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Social Anthropology
School of Social Sciences
University of Manchester
M13 9PL



The film-maker whom we honour with this volume, Dirk

Nijland, is perhaps best known for his films about ritual
events, based on in-depth primary ethnographic research by
himself and/or his expert collaborators, followed by
meticulous filmic documentation. Although few have been
made with the rigour that characterises Dirk's work, such
films about ritual and ceremonial events dominate the
ethnographic film canon and there is at least one very
obvious reason for this: how many ethnographic writers
could come close to evoking the rich, multi-sensorial
character of ritual performance which, in comparison to a
written text, is so readily captured on film?
But there is another, less frequently considered reason
why ritual lends itself so readily to a filmic treatment.
Namely, just like those other staples of the ethnographic
film canon, technical processes and journeys, a ritual
has, by its very nature, an intrinsic narrative structure.
That is, a ritual conventionally has its own beginning,
middle and end, as well as an in-built theatricality, or,
as Jean Rouch once described it, a spontaneous mise-enscne without an apparent author (1981:31). In the ideal
case therefore, the process of making an ethnographic
documentary about a ritual event becomes, in effect,
primarily a process of truncation of the rushes with only
the most redundant moments removed. The ethnographic filmmaker can thus have the best of both worlds: his/her film
has a clear narrative structure, but the manipulation of
both chronology and duration is kept to a minimum. This is
the safe option, the one that many ethnographers feel most
comfortable with, because it poses few epistemological
questions about the status of the resultant film. For once
you depart from the intrinsic chronology and duration of

the profilmic events, you leave the event-as-recorded

behind and start to turn it into a filmic event, and the
nature of its relationship to reality clearly changes.
However, in practice, the actual situation on the ground
is often more complicated than the ideal case, and in
order to turn a ritual event-as-recorded into a filmic
account often requires much more than the mere truncation
of the intrinsic narrative of the event itself. There is
also the perennial problem of how to provide cultural
contextualization for a ritual event: this often entails
sequences before and after the event itself - dealing with
everyday life, for example, or based on interview material
- that do not necessarily have such an intrinsic
chronological structure. Sometimes one might want to evoke
this broader cultural context in the midst of the event
itself which runs the risk of rupturing whatever intrinsic
narrative structure there might be. Then there is the much
more general point that although rituals, technical
processes and journeys may dominate the ethnographic film
canon, there are obviously many other topics that are the
legitimate subjects of ethnographic
filmmaking that do
not have an intrinsic narrative structure of any kind.
Under these circumstances, narrativization becomes a much
more complex procedure, requiring much greater skill in
the editorial manipulation of the rushes.
Although the manipulation of rushes for narrative effect
at post-production poses certain difficult epistemological
questions, I suspect that few currently practising
ethnographic documentarists would deny the need for
narrative structure in their films. Surely very few would
argue, as Margaret Mead once did, that the ethnographic
film genre should consist exclusively of films of
unexpurgated record, entirely faithful to both the
chronology and duration of what we have become accustomed
to call the "pro-filmic" event (Mead 1995). Most would now
accept that it is usually necessary to give the raw
material some form of narrative shaping, be it to
communicate the film-maker's particular interpretation of
the meaning of the events portrayed, or simply to engage
and sustain the interest of the audience. It is in the
general nature of things that academic film-makers tend to
rate the second function as being of considerably less
importance than the first, whereas for commercial filmmakers, if anything, the opposite could be true. But even
the most academic film-makers are well-advised to have
some consideration for the tolerance of their audiences.
But despite the general recognition that narratives are
important to ethnographic documentary-making, it sometimes

seems as if they are a sort of guilty secret which should

not be paraded in a public place. The ethnographic film
literature is full of war stories, in which film-makers
relate their heroic struggles to make a coherent film out
Discussions of style, content or technical procedures are
legion as are reflections on the effect of the presence of
the camera on the material filmed, ethical ramifications
and so on. Yet, with certain important exceptions, the
systematic, comparative analysis of narrative strategies
is something in which ethnographic film-makers rarely
engage. It is as if this sort of discussion would too
starkly reveal the fabric of illusion that any documentary
film, including ethnographic documentary film, necessarily
Thus, for example, it is a widely-known fact that in
shooting his 1922 classic, Nanook of the North, Robert
Flaherty arranged for the construction of an igloo with
only one side so that he would have sufficient light to
film the life of Nanook and his family inside. Much less
frequently commented upon is what he did with the material
which he then filmed in this quasi-igloo. The principal
scenes involve the family going to bed and then getting
up. These must obviously have been carried out at
Flaherty's request since they would hardly have bedded
down, in the middle of winter, in an igloo with only one
side. Also, they must have been performed in this order
since the Inuit could not have acted out the getting up
scene unless they had gone to bed first. However, Flaherty
then cut the sequence in two and used the first part, i.e.
the going to bed, right at the end of the film, to give a
sense of narrative closure, whilst the second part, the
getting up, is used towards the beginning of the main body
of the film, which has been cut in a manner approximating
a day-in-the-life/ life-in-a-day structure. Actually, on
close observation, there appear to be two days involved
here, but even so the getting-up/ going-to-bed sequence
clearly provides a convenient framing device that works,
at an almost subliminal level, to give a sense of
narrative shape to the film.
The use of such temporal framing devices for narrative
effect have been the stock-in-trade of ethnographic
documentarists ever since. But in my experience, should
they ever be pointed out to naive audiences of non-filmic
anthropologists or members of the general public, there is
much tut-tutting and shaking of heads. Such viewers
generally feel they have been duped, that the film-maker
has some how broken the fabled "contract with the
audience". But how many practitioners can claim to have

