Course Description: Materiality and Ethnographic Film

When it comes to UC Berkeley, these days I feel more like a politically-minded voyeur than grad student. I’ve been following the Occupy movements in both Oakland and Berkeley online, but I’m half a world away, working and writing my dissertation out in the desert.

Still, I’m going to be teaching a Reading and Composition course next summer, and I used part of my weekend to come up with a course description:

Materiality and Ethnographic Film

Ethnographic film has a long and ambivalent tradition within anthropology. The theory, technology, and methodology behind making ethnographic films has changed radically during the last century, but often this historic context has been ignored. In this course we will critically examine a wide range of ethnographic films through the lens of materiality. Materiality, or the study of the relationship between people and things, allows us to think about technology and social interactions in new and compelling ways. What were people wearing and using in the film? How was the film made and how does this effect the scenes that were filmed? What can these films tell us as artifacts in themselves? In our “archaeological” examination of ethnographic film, we will read the current interdisciplinary literature regarding materiality and excavate the context of these anthropological artifacts. This course satisfies the second half of the University’s Reading and Composition requirement.

The Reading and Composition requirement is a two-part writing skills class that all undergraduates have to take to graduate. The first class is the basics of writing and the second class, which is what this course description is for, is for intensive reading and writing on a particular topic. The only prerequisite is that the student has taken the first class–no Anthro or Media Studies is required to take the class.

Anyway, it is my first course description and I have no idea if it sounds of any interest at all to undergraduates. Any thoughts? Too boring, complex, or obscure?

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4 responses to “Course Description: Materiality and Ethnographic Film

  1. I am fascinated by this subject. As a former stage actor I recall the relationship of outside-the-proscenium, the stage wings, and backstage to what the audience was seeing on stage. I began to apply that “outside -the-proscenium” awareness to films, imagining both what was happening technically (lighting, crew, sound that had been added, music, why the scene was chosen and why something else we’ll never see was edited out) and decisions the director and photographer made and why. Fiction draws you in and can make you laugh or cry or cringe, but it’s fascinating to back off and remember that it’s artifice and that we’re being manipulated. I think the subject is immensely interesting. Good luck, Miss Colleen!

  2. Minor point, but ‘effect’ should be ‘affect’. My hunch is that everyone knows what ‘film’ is, but not so many understand ‘materiality, and it would be better to reverse the order in the title. But this may be fixed by now. I like the way you use questions.

    Good luck with the course, Colleen.

  3. I agree with learnearnandreturn. I wonder if you will limit yourself to “ethnographic film”, or if you will include those that blur the boundaries, like “Fast Runner”, which I think pushes the discussion of how archaeologist engage with First Nations communities in interesting directions. On a less serious note, I hope you engage with the “”Do It In The Road” t-shirt in “Ongka’s Big Moka”, which I think has had many an undergraduate pondering materiality.

  4. Sounds like a great class! When I was teaching ethnographic film to undergrads, one twist I used was to throw in “People Like US: Social Class in America” (see http://www.pbs.org/peoplelikeus/film/index.html) about 2/3 of the way through the term . By that time the students had (mostly) gotten over how “weird” other cultures are and were critiquing each others’ reactions to and interpretations of the films.

    “People Like Us” explores the enormous diversity among Americans who consider themselves to be ‘middle class’–ranging from people living on private, horsey estates to those who live in leaky trailers. Materiality is very prominent in the film, and it always proved interesting when a student who had defended the Kayapos’ right to protest dams came out against the right of poor Yankees to protest a Whole Foods-type market. Noble savage, indeed. Have fun with it!

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