Ethnography and Ethnographic Film

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Ethnographic Films: Mirror Mirror by Zammirah Mffat (2006) and Jaguar by Jean Rouch

Ethnographic films are documentaries or visual anthropology that uses theories, vocabularies, and methods to pass particular messages to the audience. This study will focus on ethnographic value two films namely Mirror Mirror by Zammirah Mffat (2006) and Jaguar by Jean Rouch. Mirror Mirror is a documentary on the ethnography of queer club Wotever in London. The audiovisual film is 58 minutes and deals with toleration of all genders and sexualities. Jaguar gives the footage of Nigerian stars road trip to Accra in Ghana as well as their hardships as they take temporary jobs they engage in before going back home. The two films depicts ethnographic values.

Mirror Mirror: Portrayal of Gender and Identity

In Mirror Mirror, several ideas are portrayed such as performance and gender in which transgender individuals have a chance to participate in the filming. One of the ethnographic values addressed is gender and identity in the human race. The importance of body and identity are clearly portrayed especially in the scene when Moffat asks Jozephine whether he likes his penis.[1] The performer is as oaked questions about family as well as description of themselves although Jozephine declines to give any information since it is associated with categorization. However, Ingo is seen explaining the intention of the club to create a place where all people are accepted and respected. The film uses Queer theory to investigate the contemporary queer behaviors such as ones related to gender. The term queer refers to anything that has faced exclusion, oppression, ridicule, and rejected in the society. Some of the aspects that be linked to the term include sexuality, gender, race, and class among others.[2] The queer identity depends on inclusivity in which every desire, gendered position, and sexed ideologies are acknowledged, legitimated, as well as accommodated. Club Wotever in London is frequented by trans-sexuals, butches, transgendered girls, and queer boys in which different performances and music. The club is open to everyone that cannot conform to heternomativity.

Concepts of Identity and Labeling in Ethnographic Films

There is no concrete definition of self-identity, which makes it difficult for people to relate well with one another without discrimination. The concept of identity is endlessly recreated as well as expanded depending on the prevailing conditions. However, in several cases they are destroyed and transcended through labeling people especially when individuals name groups before experiencing the members’ uniqueness. In many cases, people are assigned prefixed meaning to individuals or judging their character.[3] The film by Moffat is queer in its content and from for its use of narration by characters as well as integrating audio-visual participant feedback.[4] The method is appropriate for representation of contemporary queer cultures for individuals that feel different from the norm such as the transgender. Dialogue helps in giving multiple meanings and integrity to the population by narrating the experiences. Moffat’s practice is anchored on the shared anthropological works of ethnography film that is filmed at queer club hosting all sexualities and genders. Moffat investigates the contemporary queer realities and values through participatory audiovisual ethnography. Gender is mostly studied through the lens of the cultural and moral values that define honor and shame.[5] A family’s recognition in the society depends on its reputation in matters of sexual morality in the public sphere. For instance, males have to protect the material interest of the family for them to be honorable. Women are required to preserve honor and image by behaving morally, modestly, and virtuously in addition to fulfilling their duties as mothers, sister, as well as wives.

Jaguar: A Journey of Migration and Identity

Jaguar by Rouch 1967 portrays the annual migration of young male workers from Niger more economically prosperous towns of the Gold Coast, also called Ghana. For him to have the events filmed Rouch engages three Nigerians he has known from his previous research and film projects.[6] The three are Damouré Zika, Lam Ibrahim and Illo Gaoudel. Jaguar appears to be a lighthearted and humorous road film following the three young men as they travel from their home area of Ayourou to search for a job in Ghana. They encounter many adventures a well as obstacles but finally reach the Gold Coast and get work in Kumasi and Accra. They then embark of a return Journey to their village carrying money and gifts. They are also considered as “heroes of a modern world”, as Rouch refers them in the film’s voiceover narration.

Ethnofiction and Adventure in Jaguar

Jaguar is part documentary, part fiction, as well as reflection story highlighting the adventures of three young men that leave their home country in Niger and go to Ghana. The film shows aspects of life in the era of post-independence in West Africa with its cultural diversity and beauty. The documentary section gives the narration of the travels by the three men, experiences, as well as their encounters. The story is a wonderful ethnographic piece of three men who are the Jaguars determined to find work and experience in the urban Ghana. The story depicts a process in which social as well as subjective identities are created. The ethnofiction reveals the tradition of factual observations although it distances from the colonial heritage during which it was written.[7] Politics and anthropology are evident in the film that filmed against the backdrop of independence in West Africa. Jean Rouch works has themes related to ethnographic practices through visual culture as well as inter-cultural texts. In ethnography, the practitioners ask the actors to bring out the aspects of their life-experiences while being filmed. In Jaguar by Rouch there is a lot of improvisation as the three men have to act as the residents of the region. The actors have the appropriate physical appearance and use personal experiences during acting to reveal aspects of poverty and oppression. The work is also filmed in a documentary style to make the acts appear as reality. Adventure is critical in ethnographic work as depicted in Jaguar in which the three men embark on an adventurer’s epic. In addition, analysis of other cultures in a way that creates fun the audience.

