On Teaching Ethnographic Film

Geoffrey Clarfield

During the 1977 academic year I was a teaching assistant for an introductory course in anthropology at York University in Canada. I took great pleasure in tutoring undergrads and screening a series of ethnographic films that supported the textbook and the one complete ethnographic reading for the course. That ethnography was called Yanomamö: The Fierce People (1968), by the American anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon.1

At the time, the films that Chagnon had produced with anthropologist, photographer, and ethnographic filmmaker Timothy Asch were seen as a visual complement to the text and the text was seen as a written complement to the films. When I used it for teaching the professor and I explained to the students that the combination of written and film media would provide them with a more holistic understanding of the Yanomamö.2

More than three decades later, Chagnon’s project has resurfaced at the center of anthropological and public controversy. His enemies portray him as a swashbuckling adventurer who took advantage of and grossly misrepresented the people among whom he lived and studied. His defenders portray Chagnon as a brave ethnographer who explored violence and reproduction from a Darwinian-inspired cultural ecology, and who took enormous personal risks to bring back the data to inscribe yet another “disappearing world” into the ethnographic and anthropological record.3

The Chagnon controversy and the postmodern flood that preceded, or perhaps triggered it is only the latest and most explosive within anthropology. (Derek Freeman got the ball rolling when he took on icon Margaret Mead some years back, and it was Bronisław Malinowski himself who was the first to discredit his teacher and patron, James Frazer.)4 Such controversies have forced ethnographers to articulate their “point of view,” whether it is on a selected, edited scene of ethnographic film or of the chapters of an ethnography. Few writers or readers now accept the “objectivity” of an ethnography without the author first explaining the way in which it was carried out and the point of view from which it is written. And so, every reading of a piece of anthropological writing willy-nilly brings one back to the social and anthropological theory that gave it its epistemological birth.

Bearing this in mind, what is the contemporary undergraduate instructor supposed to do when confronted with “ethnographic” films that do not have an accompanying ethnography or text? Let us assume that the young students who view these films in the context of their undergraduate studies have not travelled to where the film was made and that, most likely, whatever knowledge they do have of that place comes from the Discovery Channel or a National Geographic documentary. Aware that they know next to nothing about that area of the world except its relative economic underdevelopment, what must a teacher do, for example, if his students are watching a film about the peoples and cultures of sub-Saharan Africa?

This is the challenge facing any lecturer who may want to screen two recent films on the slums of Nairobi, Kung Fu Grandma (2011) and Chokora—Surviving on the Street (2010).5 Choosing these documentaries to screen requires a good knowledge of sub-Saharan Africa. The instructor needs to have read some histories of Africa, some histories of East Africa with a focus on Kenya, some of the key ethnographic studies of Kenyan peoples, and some of the economic history of Kenya, which shows that British colonialism and then independence created a population explosion and child survival rate far above the number of jobs that were being created. (It also helps to have read and thoroughly digested some of the classics of African ethnography such as The Nuer and Nuer Religion by Edward E. Evans-Pritchard, for the scholars of yesteryear balanced their ethnographic description and analysis with an attempt to render the “mentality” that is the worldview of the people in question.)6

First, in the case of Kenya, the teacher must understand that since the early 1950s Kenya’s farmland has not provided enough food or employment for its growing populations; therefore masses have migrated to the major cities of sub-Saharan Africa such as Nairobi, where there is little work but ironically more hope for a brighter future (whether or not economic analysis suggests that this may be the case).7

Second, given the social environment of so many contemporary undergraduates with their messianic beliefs in “making poverty history” and its Marxist inspired re-distributionism, the teacher must have a firm grasp of the underlying issues of development economics to ward off knee-jerk responses to a film on Nairobi slums, which inevitably take this form: “Why are we (that is, Western governments) not doing more to alleviate their poverty?” The teacher at least needs to be aware of William Easterly’s argument that fifty years of international development assistance has done nothing to alleviate poverty in sub-Saharan Africa.8

And so, the teacher must be able to articulate the major arguments in international development and at the same time try his best to answer the perennial question, “Why (according to the United Nations Development Programme’s Human Development Indicators ranking) does sub-Saharan Africa lag behind the West and other industrialized nations?”9 This puts an enormous (but reasonable) burden on the teacher and provides a greater challenge in linking the film to the context of coursework to motivate students to go “beyond” the images and scenes and become the investigative readers they need to be to make sense of the raw, visceral, but highly selective and edited stories the film depicts.