eschewed them completely? One finds them even in the work

of the most principled observational film-makers: for
example, in David MacDougall's film about Sardinian
shepherds, Tempus de Baristas (1991), there are two early
morning scenes right at the beginning of the film, either
side of the main title, and the film ends with a shepherd
calling out to his animals at dusk.
For my own part, I have to confess that in my film
Cuyagua: Devil Dancers (1986), there is an unabashed
example of temporal framing, even if of a somewhat
different kind. After a preliminary pre-title sequence,
the film begins with a scene of one of the principal
protagonists walking down the main street of his village
and opening his shop. It is a way of introducing the man
as well as the geography of the space where the main
events will take place. I use an almost identical scene
right at the end of the film: the purpose here is to show
that "everyday is not a feast day", as Colette Piault's
memorable film title has it, and that after all the
excitement of the devil dancing ceremonies, normal life
has returned. The film can therefore end and the audience
can be released from its engagement.
I like to think that the device works well, but the truth
is that the way in which these two scenes are presented in
the film is not true to the real-life chronology. For, in
actual fact, I shot the scene at the beginning of the film
after the scene that appears at the end. Moreover, I shot
both scenes after the devil dancing ceremony which comes
between them in the film. I cannot claim to have thought
of using this framing device whilst still in the field. On
the contrary, I shot the scene twice for the simple reason
that I thought that I had not made a good job of it first
time around. It was only some months afterwards, in the
edit suite, that I realized that I could use both attempts
to provide a temporal frame to the film. But as the second
attempt was indeed better than the first, I decided to use
this at the beginning of the film because it is always a
good idea to begin a film with as strong and as engaging a
shot as you can.
These specific examples can be used to underline the more
general point that there is an inherent tension in
ethnographic documentary-making between, on the one hand,
the concern to document and preserve faith with the profilmic reality and, on the other, the requirements of
narrativization. This can entail not only the manipulation
of the chronology, as in the examples above, but also of
the duration of the event-as-recorded. Of the two, the
latter is certainly the less controversial. Even the most

cinematographically naive audience would probably readily

accept that on grounds of relevance or redundacy it is not
necessary to show everything. But it is not only on these
grounds that the duration of the event-as-recorded is
ethnographic films. There are also considerations of the
relative weight of the various component parts of the
event in the edited account, and those to do with what
Dirk has referred to as the "flow" of the film as a whole.
Excisions made on these grounds, I would argue, have as
much to do with requirements of narrative structure as
they have to do with purely substantive matters of
relevance or redundancy.
But whatever the reasons for the elimination of material
may be, the overall effect is to produce a filmic account
that in durational terms is very long way from the eventas-recorded. Although our hypothetical naive audience
might accept that some editing is necessary, it would
certainly be shocked if it knew just how much ends up on
the proverbial "cutting room floor". Even Dirk, who is one
of the least ruthless of ethnographic film editors, used
to eliminate half his material when he worked on film. Now
that he works on video, as is the general experience, he
eliminates a substantially higher proportion: he reports
that in Sacrifice of Serpents, he worked at a ratio of
6:1, that is, he cut out over 80% of the material filmed.
Most ethnographic film-makers work at least at this ratio,
and many work at far higher ratios.1
Yet the mere fact of the manipulation of chronology and
duration for narrative effect should not in itself
disqualify ethnographic documentary from being taken
seriously as a valuable means of making an accurate
representation of the world. After all, in many other
fields of academic endeavour which aspire to the faithful
acknowledged as one of the principal means whereby such
particular, have paid much attention to the role of
narratives in historians' representations of the world
(cf. White 1973). But narratives have also been identified
as important means of representation in many other arenas

My own most recent academic film, The Legacy of Antonio Lorenzano (2000), a sort of filmic obituary
of a Warao shaman from the Orinoco Delta, Venezuela, was cut from 20 hours of video rushes. As the
final film had a running time of 46 minutes, that works out at a ratio of 26:1, involving the elimination of
96% of the rushes. I suspect that most experienced practitioners are now cutting at 8:1 or above, i.e. they
are eliminating close to 90% of the material filmed. In contemporary television productions, ratios of 30:1
or more are commonplace.

