as stereotyping; nevertheless, it fulfills the filmmaker’s purpose of specifically identifying a cultural group and at the same time allows the viewers get “a kick out of it” (Titon p.94) as well. As in Michele Ray’s documentary film Latcho Drom, as referenced by Carol Silverman, the title means “the good road”. However, it is translated as “the safe journey” so as to place emphasis on the questionable “migration and nomadism as the unifying factor among Roma” (Silverman p.362). While the “beautiful photography, excellent musical excerpts, and few but powerful words” (Silverman p.362) may assist in recruiting a large population of viewers into the film, but it is also important to note such a technique not only reinforces but also perpetuates the stereotype of Roma being nomadic, which is possibly the cause of other non-Romani’s discrimination against Roma, or so is believed. On the other hand, we have very eloquent women representing coalminers’ wives in Barbara Kopple’s Oscar winning documentary film Harlan County U.S.A. that deflates the traditional stereotype of coalminers’ wives as people who are inarticulate. Kopple’s film not only applies an innovative methodology in that the filmmaker is among her subjects as an interviewer, “reminding viewers that they are watching something that was made, not something that was merely witnessed” (Titon p.92), but also highlights women’s active role in evolving political consciousness.
In both case, the compression of time and scene editing make it plain that despite of our “suspended disbelief” (Titon p.90), the moving images are crafted in such a way to fulfill certain purposes rather than having them as mere facts.
This led me to put Titon’s question of “how can an ethnographer make the strange familiar, yet keep it strange” (Titon p.89) not only in ethnographic film/video, writing, but also ethnographic sound recordings and ethnomusicology. In other words, is it possible to accurately represent a culture via its sound recordings and music in its own terms? Once again, the honest answer seems to be negative. However, similar to film and video, how is it possible to remind the listeners what they are listening to is made, not something simply heard. This compels me to believe Peter Cusack’s recording In tent – Getting Up, may intend to fulfill a similar function. By having the musician’s voice in the recording, it reminds the listeners what they are listening to may as well be a product rather than a pure natural sound.
Besides, sound allows us, as listeners, to use more of our imagination than rigid images. Thus, when Peter Cusack, “a founding member and director of the London Musicians’ Collective ”, played his recordings from what he called the dangerous places, without the visual images, our surmising ranged from the sound of a dock to the sound of Chinese factories. Upon hearing various birds singing, we, or at least I, imagined the setting to resemble the rainforest in Colin Trunbull’s The Forest people. However, to our surprise the recording took place in a highly polluted old oil field. Consequently, it is arguably harder to represent an ethnographic work via its audio material.
This is also the very reason why my heart can’t be at ease, even when there are myriads of documentary films, ethnographic writings, and music recordings made about Tibetan culture. During the process of familiarizing the strange, one more often than not eliminates its strangeness either consciously or unconsciously. Tibet was once an independent country with its own language, flag, anthem, army, population, and anything that a country would need to stand on its own feet rather than being an appendage to a foreign country. However, as history had it, our country has been colonized by China since 1959, and our spiritual father was forced to leave the country as many of his fellow Tibetan people painfully experienced. Being an educated college student I don’t wish to break away from a country whose socioeconomic power determines the wellbeing of many nations in the world. Yet as a member of the cultural Tibetan community, I care about the status of my culture. For many of the already extinct cultures, the most frequent reason for them to be reduced to mere tourist and television entertainments on their last whimpers of existence and museum displays, and eventually buried under the dust of history and mentioned no more is the fact they lose their true selves and they lose their ‘voice’. By then, no ethnographic work shall remedy then back to life.
As for the Tibetan language, among many other constituents of its ‘voice’, even though we still have some million speakers but with Chinese as the only official language, the only medium for schooling, and one of the few major determinants for finding a job, Tibetan language confront marginalization, political oppression from the Chinese Government. This marginalization works along economic and cultural pressures for greater centralization and assimilation with the “mainstream culture” the Han Chinese culture. Consequently, an increasing number of Tibetan language speakers often perceive Tibetan language as being “useless” and associate the language with low social status and poverty, and refuse to pass it on to the next generation. So I fear the civilization of 1,300 years of Tibetan literature may come to an end, Tibet as an independent nation and a unique cultural group may lose its ‘voice’, and the global village may be forced to take one step closer to the monopolization of the super powers unless we demand actions on the rescue of those endangered cultures. Not only through the lens of ethnographic works, but making it possible for the members of those endangered cultures to revitalize their cultures by actually living the cultures and creating stages for them to reclaim the voices that belong to them.
In conclusion, it is hard, if at all, to represent any cultural practices within its own terms. Regardless of all the innovative methodologies available, ethnographers have to mold their raw materials into certain product with all the necessary directorial/authorial control, and editing. It is even harder to carry out such a mission via sound recordings. As Titon argues, “reality in film [or sound-recording] is elusive as well as conventional” that may explain why many anthropologists decide to go native, because it seems only through living the strange you familiarize yourself with the strange, without erasing it beyond any reclamation.
1. Titon, J. T. (1992). Representation and Authority in Ethnographic Film/Video: Production. Ethnomusicology, 36(1), 89-94.
2. Silverman, C. (2000). Review works: Latcho Drom by Michele Ray; Tony Gatlif; Alain Weber. Ethnomusicology, 44(2), 362-364.
3. Tony Gatlif, Michele Ray, and Alain Weber’s film Latcho Drom
4. Barbara Kopple’s Documentary film Harlan County U.S.A
November 19, 2008