All of this implies that a teacher must work very hard to make good use of ethnographic film, as it is more difficult to interpret and teach than a written text, be it a survey or a specific anthropological study. Put differently, the proper viewing of an ethnographic film demands that the viewer read more than a thousand words—more likely many hundreds of thousands of words.

But how does one get the student to move from film to printed word, with its different theories, paradigms, and masses of description? The answer is that the instructor must start with the film and work out from it, treating the film as the innermost of a concentric circle of facts and interpretations whereby the students can be led back to the printed word, to related ethnographies, articles, books, and other readings that would allow them to interpret the film according to these related texts in addition to their own reason and experience. Here is one way of doing just that.

Kung Fu Grandma is set in the slums of Nairobi, as is Chokora—Surviving on the Street. Both films show the viewer two dimensions of the same story: homelessness, poverty, and displacement in the slums of a large East African city, contemporary Nairobi, capital of Kenya. In each film the subject is offered redemption through a Western-funded development intervention. The filmmakers leave us little hope that without these interventions there would be any other way out of their subjects’ predicament.

Kung Fu Grandma is directed by documentary filmmaker, Jeong-One Park, produced in Britain, and filmed in Kenya in Korogocho, a slum just outside of Nairobi. It is slow-paced, without a narration, and allows the people of Korogocho to talk about one or two of their greatest concerns and how they are dealing with them.

Almost all the slums and shantytowns of Kenya have a structure. I walked through many and drove through even more during my ten years of living and working in Kenya. Each slum imitates a town. There is usually a main street lined with small shops or “dukkas” where various kinds of dogs wander. This street is inevitably unpaved and dusty and surrounded largely by huts or structures made out of corrugated iron, plastic, cardboard, or whatever material can be cobbled together to sleep in at night and to stay out of the rain. And each slum has all the worst of town life and none of the best.

In these slums unemployment and underemployment is high, crime is high, delinquency is high, literacy is low, alcoholism and drug abuse is rampant, and the only sane people seem to be elderly women who maintain a sense of decency and love in a desolate social and physical landscape.

In the first scene of Kung Fu Grandma we see an elderly woman cutting bananas and taking them home to her grandchildren. We quickly discover that their mother is out drinking and taking drugs and who knows what else. No father is mentioned. In this film matriarchy is everywhere.

The next scene shows a run-down church where the neighborhood grandmas take turns hitting a punching bag and saying no, learning how to defend themselves against male attackers who apparently do not want to rob them, but to rape them. As we follow Jane Maina, one of the grandmas scavenging in a garbage heap, we see young men taking drugs and discover that young men in Korogocho have been raping older women. We watch scenes of the women practicing how to kick, and hear them chanting, “We are together in bravery.”

The camera then moves toward a building with an Irish Aid sign on it as we listen to other young men talking. They are well-dressed, well-fed, clean, and “off the streets,” probably due to the program for youth at the Irish Aid building. They talk about how so many young men take drugs and rape older women. One says, “Maybe he enjoys…grannies.” Soon, we learn that the rapists do this because they think that grandmas either do not have AIDS or that they themselves can be cured of AIDS by having sex with an elderly woman. As the camera focuses on a young man who appears to have brain damage from sniffing glue, he stutters out that his fellow youth take drugs, and “That is why they do bad things.”