of social science from palaeontology to sociology (Landau

1993, van Maanen 1988). Indeed, closer to home, it has
long been argued that narratives are an important aspect
of representation in text-based ethnography and, moreover,
that they tend to conform to a limited and identifiable
range of literary conventions (e.g., inter alii, Marcus &
Cushman 1982, Bruner 1986, Hammersley & Atkinson 1995).
In the light of this prise de conscience about the
narrativized nature of most ethnographic writing, it
becomes easier to make a case for the legitimacy of
narrative manipulation in ethnographic film-making. As
Peter Loizos has observed, written ethnography is very
rarely a literal record, presenting in real time a single
ethnographic monograph "is a distillation of a period of
fieldwork, and it synthesises hundreds if not thousands of
encounters, events, and conversations in order to produce
a coherent summary... Written ethnography has to be
synthetic and composite; it has
to transpose, to
decontextualise, and reaggregate. Otherwise, a monograph
would have to be a series of field notes pasted together
anthropological literature, Argonauts of the Western
Pacific, Loizos reminds us, is the product of such a
participated in a kula expedition but wrote it up as if he
had, based on a synthesis of first-hand observations of
part of the kula exchange ring with informants' accounts
(Loizos 1995:313).
Although one might now quail at the outright fabrications
that Flaherty employed in Nanook (though, arguably, these
were at least in part forced upon him by the technical
constraints of the time), the degree of chronological
manipulation for narrative effect involved in the temporal
framing devices described above is certainly no greater
than that involved in the synthetic accounts of typical
events and behaviours that one finds in a great many
ethnographic texts. In both cases, one is extracting a
particular event from its immediate temporal context and,
on the grounds of an informed judgement as to its
typicality, using it to stand for the whole class of such
events. The only difference is that whereas the textual
treatment may be of an idealized account of such an event,
that may indeed never have happened in exactly the way
described, the filmic treatment necessarily involves using
an actual enactment of the event in question.
Any ethnographer, be it text-maker or film-maker, clearly
has an obligation to produce an accurate representation of

their protagonists and their way of life, but this should

not be directly equated with a literal account. An
ethnographer equally has an obligation to the eventual
audience to produce a narrative that renders the events
understandable in terms that he/she considers appropriate
on the basis of his/her ethnographic knowledge of the
particular case as well as his/her general theoretical
inclinations. This will usually entail highlighting those
details deemed important and omitting those deemed not so.
It can also involve presenting events and situations that
the ethnographer has either not directly experienced or in
an order different from that in which they actuallty
occured in reality.2
But, by and large, ethnographic film-makers have been
reluctant to admit this, at least in public. Instead they
have sought various means to circumvent its implications.
One does not have to look very far for the reasons: for
once you admit that you have manipulated the filmic text,
this threatens the very foundation of the claim that you
are offering an authoritative representation based on the
status of the photographic image as a direct and therefore
truthful index of the world. Although all but the most
naive viewers know that filmic representations are
routinely manipulated, they still nevertheless tend to
believe that this is an aberrant practice rather than a
normal and necessary aspect of film-making. As my own
teacher Colin Young once observed, "To put it at its
bluntest - the camera tends to lie but the audience tends
manipulation goes with the film-making territory, where
does one draw the line? There is, of course, no easy
answer to this question and for this reason, there may be
a good argument for avoiding it if you can.
At the beginning of this article, I pointed out the
advantages of ritual events from this point of view. Given
the inherent mise-en-scne, you can have you cake and eat
it: for when you film a ritual event, your edited account
can remain a close copy of the event-as-recorded but you

In his own contribution to this volume, Dirk reports that when he shot Sacrifice of Serpents in Nepal in
1992, it proved impossible to film particular elements of the ritual due to a variety of contingent
circumstances. However, in the final version of the film, it was possible to make good these omissions,
inserting those moments of the event as they were filmed two years later by two of his Nepalese
collaborators. In this case, the manipulation of the event-as-recorded was to make it conform to a
conception as to how it should normally be, based on prior ethnographic knowledge. Clearly this practice
also raises certain tricky epistemological questions, though they do not pertain directly to manipulations in
the interest of the narrative structure per se.

can still have a narrative structure with a beginning,

middle and an end. One of the most sophisticated
formulations of this strategy is to be found in Jean
Rouch's notion of the plan-squence, the sequence shot, in
which duration as well as chronology is preserved. In the
ideal case, which, tellingly, Rouch conceives as taking
place in the context of the filming of a ritual event, the
camera-operator, in an almost transe-like state (the
famous cin-transe) and moving in perfect choreographic
harmony with the protagonists, responds directly to the
chronology of the authorless mise-en-scne which is
intrinsic to the event. But he should also seek to
reproduce the real time of the event by keeping the camera
running throughout the length of the event or the length
of his film magazine, whichever is the shorter.
The sequence shot running for the full ten-minute duration
of a 16mm magazine was "a dream almost beyond reach" for
Rouch, which he only achieved on once in the course of his
long career (cf. Colleyn 1992). This is to be found in his
well-known film Tourou et Bitti: les tambours d'avant
(1971) in which a single ten-minute sequence shot accounts
for the whole of the main body of the film. Set in a
village in rural Niger, the film shows the climactic
moment of a ritual in which two mediums become possessed
by spirits from whom the villagers seek protection against
the locusts damaging their crops. The film is structured
by the intrinsic chronology of the possession and the
negotiation between the spirits, now embodied in the
mediums, and the representative of the village regarding
the sacrifices that should be made in order to secure the
interestingly, Rouch has given a further narrative shape
to the shot-film by beginning with a travelling shot
walking into the village, a classic narrative opening
device, and ending with a final wide shot of the action
including the setting sun. Even if ironic as some have
claimed3 to my mind, dubiously - this sunset shot still
acts in the conventional manner to signal narrative
For Rouch, the great advantage of the sequence shot is
that it in preserving the original duration of the event,
it enables one "to plunge into the real", as he puts it in
his voice-over commentary. But whilst it may be true that
a successfully executed sequence shot may be a powerful
way of communicating the experience of 'being there', it
should not be confused with a literal, unmediated account

