Summary: Documentary Film; Experimental Film; Ethnographic Cinema; the Body and the Senses.
Work associated with Harvard Universitys Sensory Ethnography Lab (SEL) has been hailed by many as a formally radical and apparently unprecedented new mode of documentary filmmaking. The SELs most commercially and critically successful film to date, 2012s Leviathan, has been described as a nonfiction game-changer (Greene, 2013), and a film that look[s] and sound[s] like no other documentary in memory (Lim, 2012). But while the films being produced under the aegis of the SEL undoubtedly signal an exciting moment in the history of non-fiction film, their innovative combinations of aesthetics and ethnography (SEL Website) are by no means without precedent. As Christopher Pavsek suggests, the newness of a film like Leviathan depends, in part, on a broader historical forgetting of what cinema has done before (Pavsek, VAR, 2015: 7). My thesis is partly intended as a corrective to this historical forgetting. It offers an account of some of the labs most significant cinematic precursors. In tracing these connections I aim to contribute to and enrich our understanding of this new work. Far from devaluing the work of the SEL by highlighting its debt to these earlier efforts though, my intention is to stress its significance by situating its innovations within a broader continuum of formal and theoretical developments within non-fiction cinema.
As well as recovering this history, my thesis also explores the relationship between cinematic techniques and forms of knowledge in non-fiction film. SEL films are partly the product of a long-running debate within anthropology and amongst ethnographic filmmakers about the relative merits of verbal explanation versus purely visual and non-verbal forms of communication, and between propositional knowledge and a kind of knowledge that is often described as corporeal, embodied or experiential. Their emphasis on the material, physical, affective and sensuous qualities of lived experience suggests that SEL filmmakers are interested in conveying this second kind of knowledge, one that cannot be reduced to words or easily communicated with propositional statements. My thesis suggests that different cinematic techniques communicate different kinds of knowledge, and throughout my historical account I identify the kinds of knowledge that each work engages with through a close analysis of its formal strategies. Finally, in my analysis of a number of key SEL works I suggest that it is through the use of what (drawing on the work of Laura Marks) I call haptic audiovisual strategies that a film like Leviathan is able to convey an experiential or embodied kind of knowledge.
Documentary Film, Ethnographic Film, Embodied Knowledge, Anthropology, Experimental Film.
Professor Diana Holmes & Dr Vlad Strukov.
Bringing the World Closer: Basil Wrights Song of Ceylon (1934) and Documentarys Cosmopolitan Impulse
Centre for World Cinemas Seminar Series: Cosmopolitanism & Global Citizenship, University of Leeds, UK. April 2016.
'Knowing in Other Ways: Embodied Knowledge & Ethnographic Film'
Sensory Modernism(s) II, University of Leeds, UK. December 2015.
'Documentaries of Subjectivity: Leviathan (2012), Stan Brakhage and an Avant-Doc Correspondence' 8th Annual Contemporary Directors Symposium: Lucien Castaing-Taylor, University of Sussex, UK. June 2015.
'Charged Moments: Touch in Claire Denis' Chocolat (1988)' Touch: UCLA French & Francophone Studies Graduate Student Conference, University of California, Los Angeles, USA. October 2014.
'From Tribes to Trawlers: Leviathan (2012) and the Sensory Turn in Ethnographic Film' Film-Philosophy: A World of Cinemas, University of Glasgow, UK. July 2014.
Public Engagement Activities:
Nepal Fundraiser: Manakamana Screening
The Reliance, Leeds, June 2015.
A screening of the Sensory Ethnography Lab film Manakamana (Dirs. Stephanie Spray & Pacho Velez, 2014) with an introduction contextualising the film and the work of the SEL.
The Artists & The Ethnographer: 4 Films by Robert Gardner (co-programmed with Arine Kirstein Høgel)
Harvard Film Archive, Cambridge, MA, December 2014.
A screening of four films by the late American ethnographic filmmaker Robert Gardner, emphasising his filmic explorations of the creative process and the strong poetic and artistic impulse within his work.
Film on the Front Lines: British Film Propaganda from WWI
Royal Armouries, Leeds, November 2014.
A video installation showcasing WWI propaganda films. Situated at the Royal Armouries for the duration of the 2014 Leeds International Film Festival, the installation was launched with an event featuring an introduction by Leeds University academic and WWI specialist Dr. Claudia Sternberg.
Harvard University, Cambridge, USA. September - December 2014. Supported by the AHRC (RTSG) and with the generous assistance of the Harvard Film Archive.
My research is generously supported by the AHRC (BGP).