The Anthropology of Cinema

Chihab El Khachab

Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies
University of Cambridge

March 15, 2021

Anthropological interest in film as a medium has historically been centred on ethnographic films, which were the hallmark of visual anthropology as a subfield. Over the past thirty years, however, there has been a noticeable movement in visual (and media) anthropology towards the analysis of film production and consumption beyond ethnographic films per se. Setting aside Hortense Powdermaker’s pioneering ethnography of commercial film production in 1940s Hollywood, the anthropology of cinema did not come together in a common disciplinary project until the early 2000s.

“The anthropology of cinema,” in Lotte Hoek’s succinct definition, “has emerged as a part of media anthropology. It asks what the cinema is (as technology, as institution, as form, etc.), and what it makes possible (as interdiction, as pleasure, as labour, etc.), within the particular contexts of the lives of our interlocutors” (2016). Moreover, this subfield shares a commitment to the long-term ethnographic study of filmmaking and film viewing based on participant observation among practitioners and consumers alike.

What is interesting, given this common methodological ground, is the extent to which ethnographies of cinema have had contrasting theoretical concerns. Constantine Nakassis (2020), for instance, proposes a “linguistic anthropology of cinema” in which the insights of linguistic anthropology are not just applied to cinema, but cinema also becomes a case to reflect on “semiotic mediation” in general. In a different vein, my recent book Making Film in Egypt (2021) examines how workers mediate expected yet unpredictable futures in complex technical processes through an ethnography of contemporary film production in Cairo. Such theoretical variety becomes ever more apparent throughout the following reading list, which reflects the diversity of orientations taken by the anthropology of cinema. Thus, beyond its focus on the world of filmmakers, the subfield has the potential to contribute to broader anthropological conversations in generative ways.

Grimaud, Emmanuel. (2003). Bollywood Film Studio, ou Comment les films se font à Bombay [Bollywood Film Studio, or How Films are Made in Bombay]. Paris: CNRS Éditions

This French ethnography has been underappreciated in Anglo-American scholarship, but it is a remarkably detailed exploration of filmmaking in 1990s Bombay. While a doctoral student, Grimaud worked as a direction assistant on Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam [Straight from the Heart, 1999] by Sanjay Bhansali, starring mega-stars Salman Khan and Aishwarya Rai. Following every step in the movie’s creation until its screening, Grimaud provides a richly textured account of the socio-technical process of production – from screenwriting and “story sessions” to scouting, set design, shooting, costume-making, acting, choreography, sound work, and editing. As fate would have it, Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam would become, perhaps, the most famous film subjected to an in-depth ethnographic study. Yet Bollywood Film Studio offers much more: it is a landmark study of the material culture and technology of cinema, making it an important contribution to the “material turn” in social anthropology.

Ganti, Tejaswini. (2012). Producing Bollywood: Inside the Contemporary Hindi Film Industry. Durham: Duke University Press

More than an account of the industry and its products, which is covered in Ganti’s earlier book Bollywood: A Guidebook to Popular Hindi Cinema (2004), Producing Bollywood is an analysis of the industry’s gradual professionalization since the 1990s as well as its everyday social and economic practices. Based on ethnographic research spanning more than fifteen years, Ganti traces how film workers engage in “boundary-work” to avoid the disdain to which Bollywood was subjected until it became an officially recognized industry, while analysing the ways in which film professionals respond to uncertainty about box-office outcomes through what she calls “production fictions”, or emic assumptions about what makes a film commercially successful. Producing Bollywood is, in this sense, a deft contribution to the anthropological study of uncertainty and its negotiation in everyday life.

Ortner, Sherry B. (2013). Not Hollywood: Independent Film at the Twilight of the American Dream. Durham: Duke University Press

After frustrated attempts to study major studios in Hollywood (see her “Access”, 2010), Ortner decided to explore the independent film scene, its products, and its production milieu in the United States. Not Hollywood combines in-depth readings into independent films as well as ethnographic vignettes on the off-Hollywood industry’s functioning based on what Ortner calls “interface ethnography”, or the study of an industry through public-facing events. Ortner argues that independent cinema is indicative of a specific “Gen X” attitude towards American politics and social life, which translates into a dark, gritty genre of critique addressed to the mainstream film industry and, more broadly, to the deleterious effects of neoliberalism. Thus, Not Hollywood is as much a contribution to the anthropology of neoliberalism and its aftershocks as it is a study of filmmaking.

Hoek, Lotte. (2014). Cut-Pieces: Celluloid Obscenity and Popular Cinema in Bangladesh. New York: Columbia University Press

Cut-Pieces follows the making of a Bangladeshi action-romance film, pseudonymously called Mintu the Murderer. With great attention to the detail of screenwriting, shooting, and postproduction, Hoek is interested in the way in which filmmakers anticipate the adding (or removing) of “cut-pieces” into/from the film: these are short segments of obscene celluloid added to the film negative in order to attract an audience of rural male moviegoers. Hoek follows how these cut-pieces are both anticipated and hidden, not only in the course of filmmaking, but also in fanzines and in cinema halls. By showing a processual interest in the visibility and invisibility of obscene material in Bangladeshi popular cinema, Hoek opens new avenues to think through questions of materiality and the ethnographer’s positionality (and what she interestingly calls “participant non-observation”).