As the viewer becomes more depressed by this dose of cinema verité, we are given some hope when we see a grandma playing and singing with her grandson and a scene of another grandma sharing eggs with her grandchildren. Then, we are back in the church and the grandmas are dancing in a circle. The song is a classical sub-Saharan call and response, “the ethnomusicological grandma” of the blues. One of them calls out that “God is good.”

The first reaction of someone seeing this film might be, “Oh my God, we must send money to help them.” The reality is, while our North American taxes have been helping Kenya for more than fifty years, the money does not trickle down to the poor. Kenya is near the center of the AIDS epidemic and old tribal notions of infection and cure have come back, rising from the repressed tribal religions of the past, with their correlates of magic, witchcraft, and sorcery. Some now believe that sex with a granny or an underage girl will cure them of AIDS. Only the church and a belief in a “God that is good” provide some hope for women. There is also some hope from the Irish Aid project that the film suggests is the key to helping young men escape from drugs and delinquency.

Kung Fu Grandma is a touching film. We watch women learning how to defend themselves, using martial arts techniques against potential rapists. We see them in their houses, chatting with one another, sharing their sorrows, and raising their grandchildren with affection They are old, wise, perhaps uneducated, but experienced in life’s ups and downs. Their love and affection jump off the screen, even when one grandma laments that her daughter—the mother of the children she cares for—is an avid abuser of various substances.

The film also shows a “part society,” where middle-aged men and women seem to be absent. It is part of a project by a Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) of Western provenance that is helping elderly grandmothers who have lost their sons and daughters to AIDS to protect themselves, find a way to make a living, and raise their grandchildren to escape becoming thieves or prostitutes in Nairobi’s slums. Without narration, the film shows, it does not tell—and in that sense it is emotionally persuasive.

Kung Fu Grandma is a good film. It is an ethnographic film—yes, those slums feel like that, the people behave that way, their horizons are narrow, they are the victims of the failed industrialization of Kenya, and they are the “left behind.” However, only a thorough familiarity with the literature on international and African development would enable one to understand that no amount of foreign aid will cure Kenya of its epidemic of absent fathers and mothers. The parenting of Kenya’s children should not be left to grandmothers. These women are too busy defending themselves against drug-crazed rapists who have become that way as they have been deserted by their own mothers and fathers. It is a dystopian world with little hope of escape or salvation.

Chokora—Surviving on the Street, a film directed by Lea Furrer, a young European anthropologist, is about a halfway house in a slum outside of Nairobi, probably close to Korogocho. It focuses on two teenagers, Anthony and Robert. It shows them in the halfway house where they have good food, clean accommodations, and help from focus groups run by a Kenyan social worker, where they examine their past experience of drugs, violence, and life on the street. Both are given the opportunity to learn to become car mechanics.

The film is self-referential insofar as the filmmaker gives Anthony and Robert a video camera and films them talking and filming themselves. Every once in a while, they go back to the street to visit young people taking drugs, begging, collecting bottles, and sniffing glue to block pain and hunger when there is no food. We discover toward the end of the film that Anthony and Robert live at the halfway house because of family breakdown: a father once beat a son “too much” and a mother is an alcoholic who lives nearby. And at the end, we learn that one boy stayed and became a mechanic, while the other returned to the street.

Chokora is the less powerful of the two films because it could have been made anywhere. Slums are the home of displaced children. It is part of the industrialization of the developing world. In Asia, there is often upward mobility after a generation, whereas in Africa there seems to be no way out. It would take a longer essay than this one to explain why African slum dwellers do not rise into the lower-middle class. Of the two films, Kung Fu Grandma raises the most interesting questions for anthropologists. As mentioned above, having lived in Nairobi and having visited slums like those depicted, I can attest that these films are accurate and create a sense of what life in these slums is like—minus the undercurrent of fear that you can be attacked and assaulted at any moment.