See Stoller 1992:163n


of the real. Certainly, it seems very unlikely that Rouch

himself would have made any such assertion. Clearly, the
camera-operator, even when in cin-transe and reacting to
the intrinsic mise-en-scne continues to make a series of
choices as to how to construct the order of his sequence
shot and in so doing is imposing his own narrative
structure on the event. I find it particularly revealing
that even in this supposedly exemplary epitome of the
sequence shot, the intrinsic narrative of the ritual event
itself is further framed by highly conventional cinematic
opening and closing devices that are entirely extrinsic
and unnecessary to the ritual event.
This is not meant to be a criticism of the sequence-shot
strategy. On the contrary, in certain circumstances and in
competent hands, it can be most effective.4 But what the
example of Tourou et Bitti proves is that even when the
film-maker is following an intrinsic narrative, his or her
own narrative creativity will probably be involved as well
and, moreover, that this is likely to reflect the
established conventions of the cinematographic tradition
in which he or she is working. Personally, I have no
objection to this, believing that in just the same way
that a good ethnographic writer should learn to exploit
the conventions of a literary tradition, so a good filmmaker should learn to exploit the conventions of a
cinematographic tradition. So, given that an important
aspect of the tradition in which most ethnographic filmmakers
important not merely to be aware of them but also know how
to exploit them. Clearly these conventions should not
distort the ethnographic content of the film, but it is
surely better to be in control of them than to allow them
to enter the construction of a film surreptitiously.

Narrative Forms in Ethnographic Film

One of the best recent studies of narrative forms in
documentary is Looking Two Ways (1996). In contrast to the
many theorists who pontificate on such matters, the
author, Toni de Bromhead has the particular advantage of

In a later interview, Rouch admitted that the sequence- shot, although valuable in communicating the
sense of an event in real time, was "something of a stylistic exercize" that it would be "rather silly" to seek
to achieve under any circumstances (see Colleyn 1992:42). In any case, the ten-minute upper limit to the
length of the ideal sequence shot was an arbitrary function of the running time of a 400 ft 16mm
magazine. Even that length of shot left Rouch trembling with exhaustion, so that now that digital video
tapes of an hour or more are available, the upper limit of the sequence shot is more likely to be defined by
the physical endurance of the camera operator.


being a practising film-maker. Although her remit is

documentary film in general, she has a background in
anthropology, and many of her examples are from the
ethnographic film canon. In her discussion, she identifies
four basic types: the discursive, the linear, the episodic
and the poetic. The first and the last need not concern us
here since they concern documentary forms which lie
ethnographic documentaries would probably fall somewhere
within the terrain defined by her "linear" and "episodic"
As de Bromhead acknowledges, the "linear" form has
frequently been described before. Bill Nichols has termed
it the "canonic story form" and claims that it recurs
regularly in ethnographic film-making as well as in
fiction. He identifies the essential features of the form
as follows: "an introduction to characters and setting,
presentation of a disturbance or puzzle, a goal-oriented
line of causally linked situations and events, followed by
a resolution to the disturbance or solution to the puzzle
that leaves the mind at rest". Reduced to a bald formula
by the film theorist David Bordwell, this structure has
five essential parts: setting plus characters - goal attempts - outcome - resolution (see Nichols 1994:67).
In fiction, de Bromhead suggests, the most extreme
exemplars are probably detective films, whilst the socalled "crisis structure" films of the Direct Cinema group
(dealing with elections, political crises, court cases,
all with intrinsic critical climaxes) constitute clear
examples within the general class of documentary. Amongst
explicitly ethnographic films, de Bromhead considers a
good example to be The Wedding Camels (1977), David and
Judith MacDougall's well-known film about the intricate
negotiations over marriage payments amongst the Turkana
pastoralists of East Africa (de Bromhead 1996:36-67). In
contrast, de Bromhead argues, in the "episodic" form the
various component parts of the narrative are not linked in
systematically to a conclusion in a strongly linear

de Bromhead's "discursive" form, which she equates with Bill Nichols' "expository" or "classic"
documentary form refers to documentaries structured around a voice-over narration, ranging from
standard television fare to various Godardian explorations of the relationship between language and
image. Her "poetic" category, on the other hand, refers to documentaries structured around a purely visual
association between images, a form which has become rare since the end of the silent movies era and
which, with one or two interesting exceptions (for example, Basil Wright's Song of Ceylon, released in
1934), has never been of any great significance in ethnographic film-making generally.


