A Review of Virtual Reality Ethnographic Film, or: How We’ve Always been Creating Virtual Reality

By Haley Bryant

Upon opening my eyes, I see that a figure has appeared on the horizon: a young boy adorned in the iconic red vestments of the Maasai people is walking toward me across the Kenyan savanna, past a lone Acacia. His face neutral, his stride slow but deliberate, the only sounds are those of the wind in my ears and the gentle clinking of the bells around the boy’s ankles as he walks. As the boy approaches it becomes apparent that I am his intended target. His gaze locks onto mine and he keeps walking until he stops just a foot or two in front of me, where he continues to gaze passively at my face. Although he doesn’t say anything to me, nor does he reach out to me in any way, it takes all of my effort not to fall off of my stool in the Hall of Northwest Coast Indians in the American Museum of Natural History. The other participants stationed around me were treated to a few audible, involuntary “waaaaaaah!”s. This was clearly my first experience with Virtual Reality (VR) and I, for one, feel that I was appropriately awed.

Mead Festival VR Film Flyer

Mead Festival VR Film Flyer

My encounter with this young man (encounter being a very deliberate word choice) was part of one of four “ethnographic” VR films, each between eight and twelve minutes long, being screened in the Samsung Gear VR Virtual Reality Lounge at the 2016 Margaret Mead Film Festival in New York City. Billed in the festival program as a way to “…experience the lives of nomadic cultures around the world and dive into the history of Cuban dance,” the VR lounge featured the works of two different production teams: Felix LaJeunesse & Paul Raphael of Felix and Paul Studios and Emmy-winning director Lucy Walker. Felix and Paul’s Nomads series constituted three of the four films. Each film highlighted a different cultural group—the Maasai of Southern Kenya and Northern Tanzania, herders in Mongolia, and fishermen off the coast of Borneo in a film evocatively titled “Nomads: Sea Gypsies.” Walker offered the film on the history of Cuban dance.

Situating VR in a lineage of Anthropological Image Making

The use of moving images to conduct anthropology has long been bound up with a need, as E. Richard Sorenson says, “…to document visually the remaining variety of the culturally patterned human behavior in the world which reflects diverse, sometimes unique, expressions of basic human potential” (1975, 493). Film cameras finally became portable enough to be carried into the field by anthropologists (more accurately their field assistants) during the early to mid-20th century when theories of salvage ethnography dominated. In other words film allowed for a construction of ‘The Other’ that was in many ways unprecedented in the world of written ethnography or travel writing.

Early anthropologists and sociologists, a la Claude Levi-Strauss, were often following very structuralist threads in seeking out human universals among cultural particularities. Sorenson points to the very reductive potential of early ethnographic photography and film—by placing a scene and individual into a frame, we as anthropologists make subjective, culturally inflected choices about what elements (cultural and aesthetic) are important and not important. We dictate to a large extent what the consumer of an image takes away from an encounter with that image. This danger is of course not absent in written ethnography; due to their visual nature, photographs bear what literary scholar James Knapp terms “ocular proof” (2003, 704) stemming from both their see-able status and their status as things. As Maurice Merleau-Ponty says, “…the world is what we see” (1968, 3).

Ethnographic filmmaking is not necessarily about setting up a camera and ‘letting life happen’ in front of it. In fact, if one goes back through the history of well-known ethnographic films, one can find numerous examples wherein filmmakers (who, incidentally, were often not anthropologists) staged whole portions of their ethnographic films. For instance, Robert Flaherty’s 1922 documentary Nanook of the North, which is credited with establishing the documentary film genre and is ironically subtitled ‘A Story of Life and Love in the Actual Arctic’ (emphasis mine), was a box office success. However, the film was soon criticized when it emerged that the vast majority of the film was staged and not an “authentic” look at the life of the Inuit people. In fact, “Nanook” was a pseudonym Flaherty created for his protagonist played by an Inuit man named Allakariallak. Even many early and influential films produced by academically trained anthropologists cannot claim to escape accusations of—and even champion—reenactment or staging such as The Ax Fight (1975) by Timothy Asch and Napoleon Chagnon or Jerry Leach and Gary Kildea’s 1975 Trobriand Cricket.

