Dr. André Singer of Spring Films and the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland
September 2016 [orig. Jan. 2015]*
About our Guest: Dr. André Singer is an anthropologist by training and documentary
Guest Interviewer: Aruna Panday
Overview: In this episode we discuss the overlap and dialogues between film as ethnography, as well as documentary and how this narrative form can be used to disseminate anthropological knowledge to a wider, public audience that has little or no anthropological training. In his work Singer deliberately targets non-anthropologist and non-academic audiences; as he expresses it during our conversation, "My purpose in the films I was making was specifically to make things for a non-anthropological audience. If it can be used by anthropologists, I'm delighted but that was not the primary target of my film making." One of his earliest works, Witchcraft Among the Azande (1982), based on E.E. Evans-Pritchard's 1937 ethnography Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic Among the Azande, screened at CASCA in 2014 and is used as an entry into this discussion.
"But if you really want to make an impact with your own films, then I think you should not sneer at television. I think you should make use of television."André Singer
Aruna Panday: Welcome to Radio Heteroglossia, I am your host Aruna Panday and today we will be chatting with Dr. André Singer. Dr. Singer is a social anthropologist, the current President of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain, the CEO and Creative Director of Spring Films; Adjunct Professor of Anthropology at the University of Southern California and has worked as a director, researcher, producer, executive producer, commissioner, editor of many documentary films for more than thirty years. Thank you for speaking with us today, Dr. Singer.
André Singer: Great pleasure.
Aruna Panday: Traditionally anthropologists have concentrated their efforts in the book or the journal form, today they are moving a little bit more to blogs. But I am interested in how you made that move, what caused you or what inspired you to switch from these traditional forms of anthropological dissemination, into film and television?
André Singer: I think the first thing you have to discriminate between is whether the films and particularly the films that I have been engaged in would be regarded or could be classified in any way as ethnography, as opposed to films about anthropology or films linked to anthropology. I have not come through a tradition of using film directly as ethnography, which some film makers have; what I've done is tried to disseminate anthropological ideas and sometimes ethnographic materials through the medium of film and I think that's a distinction between the two. I think that a lot of people get caught up in the idea of trying to identify the meaning of ethnographic film as opposed to anthropological film more generally. My own ethnography was based on fieldwork in Iran in the 1970s, and a little bit in Afghanistan. I have not specifically made films to link to my own ethnographic fieldwork. What I've done is piggybacked the work of other ethnographers or other anthropologists and used their fieldwork as stepping stones to making film and I think the bottom line in that early stepping out of academic anthropology into the film-making world was in order to disseminate ideas to a much wider public than the academic observer, or listener, or writer. So, though I've carried on a little bit using the medium you described earlier on in terms of books or articles, or using other formats other than film, the main tool I've used subsequently, for the last decades has been the film tool.
Aruna Panday: What would you say is the difference between ethnographic film and documentary?
André Singer: For me, ethnographic film is really using the film medium to enhance or elaborate, or explore the ethnography in the field by the anthropologist. It is part of the fieldwork of the individual. So, you can write, you can take photographs, you can list things, and you can use film. It is a perfectly good medium to gather material and to analyze that material later on. Whereas a documentary is a structured film device that takes material and propagates it in a narrative form, usually in a form that people can grasp from fifty minutes or thirty minutes or two hours or whatever. It's a means of taking that material and showing it to not necessarily just an academic audience but a wider audience. So, I think they are totally different mediums.
Aruna Panday: At CASCA this year, which is the Canadian Anthropological Association or the Société Canadienne D'Anthropologie, two of your films were screened. The first was one of your earliest Witchcraft among the Azande and then the second was your most recent production Night will Fall. In the first, Witchcraft among the Azande, as soon as you start talking about this distinction between your understanding of ethnographic and documentary film, it really starts to make senses and answer a lot of the questions that I had surrounding this genre. Witchcraft among the Azande is about a particular ritual that the Azande who are on the upper Nile enact and this is classical anthropology, every anthropology student has seen it at least more than one time. In that way, there are a couple of things that stand out to me that hopefully you can talk about. The narrator has a strong role in this particular film. The entire piece is narrated with a sort of voice over, and I think it's you, explaining the history and what the people are saying and doing, and one can almost say that it sounds as though a journal article or a piece from a textbook is being read. Then the film and the sound of the location are there to illustrate the point of what it is that you are trying to say. The second thing that I am wondering about this particular piece is the point of the audience, would you say that Witchcraft among the Azande was more ethnographic than documentary in nature? And if you had a more public or academic audience in mind?
