Produced in 2007, Schoolscapes is a long-form ethnographical piece by seminal visual anthropologist David Macdougall. The film explores a day in the life of the students and staff of an elite boarding school in the south of India, through forty single shot scenes. The film is without any discernible narrative, continuation of characters or even a continual setting. Although on paper, Schoolscapes may not seem to be the most engaging or entertaining film yet on a personal level I was astounded by the piece’s effectiveness at transporting an audience to the location. Watching this and much of the Macdougalls’ other work is an all-together passive experience, where the audience is not given an object of a scene or narrative to follow through the course of the film. Allowing the audience to almost curate their own experience through paying attention to certain participants or objects in each scene.
Schoolscapes challenged my preconceptions of what an ethnographic or documentary could be. Although there are many forms of the media, from my previous experiences a documentary or non-fiction film often portrayed a narrative account of an event in history or the contemporary moment. Yet this film is without time or narrative, it elucidated an almost visceral experience in the audience to fundamentally observe the goings on at the school.
Due to timing restraints, Under the Archways was not necessarily able to replicate Macdougalls long-form presentations of the lives of his participants. A short film may always struggle to achieve the intertwined relationship between the camera, audience and the subject that Macdougall exemplifies. Despite this, Under the Archways does not attempt to cloak the presence of the director or the processes of camera positioning throughout the film. The importance of reflexivity in regards to the ethno-centrism or ethical implications of the anthropologists role in a community that they study is a theme central to the contemporary anthropological discipline. However these concepts are challenging for a visual anthropologist to demonstrate in their work, Under the Archways attempts to do achieve this through short interactions with the participants and long-shot scenes of arriving in the community, revealing the directors role in producing the piece.
It is in the above work that Macdougall calls for the visual anthropology community to discover ‘different ways of speaking’ that does not source its direction from traditional forms of the anthropological discipline (p.219). Ethnographic filmmakers must adjust their intentions from illustrating a culture or community, to presenting their acquaintance with them. My film portrays three community members of Bethnal Green in East London. An area perceived to be undergoing a transformation in terms of both demography and economic values, from working-class community to a ‘yuppie’ or middle class community of younger, richer, professionals. The film introduces the differing intentions of each business owner interviewed, and their relationship with the Bethnal Green area and the community that resides in it. Through this, the audience are able to arrive at their own conclusions as to the perceived unethical transformative processes described as ‘gentrification’.
Both Julius and Warwick are very much aware of their role in this process of gentrification. Particularly Julius as Second Shot Coffee is focused on bring positive social change to the area through assisting those experiencing homelessness. Warwick was not initially intended to be a participant in the film, yet was very eager for an opportunity to be interviewed. He was quick to emphasise how the establishment of his business brought somewhat of a ‘clearing up’ of the area in terms of crime rate and safety for young families. The final contributor is Felipe, who was chosen to be interviewed as I found him to be a member of the community that transcended social critiques on gentrification and class. Felipe provides somewhat of a redemptive case-study of how areas such as this can allow new opportunities for community and collaboration in perceived middle class areas.
Overall, I believe the film was effective in providing an alternative view to processes of gentrification that are taking hold of our cities across the globe. There are few examples of documentary films that seek to explore the intentions and motivations of those characters that are part of that process, as oppose to other parts of the community.