manner, it is the disjunctions or "ellipses" between the

parts that are significant.
However, if one looks closely at the examples that she
gives of this latter form, even these display elements of
linearity. One such example is Nanook. This does indeed
begin with a series of episodic vignettes typical of
ethnographic films of the time: technical processes of
savage-man-misunderstandsmodern-technology tropes and so on. But in the main body
of the film, as described above, this gives way to a
conventional day-in-the-life narrative with a clear, if
entirely fabricated, linear temporal structure. A similar
point can be made about Fred Wiseman's Hospital, another
of de Bromhead's examples. This too is certainly composed
of a series of episodes, in this case of hospital life.
But as perceived by Brian Winston (though he acknowledges
that Wiseman himself may not have been consciously aware
of this as he cut the film), these episodes are "arranged
on a rising curve" ending with death and a coda in the
chapel (Winston 1995:156-7). This is then followed by an
epilogue shot of the indifferent traffic passing by
Lying between the "linear" and "episodic" forms, de
Bromhead locates the diary form and the road movie, which
she considers "hybrid" because although they are typically
composed of episodic events, these are strung together in
a linear fashion simply by virtue of the structure
provided by the passage of time in the one case and the
journey through space in the other (de Bromhead 1996:69103). Both of these forms obviously have any number of
antecedents in the European literary tradition. Diaristic
novels go back at least to the eighteenth century whereas
the road movie is merely a contemporary version of the
journey narrative form which can be traced back at least
to the Aenead, with Canterbury Tales and Don Quixote as
only two of the most celebrated later examples.
ethnographic films (Melissa Llewelyn Davies' Diary of a
Maasai Village, released in 1984, is an obvious example),
whilst the road movie, if redefined more generically as
the journey movie would cover a wide selection of
ethnographic films from Cooper and Schoedsack's 1925
classic Grass to any number of more recent films on such
themes as rural-urban migration, seasonal herding of
animals, hunting trips, pilgrimages, itinerant merchants
or salesmen, and so on. All these examples suggest that
what one is dealing with here is not a difference of kind,
but merely a difference of degree between narratives that


are strongly and self-consciously linear at one extreme

and at the other, those that are less markedly so whatever
the explicit, conscious intentions of the makers may have
This frequency, if not near-universality, of the linear
narrative form in documentary film-making has been
attributed to the most diverse causes. Edward Branigan
goes so far as to suggest that it is nothing more nor less
than an expression of a seven-part narrative "schema"
which, he claims, has been recognised by psychologists as
one of the basic features of human cognitive operations.
This schema, he claims, is composed of "(1) introduction
of setting and characters; (2) explanation of a state of
affairs; (3) initiating event; (4) emotional response or
statement of a goal by protagonist; (5) complicating
actions; (6) outcome; (7) reactions to the outcome"
(Branigan 1992:14). At the opposite end of the spectrum,
Nichols suggests that the linear narrative is merely the
product of a particularly Western aesthetic of storytelling which has become so embedded in the minds of
ethnographic film-makers (and others) that they have come
to think of it as natural rather than cultural (Nichols
Whatever the origins of the form may be, the linear
narrative is obviously a most effective device, at least
for the Western viewers who are the primary audiences for
most ethnographic films. But I remain sceptical that these
elaborate five or seven part schemas will ever be of much
practical use in suggesting how any particular film should

Most anthropologists would probably identify with Nichols' scepticism about the tendency to
extrapolate directly from the frequency of certain narrative forms found in Western cultural contexts to
claims about their universality. (As exemplified also by the enthusiasm for extrapolating Propp's analysis
of a selection of Russian fairy tales to a variety of other contexts). However Nichols takes the argument
much further, suggesting that the prevalence of the "canonic story form" amongst Western ethnographic
film-makers arises from a concern to control the exotic Other within the straightjacket of Western storytelling conventions whilst at the same time indulging a desire to experience the Other's strangeness. Then,
by means of a series of singularly unconvincing syllogisms, he proposes a parallel between this
conjunction of control and desire in ethnographic film-making, as he sees it, and that found in the viewing
of "classic heterosexual pornography" (Nichols 1994:66-68). Much influenced by the writings of Trinh T.
MinHa, Nichols calls instead for a narrative structure that would allow one "to know difference
differently". But the exact details of this "method in the mist", as he himself terms it, remain hazy: What is
known is that it would be phenomenological, it would not abolish knowledge from the belly but affirm it,
it would replace hierarchical structures with participatory encounters. It would be a method developed by
diasporic Others who live in the liminal interstices between the First and Third Worlds. In these various
ways, it would move away "from attempts to speak from mind to mind, toward a politics and
epistemology of experience spoken from body to body" (Nichols 1994:73). But precisely how this
cavalcade of worthy sentiments could be translated into a practical narrative strategy remains deeply
shrouded in the vapours.


be structured. They are far too mechanistically formulaic.