Improvisation and Interaction in Ethnographic Films

Rouch uses an improvised form of filmmaking, which resembles surrealist practices for creativity in his work. The use of improvised acting in Jaguar enhances the quality of production through narrative control as well as freedom. The actors tell their own stories to tell the story of injustices during the pre-independence era in West Africa. The protagonists express their concerns in their own way as well as show their feelings. Ethnographic film mixing involves aspects of participation and interaction actors with the natural environment.[8]

Rouch's Approach: Stakeholders and Interpretation

After formulating a story outline, the ethnographer uses a camera and simply focuses on the subjects' improvisations during actions and lived experiences. Therefore, surrealism and poetry are combined and although they are often opposed to each other, the idea is to try to establish theories concerning the films. More importantly, Rouch concentrates on local communities and develops themes with the participants for his projects.[9]

According to Rouch, the actors are made to be more active "stakeholders" of the project instead of being mere protagonists. When he was doing his anthropological work regarding labor migration in West Africa, Rouch could not show the full range of the migrants' experienced due to the limitations of a conventional documentary. He therefore, combined documentary and fictional elements in the Jaguar.

Challenges and Controversies in Ethnographic Filmmaking

Ethnographic films are considered as playing the role of presenting and understanding various cultures. However, the field can be influenced by ideas that have been observed and acted to bring out an aspect of certain culture. Zemirah and Rouch's works are examples of films that reveal ethnographic values in the society. Sometimes the procedure of filming may lead to false interpretation of the behavior filmed and recorded.[10]

The filmmaker should be left to take the precaution of interpretation of the content filmed. Filming at different angles to bring out the ideology intended for the audience. Rouch is one of the most famous ethnographic filmmakers who developed the concept of theory and practice in which he distances himself as an observer. In his work, he makes that camera do the work while he becomes the actors thus producing unique works. Despite the ethnographic film being considered as a way to present and understand various cultural values in societies, there are some problems in the way films are portrayed. Lately, ethnographic films have been affected by ideologies of observational cinema, which resembles the British Free Cinema movement.[11] The use of lightweight sound cameras as well as accompanying accessories has led to opening up of possibilities filming almost everywhere. In this case, there is the possibility of revealing private and informal behaviors to the people making the film such as in the case of Mirror Mirror in which actors are asked questions related to personal information. The issue of presentation of the corrected information about private issues can be controversial since the viewers are shown individuals dealing with their issues. However, this can also help to them affirm and make rational decisions about their own choices of behavior. Rouch films his work openly and allows his characters to reflect on their experiences as they go searching for jobs in West Africa. Although the audience may sympathize with such hard experiences of the actors, the film reveal otherwise since the three men filmed return home and are respected people in the society.

Ethnographic Films: Expressing Values and Encountering Cultures

The two films Jaguar and Mirror Mirror are excellent examples of ethnographic work perfected by the use of a camera to highlight different values as well as personal experiences. The camera can be used to achieve various aspects of the producer's messages depending on how it is used. Whatever is filmed depends on the message the filmmaker intends to the audience. This can lead to the undermining of the idea of film being a disembodied observer since the procedure of filming may lead to false interpretations of the behavior that is recorded. Filmmakers can also have new intentions for their films in which they can leave them to be self-revelatory by ensuring that the film is the primary encounter of evidence of their production. Ethnographic films are important as they help in expressing values on various issues affecting the society such as queer behavior, culture, and religion among others.


Feld, Stephen ed.2003. Cine-Ethnography: Jean Rouch. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Mirror Mirror. 2006. Dir. Zemirah Moffat.

Sjöberg, Johannes. 2004. ‘Workshop on Ethnofictions’

Sjöberg, Johannes. 2008. ‘Ethnofiction: drama as a creative research practice in ethnographic film’. Journal of Media Practice. 9 (3): 229-242.

[1] Mirror Mirror. 2006. Dir. Zemirah Moffat

[2] Sjöberg, Johannes. 2004. ‘Workshop on Ethnofictions’

[3] Sjöberg, Johannes. 2004. ‘Workshop on Ethnofictions’

[4] Mirror Mirror. 2006. Dir. Zemirah Moffat

[5] Sjöberg, Johannes. 2004. ‘Workshop on Ethnofictions’

[6] Feld, Stephen ed.2003. Cine-Ethnography: Jean Rouch. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press), 16

[7] Sjöberg, Johannes. 2008. ‘Ethnofiction: drama as a creative research practice in ethnographic film’. Journal of Media Practice. 9 (3): 229

[8] Sjöberg, Johannes. 2008. ‘Ethnofiction: drama as a creative research practice in ethnographic film’. Journal of Media Practice. 9 (3): 231

[9] Feld, Stephen ed.2003. Cine-Ethnography: Jean Rouch. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press), 11

[10] Sjöberg, Johannes. 2004. ‘Workshop on Ethnofictions’

[11] Feld, Stephen ed.2003. Cine-Ethnography: Jean Rouch. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press), 23

September 25, 2023




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