Course overview


Online teaching

We are now offering many of our courses online due to the developing Covid-19 situation. Continue learning with us by taking courses remotely via live distance learning.


In this course we will identify what makes an ethnographic film work. We will ask: how can we portray other people’s way of life on film truthfully? What is the appropriate way to represent them? Is it possible to translate their experience objectively? What does the ethnographic method bring to filmmaking? We will consider how anthropology has used filmmaking since the birth of cinema and how filmmaking practices in anthropology have evolved with advances in technology.

This course will introduce you to what you can gain in understanding and making images with the tools of anthropology. Each week we will watch a classic ethnographic film which helped to shape the discipline of visual anthropology. Each film will be followed by a discussion considering the pros and cons of the film, the filmmaker’s perspective, the way they represent the subject matter and the methods used.

During this 10 week short course we'll explore the ambiguous relationship between anthropology and film, including an ongoing reflection on questions of representation and observation. Some of the key questions we'll be asking include:

• What is an ethnographic film?
• What kinds of films do anthropologists produce and why?
• What does it mean to depict other people in the films and images we produce?
• What are our responsibilities to the people we choose to represent?
• How have changes in technology changed the nature of anthropological film making?
• Can anyone make an ethnographic film?

We'll introduce you to viewpoints drawn from diverse fields of anthropological investigation, including:

  • Visual anthropology
  • The anthropology of film and media

These approaches will then be drawn into conversation with documentary and other forms of film-making.



Booking information

Disability Support

We are committed to providing reasonable teaching adjustments for students with disabilities that may impact on their learning experience. If you require adjustments, please complete the relevant section on the booking form and also contact us at so we can respond to your requests as soon as possible. 

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Tutor information

Dr Claire Loussouarn

Dr Loussouarn is anthropologist, filmmaker and movement practitioner, who also works as a visiting tutor in our Department of Anthropology. She completed her doctoral thesis at Goldsmiths, which explored Chinese gambling in London and was a research fellow for 3 years as part of the GAMSOC project, during which she carried out further research on risk-taking in financial trading in the UK. Dr Loussouarn has made short films in collaboration with artist and historian Professor Khadija Von Zinneburg, including Snail Eating Theatre (which looks at the unfinished opera of Marrakesh), Artists in Residence (which uses drawings made by refugees in detention centres to speak about their experience) and Subcutaneous Ha-has and the Evolution of Polymorphic Animacules (about a plant performance in Kew Gardens)

Her current research interests include slow cinema, the intersections of reality and fiction, the dialogue of moving images and moving bodies, various forms of movement improvisation, the anatomy of moving bodies, oral storytelling and the feral child. She is currently editing a documentary about female New York Boxers, Unstoppable, in collaboration with anthropologist Jesse Shipley.

tutor Barbara Knorpp smiling with a cup of tea

Barbara Knorpp

Barbara Knorpp is an anthropologist with a special interest in film history. Her work is situated in the interdisciplinary arena between anthropology, cinema, media studies, and fine art. Before her PhD she worked in an international photo press agency, collaborated with artists, and worked in documentary and fiction film in Germany, Japan, and Australia. She was a Teaching Fellow in Museum and Cultural Heritage Studies at University College, London in 2015-16 and has been a Visiting Lecturer in Anthropology at Brunel University since 2007.  Barbara is also a Tutor at Open City Docs (UCL) and a member of the RAI Film Festival film committee. She has a background in Anthropology, Theatre, Film, and Television Studies, and Art History.


Course structure


Screening: Photo Wallahs. (Judith MacDougall, David MacDougall. 60 min. 1992.)

This week we shall consider the question of what makes a film ‘ethnographic’ and explore the possible relationships between film and anthropology as an academic discipline. We will debate whether, as filmmaker Tim Asch claimed, the 16mm movie camera is to the anthropologist what the telescope is to the astronomer, and the microscope is to the biologist.


Screening: Nanook of the North (Robert Flaherty, 79 min. 1922)

This week we will explore issues raised by the classic film Nanook of the North and begin to discuss issues of representation and those concerned with the relationship between filmmakers and their subjects. In examining the idea of an ‘ethnographic present’ and Rony’s notion of ‘taxidermy’ in film, we will consider the implications of filmmakers and anthropologists representing the past as the present.


Screening: Dead Birds (Robert Gardner, 84 min. 1963)

This week we will explore ideas about ‘primitive society’ provoked by Gardner’s film Dead Birds and in anthropology more generally. We will also question the extent to which a film’s narrative and the aesthetic choices made by the filmmaker can be reconciled with the priorities of academic anthropologists.


