I always find anything on other Indigenous cultures extremely interesting. The issues surrounding what a lot of us consider to be invasion or as in this short film, whitewashing, can be intense. As always there is the premise that the indigenous population needs to be saved from their dirty, heathen ways. How can we be sure that these are the true words of the people viewed in the film? Just as there are scandals with the photoshopping of images, voiceovers can also be wondered at. Really, we only see one point of view, that the missionaries are good and help the poor natives. Where is the opposing view?
The film is a wonder in that we get to see how things were in these indigenous peoples world at a time that was truly not that long ago and yet seems like a million years ago. Seeing them living their lives barely touched or tainted by the outside world is beautiful.
I found this short film to be strange but also very hypnotizing. While not really understanding the presence of the people in the water, the beauty of the light on the water and the background sounds of frog, bird and wildlife was calming. Enchanting.
Mosori Monika (1970) and Soft Fiction (1979), though classed as “ethnographic” films, might be seen as ethnographic commentary on the ethnographic and filming processes themselves. These films operate, as it were, at a meta-ethnographic level, at once depicting and interrogating the ethnographic method—its art and its ethos. The categorizing brain wants to place Chick Strand’s films within an analytic and viewing frame, to render the films classifiable and interpretable (not necessarily a bad thing). Such categorizing is of course part and parcel of the ethnographic method (again, not in itself a bad thing, though a practice certainly not without its problems or limitations). To identity the films as “objects/subjects” of the analytic/aesthetic gaze and thereby to locate the films within designated genres is to take pleasure in, if not the films themselves, then at least in the feeling or sensation of having comprehended some site and structure of meaning, of having deciphered some code of the way and life of the “other.” The films, however, resist such efforts to categorize, a vexing limitation that is by no means unknown to the ethnographer or cultural critic. Ethnography, like film-making (documentary, avant-garde, or otherwise), is not simply a descriptive act but is inherently an interpretive process. It is, in other words, at once production and projection. Interpretation is the focus problem that it will be my purpose to examine in this post.
Strand’s films strike me as being deeply concerned with questions of interpretation, representation, narrative, voice (who speaks, how, and for whom), authority, “authenticity,” and the always ambivalent negotiation of aesthetic and cultural boundaries, forms and formations. What concerns me most for the present purpose is the more theoretical question of the “ethnographic film,” and the possibilities and problems that such a genre, medium and mode of representation present. To this purpose, it is essential to have a clear understanding of what ethnography is and is not, and what relationship film has to the ethnographic project—all essential (though not, let us hope, essentialist) questions confronting both director and viewer of Chick Stand’s ethnographic films.
Ethnography, following Clifford Geertz who borrows a phrase from Gilbert Ryle, is “thick description.” That is, it is an interpretive act and process that involves working through myriad structures and layers of meaning, cultural and symbolic codes, rituals, performances, etc. Ethnography, in other words, is not simply a scientific discipline but is a cultural act that is circumscribed and performed in a particular way and in accordance with certain prevailing codes, assumptions, and norms. It is, in short, an act of interpretation—creative (or not), constructive and (especially in the case of Strand’s films) deconstructive. Such a view of ethnography involves as much reading (in every sense of the act) as it does analysis: inscription as much as “de-scription.” “Doing ethnography,” Geertz explains, “is like trying to read (in the sense of ‘construct a reading of’) a manuscript—foreign, faded, full of ellipses, incoherencies, suspicious emendations, and tendentious commentaries, but written not in conventionalized graphs of sound but in transient examples of shaped behavior.” Some correspondence may well be discerned between Geertz’s description and Strand’s films. It is important to note that Strand’s films are not, strictly speaking, projects of ethnography. These are not ethnographic films proper.
Ethnographic film takes as its primary goal the recording of an ethnic group for the purpose of anthropological analysis and for greater cross-cultural understanding. Crucial to any ethnographic project is the situating of the subject and people studied in their social and cultural context. This situating does not occur in any clear and explicit way in Chick Strand’s films. This cultural contextualization is notably absent in Mosori Monika, “Strand’s first overtly ethnographic film.” One might see this as a problem, and particularly if one is an ethnographer. We learn absolutely nothing about the tribe depicted—the Warao Indians in Venezuela—except that they are an indigenous population and they are subject to the colonizing, missionary gaze and to the “reconditioning” and “salvation” efforts that invariably follow. I point out this problem not so much to criticize Strand’s film—which, to be self-indulgently honest, I rather enjoyed—but rather to call attention to the need to take seriously, whether one is a filmmaker or an anthropologist, the cultural context, codes, and conditions that will inevitably shape the powerful interpretive act that takes place under the gaze of the camera—whichever way the lens might turn or be turned.
As ethnographic art, Strand’s films make powerful and creative statements. To what extent her films further deeper cultural understanding of her subject(s) is a matter I humbly leave for interpretation.
 Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays. New York: Basic Books / Perseus Books Group, 1973, pp. 6-10.
 For a discussion and critique of the “ethnographic film” project, see Karl Heider, Ethnographic Film. Austin: U of Texas P, 1976.
 Maria Pramaggiore, Women’s Experimental Cinema: Critical Frameworks. Duke UP, 2007. Excerpted in Walker Art Center program notes for “Chick Strand: In Retrospect” (2011).
The Chick Strand: In Retrospect evening was an opportunity to see rarely screened works by a co-founder of Canyon Cinema, the filmmaker Chick Strand. Canyon Cinema was a California-based film society praised by P. Adams Sitney in his canonical history of avant-garde American cinema, Visionary Film, as a key site for screening and distributing avant-garde film beginning in the early 1960s, though he cites the film collective as the creation of Bruce Bailey three times in his book, on pages 180, 183, and 330 with no mention of Chick Strand). In some ways, the four short films screened at the Walker seem to fit in the story of structuralist film and avant-garde American film from the 1960s and 1970s; it was a pleasure to watch the way that Strand used film to capture how the camera allows us to see beyond the capacity of the naked eye.
But, as noted in the earlier blog posts, there was a tension between the formal aspects of the cinema and interpersonal relationships between the filmmaker and her subjects. In the film Strand shot interviews with a stationary camera and allowed the women being interviewed to move in and out of the shot, a decision which seemed to make evident the position of the camera between the person being interviewed and the filmmaker sitting in the room. While Soft Fiction seems to be an exercise in collaborative storytelling between Strand and the women who tell stories in front of a stationary camera, I was intrigued by the way that the camera acts as a protagonist in this setting with an almost aggressive personality.