André Singer: I think it's a very good example of how the two genres overlap. That particular film came about because as a student I was the research assistant to Evans-Pritchard who wrote the ethnography of the Azande, the definitive work on the Azande. His classic book, Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic among the Azande (1937), formed the basis for my always wanting to try and translate some of his work and some of his ethnography into film that could be useful for the anthropologist and the student but that also made the sense of what he was trying to say for a general public. So, I think that, first of all that film was made for a television station that in England was shown in peak time, mid-evening, popular television. This was not shown as a didactic classroom film, this was shown as popular television. It was definitely shown on PBS in America, it was part of a series of films that were put on by PBS, and that was the predecessor to the Nova Science series on PBS. I would be astonished if it wasn't shown in Canada, but I have no information about that.
But the significance of that, or what I am trying to say on that, is that there's a crossover, and it's a very comprehensible crossover. If you take complex anthropological ideas and Evans Pritchard's ideas about witchcraft, they were revolutionary at the time but they are also quite complicated. What he was trying to do was to show the rationality behind witchcraft beliefs in Africa at the time. The film was taking that particular principle and saying, "okay, how do we show a general audience in the west, how can we make that audience understand the rationality behind witchcraft beliefs that may seem like and end up being interpreted as sort of mumbo-jumbo to a western audience." These are people who have no anthropological background, no understanding of other cultures perhaps, and therefore you have to start from scratch. I think that a film like that as a television documentary works on its own level just as effectively. People seeing that film can understand exactly what the Azande use witchcraft for, why it was important to them and make it logical when in the past if you hadn't seen a film like that you just wouldn't understand what witchcraft was all about. So, I don't think there's a conflict between the two. People can look a film material like that in different ways. For the television audience you look at it in one way and for the anthropologist of course you link it back to the fieldwork that Evans Pritchard did in the 1930s so it works on different levels.
Aruna Panday: When you're doing a film, do you still invoke anthropological data collection methods like participation-observation, spending a long time in the field, building rapport... If you're piggybacking off of other peoples' research, do they come into the field with you to facilitate the interaction with the people that you're filming and that you are interviewing?
André Singer: I think observational film makers would regard me a heretic from that point of view because what I've been specifically doing over the years is deliberately targeting the non-anthropological audience. So, I have not come through a tradition of making observational films over long periods of time. My purpose in the films I was making was specifically to make things for a non-anthropological audience. If it can be used by anthropologists, I'm delighted but that was not the primary target of my film making.That means that the structure of the films I've been making have been very much to rely on other people's ethnography. I don't think I've ever gone into the field to make a film without an anthropologist along with me who can interpret what I find there but the periods of time I've spent have been relatively short, weeks rather than months and certainly not years in the field so it's a very different format.
Aruna Panday: It sort of seems like that's fully acceptable because if you have an anthropologist there or if you have somebody there that knows the culture, the people then they can translate and lead you to the information, you are not actually sourcing the information itself.
André Singer: That's exactly right and I think it would be wrong for me to interpret other peoples work without them there, without their participation because I wouldn't have the grounding. I mean with the The Azande is a good example. I was grounded in the background of the Azande ethnography through the eyes of Evans-Pritchard. When I went into the field I had an anthropologist Professor John Ryle who now teaches in the States who had done work there and had followed on From Evans-Pritchard's work. The two of us were able to interpret what was happening both in the light of Evans-Pritchard's ethnography, but also in contemporary ethnography.
Aruna Panday: I am just wondering as a final point, if there is any advice that you have for students of film or students of anthropology in disseminating their research, or anybody who wants to get into ethnographic or documentary film?
André Singer: I've come across a huge, I often find it rather arrogant approach to television still from academia. I have a foot in both camps, and I would say that television probably offers students their best route to put their ideas across than if they go through a purely ethnographic film course route where the scope to do their work is so much more restricted, simply the budgets aren't there, the timing isn't there, and the audience isn't there. So, those who are passionate to put their ideas across, first of all, they can tackle them much more readily and much more effectively now themselves than we could in the past because of the incredible equipment that you can now use, the cheapness of the equipment, the clarity of how the equipment can be used is fantastic today - so you can make your own films in a far better way than you could in the past. But if you really want to make an impact with your own films, then I think you should not sneer at television. I think you should make use of television. The more anthropologists I find in television, the happier I am. So, I encourage everybody to not look down upon it and to see it as a way forward.
Aruna Panday: Thank you Dr. Singer for speaking with us today.
André Singer: Great pleasure.