Screening: Les Maîtres Fous ‘The Mad Masters’ (Jean Rouch, 36 min. 1955)

This week we will discuss the controversial French ethnographic film ‘Les Maîtres Fous’ by Jean Rouch. The film is credited with establishing a new genre of ethnographic film and was banned by both French and colonial authorities when it was first released. It raises questions of consent and interpretation – how voyeuristic is the film? Do the participants really give their consent to be portrayed in this way? Is it fair to expect an audience to be unsettled? What is the purpose of the film? It will also help us to think about the life history (or ‘biography’) of a film over time.


Screening: The Ax Fight (T. Asch and N. Chagnon, 30 min. 1971)

The Ax Fight and the anthropologists involved in its making have provoked considerable controversy since the film was made in the 1970s. This week we examine some of these controversies and the complex reality that is seen in the film itself and in the web of social relationships that surrounded its making, production and publicity. We will also question the ethics of filmmaking and ethnographic representation more generally.


Screening: Trobriand Cricket (J. W. Leach and G. Kildea, 54 min. 1973)

This week we will look at representations of what happened to patterns of knowledge and practice during colonial encounters and the implications this can have for anthropological understandings of social change. We will also explore the controversial relationship between colonialism and anthropology as a discipline and the role of film in this relationship.


Screening: Cannibal Tours (O’Rourke, 70 min. 1988)

This week we will watch Dennis O’Rourke’s film Cannibal Tours as a way of thinking about subversion in ethnographic film. The film will help us to think about what objectification means both for the tourists in the film and for the filmmaker.


Screening: Maasai Women (Melissa Llewelyn-Davies, 1974) This week we will look at what happens when anthropology is popularised through television and consider the debates this has spawned on issues such as authenticity and the public image of anthropology. We will also examine issues of gender and representation in ethnographic filmmaking.


Screening: The Kayapo: Out of the Forest (T. Turner and M. Beckham, 51 min. 1989)

This week we will look at the debates on authority and manipulation spawned by Turner and Beckham’s film The Kayapo. In particular, we will consider the implications of documentary and other films made by indigenous groups traditionally studied by anthropologists. We will raise the question of how indigenous media might change the role of anthropologists in ethnographic filmmaking and in the discipline more generally.


Screening: Sweetgrass (Lucien Castaing-Taylor 101 min 2011)

This week we will bring together various strands of discussion from the module and view a film that somehow deals with some of the current trends in ethnographic film such as the so-called corporeal and sensorial turns in anthropology. At the same time, we will explore alternatives possibilities to ethnographic film that the digital revolution offers for the use of audiovisual media in anthropological research.

Learning outcomes

At the end of this course you will have:

• The ability to explore the ambiguous relationship between film and anthropology
• An understanding of the use of film in anthropology
• An understanding of the difference between historical reconstructions and ethnographic representation
• Explored the relationships between documentation and documentary styles
• Thought about narrative and documentation in ethnographic representation
• Exploried the relationship between visual and voice-over narratives
• An understanding of the ethical considerations of visual representation
• The ability to think independently about the impact of anthropology on public opinion
• Exploried the relationship between written text and film in ethnographic representation
• Grasped the debates surrounding the ethnographic representation of the colonial encounter and its outcomes
• Taken part in critical engagement with anthropology and its links to colonialism
• Explored issues of consent and gaze
• A grasp of the methodological challenges in ethnographic film
• A grasp of the relational nature of ethnographic film
• Critically appraised of the relationship between anthropology and television in the UK
• An understanding of the differences between ethnographic films and indigenous media
• Grasped  the debates surrounding the use of media to represent cultural differences and for political activism among indigenous people

About the department

Our Department of Anthropology was recently named in the top 40 in the world in the QS rankings. We are committed to cultivating a unique and creative approach to this discipline, and seek to encourage originality and apply these theories into the field. Part of this learning process involves “denormalising” or challenging the familiarity our own experiences, which each of consider the basis of normality.

The subject covers a wide range of study areas, such as politics and economics, and as such, embodies the University wide ethos of an interdisciplinary approach. We are especially interested in supporting all students by creating a responsive and collaborative learning environment, encouraging personal and social development both within, and beyond, the classroom. Anthropology pioneers new fields such as visual anthropology and the anthropology of modernity. At the core of this focus is a commitment to employing our theoretical framework into relevant practical areas, and to understanding and engaging with important contemporary global issues.

In addition to this short course, the Department hosts a number of exciting courses including:

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