One could take students in many directions after having viewed and discussed these films. One could describe the urbanization of Africa during the last fifty years. Next, one could show that, although India and China have launched industrial revolutions that have absorbed city-bound peasants, Africa has had no such revolution. One could also explore why slums in Nairobi are “tribally based,” which would put to rest the notion that its slum dwellers are an atomized proletariat. The films could, if post-viewing discussion and context were handled well, get the students motivated to read some of the material discussed above that a good teacher must have already read on sub-Saharan Africa. But perhaps the best way forward would be to explore the central theme of Kung Fu Grandma, the curious ethnographic fact of the belief that if a young man has sex with old women it can cure him of HIV.

AIDS continues to confound those who believe that science and medicine will help us achieve a medical utopia. The evolutionary processes first described by Darwin and later understood through the science of genetics show us that we should expect the unexpected, and viruses often outsmart us in our efforts to discover a cure. In one sense it has become Africans’ responsibility, because the AIDS epidemic is at its worst across sub-Saharan Africa—but it is an enormous social problem that cannot be solved by foreign aid or foreign NGO activism alone. Ultimately, Africans must deal with it themselves.

As a development anthropologist who spent sixteen years in sub-Saharan Africa, I have begun to understand what the many missionaries I met there meant when they would say, “Change must come from within.” They mean that meaningful change in behavior will only come from a change of heart—a change of attitude or beliefs that is often correlated with a change of religion or the adoption of a new ideology, or a social or political reform movement that wells up from the grassroots. We must recognize that “change from within” also suggests that social and moral problems can best be fixed from within a society, whether motivated by religious or secular altruism.

Unfortunately, the situation across sub-Saharan Africa seems to be worsening in many ways, and Kung Fu Grandma highlights the resurgence and transformation of magical practices, such as the belief shared by a growing number of young men that having sex with a grandmother will cure them of HIV. And that is why these women are studying kung fu, to fend off this new type of rapist.

In some parts of contemporary sub-Saharan Africa the magical belief is that having sex with a young virgin will cure one of HIV.10 Anthropologists familiar with the literature on magic, sorcery, witchcraft, and curing will recognize that while the details may differ, the notion of taking extreme actions to counter and thereby solve extreme problems is common in the preindustrial worldview. Although James George Frazer’s The Golden Bough is often discredited by contemporary anthropologists for its so-called mistaken theories and unreliable sources, it is full of such examples. Aztec human sacrifice, evidence of which has received the strongest confirmation from the past hundred years of Mezo-American archaeology, is the most extreme example of these magical beliefs and practices that instantly comes to mind.11

Until quite recently the accepted wisdom among anthropologists and development specialists was that urbanization, education, and modernization in Africa’s cities would spell the end of the endemic belief in and practice of witchcraft and sorcery. British social anthropologists who studied witchcraft and sorcery among the small-scale and isolated African societies who maintained themselves under British and French colonial rule would often take a functionalist approach and explain the phenomena as a form of “social control” for small-scale societies. Clearly there is more to this than meets the eye. With independence, urbanization, education, etc., it was supposed to disappear, but it has not.

Witchcraft may be on the decline among the growing middle classes of urbanizing India and China, but that is not the case for sub-Saharan Africa. If, after watching Kung Fu Grandma, students heard a lecture based on Peter Geschiere’s The Modernity of Witchcraft: Politics and the Occult in Postcolonial Africa (1997),12 a greater anthropological lesson could be learned: that modernity, or as Weber called it, “disenchantment,” is not a unidirectional process.

Geschiere is a French-speaking anthropologist who has worked in Cameroon for years. The Modernity of Witchcraft describes the persistence of witchcraft beliefs and practices in modern Africa. At the same time, Geschiere tries to show that modern witchcraft is not identical with traditional witchcraft, adding the caveat that “witchcraft” and “sorcery” are terms anthropologists invented and do not fully cover the full semantic variation found in any one African context for such beliefs and practices. Nevertheless, such beliefs and practices have not disappeared and yet are not part of the world’s historically predominant religions, but something else, something more local.

But let us return for a moment to the urbanizing middle classes of sub-Saharan Africa, now literate and worldly, who as journalists uncover some of the more disturbing sides of traditional life in their own backyards.

