The main principle behind ethnographic filmmaking in its early days was to capture scenes of a particular society just as it was, its members functioning in their indigenous environment. Modern critics have sometimes derided the methods of Robert Flaherty, often referred to as the “father of the documentary,” for what they perceive as retrogressive techniques in his 1922 classic, Nanook of the North, but it’s by no means a stretch to refer to his much-admired essay on Inuit culture as the first non-fiction film in cinematic history. So he used a different igloo for an interior shot of an Inuit family than he did for the shot of the family going into it. Big deal. He also filmed the entire thing on two hand-cranked cameras, developed his negatives on the spot with heated chemicals, and even printed his own dailies by running the positive and negative films past a frame-sized window to daylight.
Ethnographic films—indeed, anthropological studies—rarely make daily headlines, but once in a while something of significant interest happens to make us question the means by which knowledge of The Other is conveyed to us. For example, the world thrilled at the discovery, in 1971, of a previously unknown society found in the rugged mountain interior of the Philippine island of Mindanao. The tribe, called the Tasaday, immediately became the subject of numerous documentaries, news reports and articles in publications as esteemed as National Geographic.
The Tasaday were food gatherers who pursued a largely vegetarian diet. (In fact, by the measure that is derived from time spent gathering the necessities of life proportional to the time spent on leisure activities, they were deemed by some the world’s most affluent society!) They had only Stone Age implements, no knowledge of agriculture or even an awareness that the world extended beyond their forest home, and, most winningly of all, no words in their language for warfare or weapons. Many scholars wasted no time in announcing that contact with the Tasaday was one of the most significant anthropological events of the 20th century. Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos set aside 19,000 hectares of Tasaday preserve at the height of the publicity and shortly thereafter closed his own country to much of the outside world by imposing martial law in 1972.
In 1986, after a change of government, a Swiss anthropologist named Oswald Iten trekked into the rainforests of Mindanao and found the caves of the Tasaday deserted, the gentle gatherers now living among neighboring tribes and enjoying many of the amenities of modern technology. Iten’s unauthorized investigation seemed to reveal a hoax of the highest order: Local Tboli and Manobo peoples had been bribed or otherwise manipulated to spend a few days playacting at cave-dwelling and tadpole-collecting for a phalanx of visiting anthropologists, all of whom had been flown in by helicopter to conceal the well-worn trails connecting the Tasaday and the neighbors they supposedly hadn’t had contact with for hundreds of years or more. Manuel Elizalde, Jr., the Harvard-educated Filipino who had introduced the 20th century to the Tasaday, had already fled the Philippines.
Elizalde died in 1997. Although a small number of scholars still defend the legitimacy of the Tasaday, anthropologists generally seem to have dismissed the whole thing as an embarrassingly well-orchestrated hoax. Which would render the extant visual records of the Tasaday, some of them still very worthwhile viewing, oddments of ethnographic filmmaking paradoxically in search of a culture.
French director Louis Malle (1932-1995) was not, strictly speaking, an ethnographic filmmaker. His diverse oeuvre of films includes The Silent World, an Oscar-winning collaboration with Jacques-Yves Cousteau; Pretty Baby, the controversial child-prostitute vehicle that made a star out of a barely-pubescent Brooke Shields, and a number of controversial early films with French actress Jeanne Moreau. One of Malle’s real strengths lied in his willingness to explore new things, to depict them with equanimity and free of an explicitly political agenda or value judgements. In a sense, he was the Will Rogers of the French cinema in that he never met anyone he didn’t like.
But his seven-part 1968 series I’Inde Fantôme (Phantom India) is something truly beyond the scope of most of his Western contemporaries at the time. It’s an ambitious, six-plus hour ethnographic survey of different scenes from everyday Indian life. It might strike some that Malle, scion of one of the richest families in France, a sugar dynasty with business contracts dating back to the Napoleonic wars, undertook the project to see how the proverbial other half lives, a kind of penitence for his own privileged upbringing. By the early 1970s, Europe and much of the West would also witness an explosion in interest in Indian music and religion as a youth counterculture began to view a sojourn in the subcontinent as something of a rite of passage. It’s conceivable that Malle was just slightly ahead of the trend on this count.
But it seems silly to even mention that, because there’s far more at work in Phantom India. Anthropologists often talk about etic and emic perspectives, which are, roughly speaking, views from without and views from within the culture. While it’s difficult for Malle to inject his camera into village life in India without eliciting slightly unnatural responses from the people he’s filming, Malle succeeds in getting into the life to such an extent that most of them eventually feel comfortable around him. It’s not always riveting—endless scenes of Indian women patting chapatis and village headmen talking without subtitles at length about their disputes—but as one University of Montana faculty member pointed out in a recent screening, it’s permissible to nod off from time to time. Because that’s what anthropologists do, and that’s pretty much how real life is, too.