Disappearing World: A Guide for Anthropologists

DAVID WASON

DISAPPEARING WORLD is a series of filmed documentaries, each lasting about one hour, each featuring a specific people, usually, but not exclusively, a tribal people.

We recognise that the series title can be misleading. Our films more often reflect a changing world than a disappearing one.

The series has been in production since 1970, and the attached filmography of fifty-five films will probably include some you know. It will certainly include consultants with whom you are familiar.

It is important to realise that each film is made, in the first place, for an interested television audience. The films are not made for an audience of anthropological students, they are not intended to be the visual equivalent of your thesis. There are no footnotes.

Our aim is to give our viewers an understanding of other ways of life from the viewpoint of the people who are living them.

We set out to do this by blending the technical and production skills of a professional filming unit with the knowledge and expertise of an anthropologist, building in particular on his or her human relationship with the people concerned.

Leslie Woodhead, the maker of many Disappearing Worlds, had this to say (in the SVA Newsletter, Spring 1987):

Inevitably, the curious alliance of anthropologist and film-maker has its continuing problems. Sometimes the pacing appropriate for peak time audiences is faster than a student of ritual might wish, sometimes the need to give space to an ethno-graphic insight risks making a non-specialist viewer restless … I’m aware of the investment of trust that the anthropologist has to risk in the film-maker. For the television professional, the film is another film, an incident in a career. For the anthropologist, the film may draw on a life’s work and it could prejudice relationships and understandings built up over years in the field.

Professor Andrew Strathern (the Disappearing World anthropologist on “Ongka’s Big Moka”), writing in the same journal, concludes:

Film projects are a kind of test of relationships and can cause them to break. In my case I have thought such risks are worth taking for the sake of the product and its potential impact, which is so much wider than any I can hope to have through books. In addition, it may lead people back to the available written materials about the cultures and thereby provide a further context for the images on film.

We are aware of the pitfalls. We don’t rush in and spray cameras around as if we are in some sort of human zoo. We tread carefully, and do our best to get to know the people before we start filming.

Like anthropology itself, we have adapted and changed over the years. We do recognise the reflexive nature of our presence, and we don’t assume that reality is somehow objectively out there.

We value our relationship with the world of anthropology. We won’t step over the calf-rope if you tell us not to. We’ll stay away from the healing ritual if you tell us it is too private an affair. But that’s not to say that there won’t be times when we’ll talk into the night trying to reconcile our needs with your concerns.

Film Proposals

We constantly seek ideas and proposals from anthropologists.

In the first instance we would prefer to receive a few pages, a few photographs and your c.v., rather than your unpublished thesis.

We would like a little background to the group with whom you worked.

The best proposals are those that excite us because they excite you. Whatever your chosen theme, you must persuade us that a general non-anthropological audience will find it interesting and important!

Be specific. Name names, tell stories, describe locations.

The best films reflect a mutual trust between anthropologist and subject. This usually means that the subjects of a film are known to you personally, and that you communicate with each in the indigenous language (rather than, for example, a trade language). Our films tend to concentrate on specific communities, and to focus on a few individuals within that community.

We don’t expect our consultants to be film-makers, or visual anthropologists, so don’t feel that you have to convince us that something is “visually” exciting. We are far more interested in making films that allow our audience to have a deeper understanding of what it is like to be a Kayapo of Gorotire, or a Basque of Santazi, or a Mende of Kpuawala.

Just as each of our films is different, so every proposal is different. A film might concentrate on a specific event (like a ceremony) on a theme (like warfare) on an issue (like the loss of traditional land) on a chronology (like daily life).

A strong narrative line is rarely seen as a problem!

We should be able to easily and briefly answer the question “what is the film about?”.

Practical Issues

In general we spend about four weeks actually filming on location. Normally this is undertaken in one shoot.

We are however also interested in exploring the possibility of making at least some films on a longer timescale, spending several months in the field with the anthropologist. Please get in touch with us if this way of working would interest you.

Once we’ve decided to make a film, we’ll draw up a contract and agree a fee. From this stage we will also pay all your reasonable expenses—which obviously includes getting to the field for the shoot, etc.

During a four week shoot, give up any ideas you might have for doing some extra fieldwork. There won’t be time.

We will organise all necessary permissions and logistics, although we will of course need your help and advice. We have experience of patient and tactful negotiations in more than thirty countries.

All interviews take place, and are broadcast in the indigenous language. We use subtitles in the completed film. This means a lot of translation and thus work for the anthropologist. The best way to stay on top of the situation, especially if you need local help, is to translate (usually on to audio tape), every interview, sentence by sentence, each night.

Usually, you have to act as our interpreter: formally, during interviews, and informally, throughout the shoot. However, we do realise that anthropologists’ language skills differ, and we are much more interested in communication than grammar.

In a normal shoot, four Granada personnel are usually involved: a producer/director, a researcher, a camera man or camera woman and a sound recordist.

We would normally expect the anthropologist to arrive at the location ahead of the film crew.

The Granada researcher (a television term: think of the researcher as an associate producer) normally spends some time in the country prior to the shoot and may have made an earlier separate visit in some cases.

All programmes have been made on 16 mm film, not video tape. The shooting ratio is usually about 15:1, i.e., we shoot about 15 hours of film, but we only use one hour.

Editing takes place in Manchester under the direction of the producer/director. The anthropologist normally attends the edit for a couple of days at the stage when the rough cut is completed (usually about six weeks after the edit starts). This means that the anthropologist is present before it has become too late to make changes, but late enough to see the shape of the film. We budget for eight or nine weeks editing.

The budget allows for gifts and/or payments for the community amongst whom we film. This is allocated in close consultation with the anthropologist. However, we never pay people merely to appear in the film. The budget also covers payment for work, separately from the above.

Arrangements are made for copies of the programme to be made available to host governments, regional institutions and, wherever practicable, the community themselves.

All footage not used in the completed film, along with audio tape, translation tapes, transcripts, etc., is carefully catalogued and retained in the Grenada archives.

The production team is a very small unit within Granada, and we are often out of the office (and the country). Please bear with us if we are slow in responding.

Disappearing World‘s series consultant, Dr. David Turton, (Department of Social Anthropology, University of Manchester, Roscoe Building, Brunswick Street, Manchester M13 9PL) has himself worked as anthropologist on several films and is available to discuss any aspect of our work with fellow anthropologists.

For the crew and for the anthropologist, making a Disappearing World is very hard work. We believe that the reward is worth it.

David Wason

1991