Every few weeks, these journalists in the Kenyan and Tanzanian press bravely report incidents of witchcraft. They do not worry about being called racist for doing so and they are not concerned about political correctness. Having met a number of them, I would say that as newcomers to literacy and a free press they value Western notions of liberty to report the truth more often than Western journalists and intellectuals who are moving us backward by their embrace of cultural relativism and their selective reporting from the Third World. Here, for example, is an item from a Ugandan national newspaper posted by the BBC on February 10, 2009:

Police in Uganda have arrested seven suspected witchdoctors after the headless body of a woman was found in a bush in the capital Kampala. A police spokeswoman told the BBC that shrines and fetishes had been destroyed in the operation. The spokeswoman said a special unit had been set up to deal with ritual murders and dissuade both traditional healers and the public from the practice. Some people believe potions made from human body parts will bring them luck. In neighboring Tanzania, people with albinism have been targeted for such ritual killings. But the body found in the Kampala suburb of Bwaise was not believed to have been an albino. Spokeswoman Judith Nabakooba also said that the police had had to protect the suspected leading witchdoctor after a lynch mob formed to kill him. The headless body was found near his residence, she said. She told the New Vision newspaper that the police had been tipped off after two legs had been found in a pit latrine. Ms. Nabakooba said ritual murders had become a problem in Uganda in recent months. (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/7880763.stm)

Or consider this related posting from the BBC on July 2, 2008:

Once, albinos used to seek shelter from the sun. Now they have gone into hiding simply to survive, after a series of killings linked to witchcraft. In Tanzania, 25 albinos have been killed in the past year. The latest victim was a seven-month-old baby. He was mutilated on the orders of a witchdoctor peddling the belief that potions made from an albino’s legs, hair, hands, and blood can make a person rich. (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/7518049.stm)

Similar articles continue to appear on African news sites. While the practice of sorcery and witchcraft has been adapted to suit contemporary desires, it is a Durkheimian reality that anthropologists must explain and development and health workers must tackle.

Because we must find an accurate and responsible way to place films like Kung Fu Grandma and Chokora—Surviving on the Street in the context of a classroom setting, perhaps they can be screened alongside a critical reading of pieces that commonly appear in publications like the Economist that propose to report on how well Africa is doing.13 Or the view espoused in so many undergraduate textbooks that all cultures are of equal moral value. Finally, viewing such films may cause students to wonder what happens when a society breaks down and fathers disappear from the lives of their sons—fathers whose absence creates a great presence in these cinematic ventures. It is possible that the rise of Wiccan and other non-Judeo-Christian sects in contemporary North America may be correlated with the rising divorce rate and the growth of single parenthood that continues to be supported by an ideology of strident feminism. The disciplined exploration of such a hypothesis would comprise a worthy project for anthropologists who study their own society.

  • Share
Most Commented

August 23, 2021


Testing the Tests for Racism

What is the veracity of "audit" studies, conducted primarily by sociologists, that appear to demonstrate that people of color confront intense bias at every level of society?...

April 16, 2021


Social Justice 101: Intro. to Cancel Culture

Understanding the illogical origin of cancel culture, we can more easily accept mistakes, flaws, and errors in history, and in ourselves, as part of our fallen nature....

April 19, 2021


Critical Race Theory and the Will to Power

A review of "1620: A Critical Response to the 1619 Project" by NAS President Peter W. Wood....

Most Read

May 30, 2018


The Case for Colonialism

From the summer issue of Academic Questions, we reprint the controversial article, "The Case for Colonialism." ...

March 20, 2019


Remembering Columbus: Blinded by Politics

American colleges and universities have long dispensed with efforts to honor or commemorate Christopher Columbus. But according to Robert Carle, “most Americans know very little about......

March 29, 2019


Homogenous: The Political Affiliations of Elite Liberal Arts College Faculty

A study on the partisanship of liberal arts professors at America's top universities. ...