Even in the unlikely event that they could be shown to
correspond in some degree to certain fundamental human
cognitive procedures for representing the world, they
could be no more than an approximate guide to structuring
one's rushes. They tell one nothing about the pacing of
the various components of the narrative, their relative
duration, nor about the many embellishments which may
enhance the basic structure, nor indeed about the many
other aesthetic judgements that it is necessary to take in
the course of editing a film narrative to make it "flow"
as Dirk puts it.
Far more useful, in my view, is the koan-like dictum,
commonly attributed to Jean-Luc Godard, with which
experienced film-makers like to tantalize the novice,
namely that all good narratives should have a Beginning,
Middle and an End ... though not necessarily in that

Beginning, Middle and End

Although the five-part and seven-part ideal-type narrative
schemas described above may be overly formulaic, they are
useful nevertheless in suggesting what exactly should be
found at the various points of a narrative structure. Both
these more elaborate formulations suggest that the
introduction of characters, the geography of the setting
and, most importantly, the issue, situation or problem
that will be developed through the film as the main thread
of the film are the essential constituents of the
Beginning of the film. They are the means of "getting the
audience on the train", as Colin Young used to put it.7 By
convention, there is a great virtue in establishing the
characters, setting and issues as quickly and succinctly
as possible. Obviously some situations are more complex
than others, and if there are many important characters,
they may take some time to establish. But if you get more
than about a quarter of the way into your film and you
have still not got your audience on the train, you are in
danger of losing them.
Once you have got the audience "on the train", they have
at least the illusion that they know where it is supposed
to be going and everything is ready for the main body of
the film, i.e. the Middle, to begin. But before the train

Colin Young was the director of the National Film & Television School in 1984-87 during my time as
a trainee documentarist there and, prior to that, one of the founding figures of the observational cinema
as developed at UCLA in the 1960s.


can actually leave the platform, as it were, some

Branigan's phrase, must be identified to motivate the
action. That is, in an event-based linear narrative, the
decision must be taken to hold the festival/ migrate to
the city / go on the pilgrimage or whatever the event may
be. In a temporally based linear narrative, the beginning
of the period is announced, usually with an appropriate
establishment shot, e.g. the shepherds leave the house at
daybreak / flood-waters rushing down a dried out river bed
presage the arrival of the rainy season/ the main
protagonist arrives at the airport. In a more episodic
narrative, the issue / conflict / uncertainty that will be
explored in a variety of contexts in the course of the
film should be made manifest in a telling initial example.
The Middle of the film should, in the ideal case, involve
some sort of progress. This can be the literal progression
of events themselves, or, within an episodic narrative
structure, a metaphorical progression in terms of the
development of the insight offered into the situation. In
the former case, the chronology of the real-time events is
likely to impose itself whereas in the latter, this may be
manipulated. But either way round, this progression should
reach some sort of culmination round about 4/5ths of the
way through the film. Here the ritual event should draw to
a close, the pilgrimage come to an end, the developing
tensions between the protagonists spill out into a
tumultuous argument leading them to go their separate
Alternatively, or in addition, this is the point at which
one of the protagonists or the film-maker him- or herself
offers a summarizing powerful insight into the situation
portrayed. Often this can take a verbal form, being a
conversation, a discussion, an argument, an interview. It
may simply be a commentary point. But on rare occasions it
can be achieved by entirely visual means. For example, in
David MacDougalls film, Tempus de Baristas (1993), this
culmination is represented by a powerfully metaphorical
shot of a shepherd trudging slowly uphill to his hut,
carrying a large tree trunk over his shoulder. Traditional
huts of this kind, isolated in the mountains without any
modern conveniences,
are developed in the film as a
powerful symbol of the hardships of the traditional
herding way of life, now in sharp decline because there is
no longer a market for the meat. It is a time for barmen
rather than shepherds, and few young people want to
continue the tradition. Condemned by circumstance to go on
living in one of these huts, with little formal education
and no prospect of ever being able to marry, the shepherd


makes his way uphill, painfully, slowly, carrying what is

not simply a heavy tree trunk but a sort of cross, a
burden he must bear, a destiny he cannot avoid.
As an exception to the general rule that you should
introduce all your most significant characters in the
course of the Beginning, the culmination of a film may be
brought about by the sudden appearance of an important new
character. A favourite device of Alfred Hitchcock, he even
gave such a character a name: the MacGuffin. I myself used
this device in an altogether more modest way in one of my
first films, Devil Dancers (1986). About forty minutes
into the 52-minute film, the devil dancers, gathered in
front of the church towards the end of their ceremony, bow
before the altar cross carried by the village priest. But
at that moment, a man stripped to the waist jumps out of
the crowd and begins to insult both the priest and the
dancers in a blasphemous way. Thinking he was simply a
drunk, I momentarily stopped filming at this point since I
was afraid that my hosts might be unhappy if I recorded
this blemish on an otherwise magnificent celebration.8 But
the bystanders around me urged me to keep turning over and
it soon became apparent that although the man's behaviour
was not normal, it was not entirely unexpected. "The man
is endiablado - possessed by the Devil!", the old ladies
at the Church door were saying, whilst the dancers were
lashing him with the whips they were carrying as part of
their costume. Far from being an abnormality, the outbreak
acted as a corroboration of the widely held belief that
the Devil himself is attracted by the sound of the devil
dancers' music. Some time after the event had taken place,
I shot some sequences of senior men recounting legends
about the appearance of the Devil at the dancing and the
associated beliefs. In the edited version of the film, I
used these before the event, so that the viewer would
understand the protagonists' reactions to the "drunk". In
this way, this apparent distraction from the main business
of the event became instead the culminating moment of the
Although the main work of the film is now complete, there
is still the End to consider. This can function as a kind
of epilogue, providing the audience and possibly the
protagonists as well with an opportunity to ruminate on
the significance of what has happened in the film and
speculate about its consequences for the future or perhaps
for similar situations at other times or in other places.