With the reflexive turn of the 1980s, however, anthropology as a discipline, and visual anthropologists in particular, began to think more critically about how their choices in framing and staging constituted their ethnographic subjects. One controversial example of this is Robert Gardner’s Forest of Bliss (1986). Gardner introduced a very sensorial, fly-on-the-wall approach to ethnographic filmmaking that was both highly acclaimed and toughly criticized among filmmaking and anthropological circles. Forest of Bliss explores death and mourning rituals in the Indian city of Benares via 90 minutes of visually stunning, evocative shots meant to illuminate the sacred and quotidian ‘from one sunrise to the next’ without any guiding narration from the filmmaker.

This lack of logo-centric contextualization and analysis flies in the face of the preceding half-century of ethnographic filmmaking during which the intent was didactic to the point of patronization. Up to this point ethnographic, documentary films were often used as ‘teaching tools’. Expository voice-overs done by the filmmaker (added in the early days after-the-fact via Synch Sound technology and once technology evolved, captured in the moment) served to clarify for the uninformed Western audience the baffling rites and practices they were witnessing on screen. This implies that the filmmaker—trained anthropologist or not—has some proprietary insight into the meaning of the images being shown on screen and that the images, as encompassing as they may be, beg some deeper analysis to be rendered comprehensible.

In Gardner’s brand of anthropological film, it seems, the audience is called upon to do the work of analysis as if they themselves were the first-hand observer, not the filmmaker. Gardner’s legacy would go on to help jumpstart a lineage of ethnographic filmmaking exemplified by Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab (formed in 2006) known for such films as Leviathan (2012), consisting only of footage captured on a series of GoPro cameras attached to various parts of a fishing boat—or thrown in with decapitated fish, or tied to the legs of seagulls—in the waters off of Massachusetts. By diminishing their presence as much as possible (although it bears emphasizing that there is a lower limit of presence), the filmmaker in this genre of ethnographic film attempts to let the ethnographic subjects “speak for themselves,” versus earlier films in which the filmmaker was explicitly doing the speaking.

More traditional interview-driven, documentary style ethnographic films, which often employ techniques of reenactment and staging, are still being made (notably, Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing (2012) and The Look of Silence (2014) have both gained a great deal of mainstream attention recently). This is not to say that staging and reenactment inherently do not have a place in ethnographic film—in an essential, Goffmanian sense these rhetorical techniques can go a long way towards critically and reflexively exploring cultural norms or social issues. However, in recent years there is a heightened awareness of the role of the filmmaker in constructing the ethnographic subject through the device of the camera and the repercussions of capturing subjects on film—not to mention the repercussions of disseminating that film. So what comes out of the collision of VR technology, ethnographic filming intent, and the elaboration of critical visual anthropological theory?
Locating Myself In Virtual Reality:

The questions that VR poses for me in terms of visual ethnography primarily revolve around positionality and subjectivity—literally and figuratively. The conceit of any ethnographic image making is that the producer is crafting some ‘true’ or ‘authentic’ image of a culture or people that is, following Knapp, more authentic even than words can craft. VR technology, ostensibly, allows us to go one step further on the spectrum of authenticity by allowing us to capture, and then translate, a more rich contextual fabric that we can participate in—to varying degrees.

The first thing that I felt compelled to do when I put on my VR headset—after ensuring that I didn’t fall off of my stool—was to physically locate myself in the space of the film. After all, it is supposed to be an “immersive” experience and it felt important to me to identify how I was capable of participating in this VR space. I looked down, trying to identify my body, and I was met with a black void—I was quite literally not there and neither was anything else. Throughout the film, however, I would make eye contact (or more accurately, the filmmaker was making eye contact) with the Maasai folks standing, sitting, or dancing near me. I felt present despite the fact that I knew—and could continually reaffirm—that I was absolutely not present. When I sat down to watch the second film, Walker’s A History of Cuban Dance, I performed the same exercise. In Walker’s film instead of the participant occupying a black space the filmic field just continued through where I anticipated my body being—the Cuban landscape just continued right through me. This was actually more disarming to me than being a black void. Existing as a hole in space in the Nomads: Maasai film helped me to feel more grounded and present than feeling like I was an omnipresent, removed observer. This also feels more in line with what visual ethnographers seek to do today when making an intentionally ethnographic film. If my actual body could not be represented in the space of the film, I felt comforted that my presence was somehow acknowledged.

This difference between the two sets of films may come down to technological capacity, or it may be a very deliberate choice on the part of the directors—I would be interested to learn more. The sweeping spatial views with no break in landscape in the Cuban film fit the goal of displaying a sweeping historiography of dance in the country. This framework does not work so well for the situated, focused subject matter of the Nomads films.

