New trend in ethnographic cinema? March 25, 2010

Valentina's most recent documentary reminded me of two interesting trends in recent ethnographic filmmaking – specifically in relation to its content and form. In terms of the content, the documentary embraces the complexity of indigenous politics in Paraguay. On this level, it is a refreshing reflection on the different complexities that the Mascoy are contending with in their identity politics. Historically, these communities have been exploited by a variety of elements – Spanish imperialism, industrial capitalism, and the contemporary Paraguayan nation-state that continues to marginalise these communities However, these relationships have been so ongoing and their impact so powerful, that they have become undeniable aspects of people's lives. As such, the indigenous in this documentary have an ambiguous and at times contradictory relationship with the state and the discourse of modernity in general. The communities wish access to development and to the national programme, and yet they continue to ascribe to very specific cultural norms that at times hinder their position of power in relation to the modern spheres that they wish to be a part of. The documentary's narrative puts these complex relationships at its centre and indulges in the richness behind these discourses and practices.

The full fledged embrace of the complexities behind post-colonial politics - a colonial relationship that is concentrated within Paraguay's borders - goes against the simplicity with which indigenous politics of the Americas have tended to be represented throughout the history of the ethnographic film genre. Ethnographic documentaries that have addressed the indigenous subject of the Americas have by and large either victimised the indigenous subject, by placing it in an antagonistic position to 'outside' influences, reified indegeneity in an unsuccessful attempt to deconstruct the indigenous discourse, or de-historicise the indigenous by examining people as research objects.

For example, the most compelling scenes show the main protagonists of the documentary engaging in direct political negotiations with elements of the state. In doing so, “the state” ceases to be an amorphous and magical thing that the indigenous/traditional/conservative subjects negotiate with in abstract terms. In this documentary, the state is engaged with through a parliamentarian, Secretary of Education, a Mayor, and the Director of Indigenous Affairs in Paraguay, who also have to contend and compromise with the indigenous subjects – at times negotiating in Guarani. By giving the state and the indigenous flesh and bone, Valentina's documentary has the potential to demystify the political process of Paraguay and offers a convincing understanding of identity politics, without proselytising the viewer.

In relation to its form, the documentary also presents an interesting paradox. Contemporary debates in the ethnographic filmmaking scene bemoan the limitations that the audiovisual medium has when it comes to addressing discourse and political themes. Observational cinema, the hallmark of ethnographic filmmaking, is constantly complained about for its incapacity to produce knowledge on discursive issues that have historically been at the centre of Anthropology. Casado's Legacy is not an observational film, but its aesthetic references a lot of the central motifs and conventions of observational cinema – ie. handheld camera, maintaining integrity of scenes, not directing and following the action rather than directing it.

However, if the camera work and ethics of the documentary has observational references its editing strategy deploys conventions that have historically been understood as counter to the observational practice. Early on in the documentary it is made clear to the viewer that this is a multi-narrative with various parallel narratives joining the different scenes together. If done well, this strateg yhas the capacity to immerse the viewer in the world it is depicting. This kind of montage at a macro-narrative level seems to work well to address the limitations of observational cinema. The placing of different contexts in relation to each other has the capacity to generate a third meaning that is – in this case – contextual and discursive. This narrative strategy allows the placement of scenes that would otherwise represent antagonistic or contradictory meanings, next to each other offering the viewer a complex world view.

On both counts, this documentary works against the grain of the traditional ethnographical documentary. It suggests the deployment of a modern medium – cinema – to assess a modern problem – the state vs. the indigenous – in complex ways.

Carlo A. Cubero