Nowadays I would not be so sensitive: hardened by experience, I shoot first and ask questions
afterwards, knowing that the inappropriate or the unethical can always be edited out later but the
epiphanous moment can never be recaptured.


inspirational, tragic, pedagogic, as appropriate. This is
the equivalent of the final scene of King Lear when the
survivors of the tragedy reflect on their experiences,
consider the future and then troop off the stage. As well
as providing an opportunity for reflection, this End has a
dramaturgical function: it should wind the audience down,
release them from their engagement in the film, achieve
closure. The length of the End can vary considerably, from
a complete scene to a single shot, but even the latter can
help to avoid the audience feeling that it has been "left
in the air". Although it may be a relatively brief part of
the overall length of the film, the End is very important
in determining audience reaction, since it will play a
large part in forming the sentiments they go away with.

Embellishments and Variations

On this basic Beginning-Middle-End structure, there are
many further embellishments and variations. I have already
alluded to temporal framing devices that reinforce
whatever substantive sense of beginning-middle-end there
may be with a temporal beginning and ending, as in the
getting up and going to bed sequences in Nanook of the
North or in the device of placing a dawn at the beginning
and a dusk at the end, used in any number of ethnographic
Then there is the device of "book-ending", where you
return to the same scene with which you began. Though it
need not necessarily be the case, this also often has a
temporal aspect, as in the case of the shots of Neri going
to open his store first thing in the morning placed both
at the beginning and at the end of Devil Dancers. I used
the device in a somewhat different way in Reclaiming the
Forest (1985), a film about gold-mining in the Venezuelan
rainforest. In this case, the film begins with the
juxtaposition of a shot of majestic virgin rainforest with
a shot of a bulldozer in a wasted landscape, dumping goldbearing soil down a chute. I then ended the film with the
same juxtaposition of shots, except this time at night. By
returning to the same scene at a different time of day, I
used the temporal framing device to emphasize the point
that the devastation seen in the film is a round-the-clock

This book-ending device can also be found in ethnographic texts. One of the most extraordinary
examples is to be found in that foundational work of anthropology, Sir James Frazer's classic, The Golden
Bough. This has a narrative structure more akin to a mystery story or a detective novel, or indeed with a
film narrative than with the structure of a conventional ethnographic monograph. It begins and ends - in


Another very common device is the pre-title sequence,

which, it has been argued, first developed as a television
documentary device to hook the audience before they were
tempted to change channels. Indeed, it is routinely used
on television to present particularly striking images or
to present the issue of the film in a particularly
dramatic way to capture the wavering viewer. The British
television documentarist Leslie Woodhead,
who has made
six television films about the Mursi of southern Ethiopia
with anthropologist David Turton, used arresting images of
women with large lip plugs right at the beginning of a
number of these films for precisely this reason.
However, the pre-title sequence can also be used in other
ways. In Devil Dancers, which was not a film destined for
television, I used it to present, through voice-over
narration, necessary contextual information about the
ceremonial event that is the main subject of the film. It
was also useful to give the audience a foretaste of the
extraordinary dancing that they would see later. In this
way, I hoped to give them something to look forward to and
thereby to encourage them to maintain their interest in
all the preparations that make up the bulk of the first
introduction was entirely out of character stylistically
with the rest of the film, which was presented in a
largely commentary-free observational manner, it was
convenient to be able to separate it off into its own
little slot within the pre-title sequence.
These are all well-established strategies that can be used
in conjunction with a conventional Beginning-Middle-End
structure. But, as suggested above, although conventional
wisdom might decree that all films should have a
beginning, a middle and an end, they need not necessarily
be in that order. A relatively common strategy is to begin
in the Middle of the main event of the film, then return
to the beginning to explain who the protagonists are and
how they got there, and then play out that event to its
end, with a suitable epilogue as an ending. This is the
strategy that Paul Watson adopted in the well-known
British television documentary, The Fishing Party (1985).
The film begins with four men out on a fishing boat off
the coast of Scotland. We then go back to discover that
they are all extremely wealthy and are involved, directly

latter editions, some twelve volumes later - in the wooded valley of Nemi, to which Frazer returns, like
Poirot returning to the original scene of a crime, to explain the mysterious circumstances of the ritual
murder of the priest of Diana.