A Final Note on Technology

What I love—and I do love—about Leviathan is the encompassing, destabilizing effect that the use of GoPro cameras creates. Jumping between the pitching bow of the fishing boat and the rocking well full of half-cleaned fish bodies is visceral, and a little off-putting, but it feels like an approximation of a real experience. I learned that GoPros are also a typical technology used in shooting 360 degree video for VR films, albeit between 6 and 12 of them affixed to a mount to capture overlapping fields of vision. It strikes me that the way the technology has been deployed to create a film like Leviathan allows for a very fluid, dynamic, and I hesitate to say it but, life-like subjective experience. On the other hand being dropped down into the center of a fixed field of vision as one is in a VR film—for instance, remaining seated in the center of a Maasai dance circle for three full minutes with only the ability to turn 360 degrees—deprives one of an actual “true-to-life” experience wherein one could move and react organically.

What are we sacrificing in an effort to “place ourselves into context” when we could be using the same technology to capture a more holistic picture of said context? What is more important—the feeling of subjective presence or the comprehension of the subjectivity of those depicted in the film? It seems to me that it comes back to the same question of ‘framing’ that early filmmakers came up against—what is left out in service of the medium that cannot be recovered? We run the risk of reducing our subjects to visually stunning, virtually exciting, three-dimensional snippets that ignore cultural nuance and complexity and that transcend—and ultimately ignore—the position of the viewer.

This, of course, is a limit of the technology and I am aware that already VR technology has evolved to a point where one cannot just view but participate in and manipulate VR spaces—such as VR chat rooms and social gaming experiences. However, these sorts of experiences often require avatars and digitally rendered surroundings. I anticipate that once ethnographic filmmakers become better versed in the methodology of VR filmmaking some truly astounding products will be made. The current trend of highly self-aware and critical anthropological filmmaking, coupled with the trend towards experimental filmmaking techniques, has laid the groundwork for a some amazing future VR ethnographies—and I can’t wait to be knocked off my stool again.


Originally from Nashville, Tennessee, Haley recently graduated with her MA in Museum Anthropology from George Washington University. She spends most of her time exploring how community archives are used as tools of identity formation and civic engagement in the DMV area. Recently she’s begun thinking seriously about how her academic training as a social scientist can benefit those who have not had the same privileges—specifically in advocacy and activist contexts. She currently works in collections and research for the National Museum of Natural History’s Department of Anthropology. Her pet obsession is ethnographic film—to that end she runs a visual anthropology club on GW’s campus cleverly titled Anthropocinema. If you’d like to chat about film, her fledgling audio-ethnography project, David Blaine, social justice, Being Southern, and/or a topic of your choice she urges you to contact her at: Haleye.Bryant@gmail.com

Works Cited

Asch, T. & Chagnon, Napoleon. The Ax Fight (1975; 30 min).

Flaherty, R. Nanook of the North. (1922; 79 min).

Gardner, R. Forest of Bliss. (1986; 90 min).

Knapp, J. A. 2003. “’Ocular Proof’: Archival Revelations and Aesthetic Response”. Poetics Today 24(4). Duke University Press: 695-727.

Leach, J. & Kildea, Gary. Trobriand Cricket. (1975; 53 min).

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice, and Claude Lefort. 1968. “The Visible and the Invisible”. Evanston [Ill.]: Northwestern University Press.

Oppenheimer, J. The Act of Killing. (2012; 166 min).

Oppenheimer, J. The Look of Silence. (2014; 103 min).

Paravel, V. & Castaing-Taylor, Lucien. Leviathan. (2012; 87 min).

Sorenson, E. R. 1975. “Visual Records, Human Knowledge, and the Future.” In P. Hockings (Ed) Principles of Visual Anthropology Pp. 493-506. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter.

Wintle, P. 2013. “Moving Image Technology and Archives.” In Bell, J.A., and R.J. Gordon, Edson. 2013. Recreating First Contact: Expeditions, Anthropology, and Popular Culture. Pp. 31-40. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Scholarly Press.

About Emma Louise Backe

PhD student in Medical Anthropology at the George Washington University and independent consultant, focusing on the intersections of international development, global health, reproductive health justice, gender-based violence, and the politics of care. Social justice sailor scout working on behalf of survivors of sexual violence, gender equity, and comprehensive sexual and reproductive health among vulnerable populations.

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