Participatory Cinema: Exploring Forms of Anthropological Knowledge

By Mihai Andrei Leaha - Speaker

Starting from Dai Vaughn’s statement “Film is always about something whereas reality is not” (Vaughn, 1999. p.21) the paper tries to understand the relationship between ethnographic film and participatory methodology from its reference to “reality”.
Since “the invention of anthropological realities” the term participatory appeared in anthropology’s discourse as an extensible used term in various contexts (written or filmic) but not sufficiently critically theorized. The explanation might be that, most of the times, the term was associated either with experimentalism either used as a mark of authenticity and consequently to stances of legitimization for being in the field. Following this usage of participatory, as a fluctuation between experimentalism and quests for authenticity the paper tries to evaluate the ways in which participatory – in film and visual anthropology’s literature – functioned as a vehicle for different explorations of forms of anthropological knowledge.
Besides this hermeneutical, historical approach of the participatory mode in visual anthropology, the paper will try to evaluate the inner crafting of a participatory methodology by referring to different degrees of fictionalizing of the film process. Instead of asking what participatory cinema is, will be preferred: how does participatory cinema, as a mode of ethnographic film, creates a believable world for the viewer and how does the viewer cope with the narrative pact that a participatory film proposes? Moreover, it is important to ask how the participatory mode relates to notions like truth, reality, authenticity and how does this create a “possible world” of the film.
As a practical reference to the questions addressed before, I’ll try to draw from my own work by referring to two of my participatory projects. The first ethnographic film, Broscatu, The Storyteller, explores the relationship between man and stories – the ways in which the camera provokes and provides a medium for the stories to be told and also the consequences of this kind of participation. The study will explore the connection of the truth statements regarding thy storytelling performance of Broscatu and how the participatory mode builds trust and mistrust in the viewer’s mind. In Looking at themselves: Babaluda Luda the participatory mode crates a narrative pact with the viewer by creating the illusion of watching the film together with the performers, in a way becoming performers themselves.
By actively exploring “reality” with a camera, the participatory mode of ethnographic film does not only propose a formal mean of anthropological inquiry but rather proposes – for the anthropologists involved in the transcultural communication act and the viewer involved in the decoding of that message – a shared participation or experience of an altered/culturally mediated view of “reality”. Being participatory in ethnographic film means not only a form of authentic presence in the field but assuming a subjective worldview that we make/believe as our shared experience with the others (them, us and the viewers).


PhD Student in Philology. European Studies Faculty, Babeş-Bolyai University, Cluj-Napoca, Cluj, România. Thesis: Visual Ethnography. Restructuring Anthropological Knowledge.Video Researching Romanian Traditional Customs. Founding Member of the Orma Sodalitas Anthropologica. Director of Orma Films, Independent Production Company.
Broscatu. The Storyteller anthropological video documentary, 75 minutes. Orma Films Romania 2009 (MA graduation film).
Antropologiavizualacamodalitatediferita de comunicare a cunoa?terii de tip anthropologic (Visual Anthropology a different way of communicating knowledge) in the collective volume Teze?iantiteze ale actualita?ii, coordinated by GraaianCormoș, EdituraInfoData, ClujNapoca, 2009, ISBN 978-973-1803-21-0, CNCSIS. The Curse of the Hedgehog 2004. An Anthropological Film by DumitruBudrală. In StudiaDramatica LIV 2009, ClujNapoca, 2009, ISSN:1842-2799.

Go back