or indirectly, in the City of London finance world. Having

established that they are mostly highly reactionary
supporters of the Thatcher government and, in varying
degrees, completely ruthless in their business dealings,
we return to the fishing party to see them shooting
seagulls for sport. Each part of the film thus comments on
the other.
Perhaps even more common is to begin with a flash forward
to the End followed by a jump back to the Beginning. This
is an appropriate device for documentary when the outcome
of a series of events is already known and the interest of
the film lies rather in how that outcome was arrived at.
It is a device frequently used in fiction films. One of
the best-known examples of the latter is surely Stanley
Kubrick's Lolita (1962) which opens with the scene in
which Humbert Humbert murders his rival for the eponymous
heroine's attentions, before cutting back to his arrival
at Lolita's house for the first time. But it is also a
device that has often been used in documentaries. It is a
particularly common in life history films because it is a
good way of undermining the sense of history as "just one
damn thing after another" which dogs all chronologically
faithful biographical documentaries.
Arguably perhaps, these self-conscious deviations only
make sense by reference to the normal sequence. Even when
a narrative moves from the End to the Beginning, it often
eventually returns to the end again, as in Lolita, thereby
providing a particularly strong, circular sense of
narrative closure. We did this, for example, in We are
Born to Survive (1995), a film directed by Paul Okojije
which I produced. This film presented a portrait of the
recently deceased black Manchester activist Kath Locke
and begins with a re-enactment of the song sung at her
funeral. The film then cycles back via some 1930s archive
and evocative music to an interview in which she talks
about her early life in Blackpool. Thereafter, the film
follows her life in a more or less faithful chronological
order, showing how an early encounter with pan-Africanism
through the
Congress held at Manchester in 1945 had
provided her with a means of understanding her experien
ces as a black person in Britain. At the end of the film,
the film returns to the funeral song, but by then it has
become clear why it is the anthem of the African National
Congress that is being sung.

By way of conclusion...


These then are just a few of the narrative strategies

conceptualizing a project prior to departing to the field,
in the process of shooting itself, or in dialectical
interaction with one's rushes at the post-production
phase. There are certainly a great many others. Moreover,
as literary theorists of narrative have emphasized, there
is a great deal more to narrative than formal aspects of
structure. These other aspects include issues to do with
content , such as the intricacies of the plot, the use of
character, the handling of established story-telling
tropes. Although these matters are most usually discussed
in the context of fictional works, they are relevant to
the construction of documentaries as well. But that - as
the saying goes - is another story, and lies beyond the
scope of this article.
In general, ethnographic text-makers now readily accept
that their publications are works of literature, and as
conventions. It seems high time that those of us who make
ethnographic films should come to terms with the fact that
conventions. Ethnographic documentarists tend not to think
about them in a self-conscious manner, but whether they
think about them or not, they are nevertheless practically
engaged with them every time they make a film. Certainly
we cannot hope to achieve some greater degree of truth by
ignoring them. As Dai Vaughan, editor of Diary of a Maasai
Village, Tempus de Baristas and many other well-known
documentary films has commented, ethnographic film-makers
seem to be particularly attracted to the idea that "the
minimum of structuring will afford the maximum of truth".
But as he points out, "the antithesis of the structured is
not the truthful, nor even the objective, but quite simply
the random" (1992:100).
Narrative conventions may or may not be arbitrary; they
may or may not be culturally specific. But they are
certainly necessary. We should learn how to use them in a
more determined manner.


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Cooper, Merian C. and Ernest B. Schoedsack (1925). Grass.
62"; prod: Paramount.
Flaherty, Robert (1922) Nanook of the North. 60"; prod.
Revillon Frres.
Henley, Paul (1985) Reclaiming the Forest. 39"; prod.
Anthropological Institute.
Henley, Paul (1986) Cuyagua: Devil Dancers. 52"; prod.
National Film & Television School/
Royal Anthropological Institute
Henley, Paul (2000) The Legacy of Antonio Lorenzano. 46";
prod. Granada Centre for Visual
Llewelyn-Davies, Melissa (1984) Diary of a Maasai Village.
225" approx.; prod. BBC
Television, Bristol
MacDougall, David (1977) The Wedding Camels. 108"; prod.
University of California
Ethnographic Film Programme.
MacDougall, David (1993) Tempus de Baristas. 100"; prod.
Fieldwork Films/ Instituto
Superiore Regionale Etnografico, Nuoro
Okojie, Paul (1995) We were Born to Survive. 29"; prod.
Granada Centre for Visual
Anthropology/ Kath Locke Educational Trust.
Rouch, Jean (1971) Tourou et Bitti: les tambours d'avant.
10". prod.: CNRS/CFE
Watson, Paul (1985) The Fishing Party. 40"; prod. BBC
Wiseman, Fred (1970) Hospital. 84"; prod. Zipporah Films.
Wright, Basil (1934) Song of Ceylon. 40"; prod. Ceylon Tea
Propaganda Board/GPO Film Unit.