Wilkinson-Weber, Clare M. (2014). Fashioning Bollywood: The Making and Meaning of Hindi Film Costume. London: Bloomsbury Academic

Fashioning Bollywood is unique in this list because it examines a specific filmmaking craft: the world of costume-making. Wilkinson-Weber describes the division of labour behind this craft in great detail, bringing the reader from tailoring workshops to the stylists and costume assistants on set to the actors on screen. The book further shows how costumes help actors embody their characters, while revealing the intricate connections between the film and fashion worlds in Bombay. Following the social life of the Hindi film costume, Fashioning Bollywood becomes in fact a stage to explore theoretical questions on industrial labour, embodiment, and gendered performance in a late capitalist setting.

Meyer, Birgit. (2015). Sensational Movies: Video, Vision, and Christianity in Ghana. Berkeley: University of California Press

Meyer has had a long-standing interest in Ghanaian Pentecostalism, with a focus on the intersection of religion and mass mediation. This interest led her to exploring the burgeoning industry of video movies in Accra, whose productions show a keen interest in making the occult visible, while portraying it according to Pentecostal sensibilities. Sensational Movies constitutes the summation of decades of ethnographic research in Accra, which allows Meyer to trace the long historical arc of the Ghanaian video film industry while writing more pointed analyses of its relationship with urban modernization, technological change, and religious belief. This book is therefore a contribution to the anthropology of religion and cinema at once, by specifically addressing how belief is mediated in cinematic form.

Pandian, Anand. (2015). Reel World: An Anthropology of Creation. Durham: Duke University Press

Reel World tries to capture the overall atmosphere in which Tamil filmmakers working in Chennai create their movies. More than a study of cinema, Pandian wrote a study of serendipity, or how serendipity is marshalled by filmmakers in the various acts of creation constituting their movies. While the book’s overall arc broadly imitates the process of film production as in Grimaud’s ethnography, each chapter plunges right in the middle of the action among film practitioners confronted with unpredictable events. The writing style has an effervescent quality mimicking, in some respects, the effervescence of filmmaking. This makes Reel World an interesting addition to the corpus of experimental ethnographies and, more broadly, a provocation to think about human creativity in unanticipated ways.

Martin, Sylvia J. (2016). Haunted: An Ethnography of the Hollywood and Hong Kong Media Industries. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Martin’s book is the only study on this list based on long-term fieldwork in two different film industries: Hollywood and Hong Kong. Moving back and forth between the two locations, Martin invites the reader to reflect on the commonalities and differences in the organization of precarious film labour, the risks that film workers take (through a gripping examination of professional body doubles), and the connection between filmmaking and spirituality. The book’s title, Haunted, points to the various ways in which filmmakers in Hollywood and Hong Kong think about the filmmaking process as imbued with other-worldly presences and powers. This ethnography can be read, in this sense, as a contribution to the anthropology of everyday belief in a context usually absent from the anthropology of religion.

Srinivas, Lakshmi. (2016). House Full: Indian Cinema and the Active Audience. Chicago: University of Chicago Press

House Full offers a rich ethnography of moviegoing practices based on extensive experience in Bangalore, with additional insights into the local Kannada-language film industry. In direct conversation with film studies – where a uniform model of passive, silent, anonymous spectatorship still prevails – Srinivas proposes that the Indian audiences with whom she interacted are “active”, both in the sense of actively appropriating narratives on screen and engaging in a range of ancillary practices (e.g., choosing their theatre, securing tickets and seats) which are integral to the moviegoing experience. Srinivas’ ethnography contributes as much to the literature on film spectatorship as it does to the analysis of gender, class, and spatial politics in contemporary India.

Rosas Mantecón, Ana. (2018). Ir al cine: Antropología de los públicos, la ciudad y las pantallas [Going to the Movies: An Anthropology of Publics, the City, and Screens]. México: Editorial GEDISA

Ir al cine is a historical ethnography of moviegoing in Mexico City, drawing on the traditions of urban studies, media studies, and visual anthropology from Latin America and beyond. Ana Rosas Mantecón notes that moviegoing has received very little attention in comparison to film analysis or production studies. She goes on to provide a rich account of the historical changes in the “entertainment pact” between filmmakers, theatre owners, and urban audiences in Mexico City throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. Rosas Mantecón deftly shows how moviegoing creates different modes of togetherness which, beyond the screening itself, contribute to a grounded sociohistorical understanding of urban life in an evolving industrial context.

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