Over the last two weeks I have taken part in VISC8009: Thinking with a Video Camera, an intensive course offered by Pip Deveson through the Digital Humanities Hub at ANU. This was an optional course, an add-on to the traditional fieldwork methods course that is compulsory for all anthropology students at ANU, and is primarily designed for students doing a Masters in Visual Culture.
I loved this course. Partly because of the teaching style adopted by Pip Deveson and Rob Nugent, but also because the course was an exciting foray into using film as a research methodology rather than simply as a recording method.
It is difficult to separate what we learnt from how we learnt it; the practice-led approach to teaching adopted by Pip and Rob mirrored the approach to filming that they advocated. Focusing on long-takes, inductive approaches to both filming and editing, and allowing events to unfold as they will before the camera, the ‘observational cinema’ approach has a lot in common with participatory observation, and I found that I was able to apply much of my anthropology training to the film tasks that were set.
Each day involved showing and critiquing the films made the previous day, some exposition from Pip and Rob about the element of observational cinema we were focusing upon that day, and the assignation of the next film tasks. I found that I enjoyed the relentless pace of making films one day and showing them the next; the classroom was created as a safe place for us to show our films and push the boundaries of our creativity, and the necessity of finishing each task that day meant that I didn’t get ‘stuck’ at any point; any apparent ‘failure’ was recast as a learning exercise for the next task.
The observational cinema approach is fundamentally ethnographic. I was introduced to a range of ethnographic filmmakers whom I hadn’t engaged with before, such as Rob Nugent, Gary Kildea, David and Judith MacDougall, and Ian Dunlop. This experience has opened my eyes to alternative means of representing culture and cultural difference within anthropology, and has also given me a greater appreciation of how the contested nature of ethnographic imagery reflects the partial and contingent nature of all forms of anthropological knowledge.
After all this, I still don’t know whether I will use film as a research method in my PhD project. But this course has been incredibly valuable to me regardless. It has awakened me to a broader range of possibilities within anthropological representation; forced me to push my boundaries and stretch my creativity; and has also given me a greater appreciation of the constructed nature of all images in culture.
All in all, I would highly recommend this course to anyone who wishes to explore visual culture or is considering using film as a fieldwork method.