This is not a film about ethnography. Having a background in anthropology myself, I was hoping this would be the cinematic treatment of ethnographic research I’ve been waiting for. But while ‘The Ethnographer’ isn’t the film I’d hoped it would be, it nevertheless provides an unprecedented and intimate insight into the life and work of an anthropologist who has adopted and tirelessly fought to defend another culture.
The Ethnographer opens by telling us that Qatu, a man of the indigenous Wichi community of Argentina, has been in prison for five years for the impregnation of an allegedly underage girl. The first half of the film then focuses almost exclusively on John Palmer himself; how he came to live among the Wichi, his place within the community, and his family life.
Palmer and his wife Tojweya have four children together and great deal of time is spent exploring the dynamics of their unusual family. We see them shopping, swimming and eating and, as they do so, are given a sense of the complexity involved in raising a culturally mixed family in which three languages are spoken
Fascinating as this is, the film doesn’t really take off until nearly half-way through when Palmer’s role as an indigenous rights advocate comes to the fore. Portrayed throughout as determinedly mild-mannered and acclimatized to the pace of Wichi life, it’s refreshing to see his righteousness indignation as he stands up to illegal oil drillers later in the film. While the separation of Palmer’s role as both father and advocate creates a semblance of dramatic tension, it’s also the root of a narrative imbalance that causes the first 40 minutes to drag slightly. Watching him and his family wandering around somewhat aimlessly for this time left me feeling slightly impatient, perhaps because it wasn’t delivering on the promise made by the initial introduction to Qatu’s case, and this documentary may have been more engaging had it focused much earlier on Palmer’s work within the community.
The Ethnographer comes across as a film of two halves, both in terms of overall pacing but also in the quality of editing. The film itself is consistently beautiful, with exquisitely framed shots turning the most mundane tasks into cinematic treats, yet too often the accomplished cinematography was undermined by sequences cobbled together as mere wallpaper for various interviews. The film’s highlights are certainly those scenes in which allow the footage to breath, letting sequences linger in a manner reminiscent of David MacDougall’s or Jean Rouch’s films, and thus matching the rhythm of the edit to that of village life. Seeing Wichi elders lackadaisically discussing the encroaching forest fire provides a far better sense of non-Western temporality than choppy editing of footage in which nothing much happens.
Sitting somewhat awkwardly in my mind between the canon of ethnographic film and modern documentary cinema, The Ethnographer surely establishes a new benchmark for anthropological cinema by virtue of focusing on the experiences of an anthropologist in the field. It certainly deserved its recent nomination in the London Film Festival’s Grierson awards but I wish that its success could be followed with a sequel that follows up on Qatu’s case and the conflict with oil drillers to show how effective John Palmers efforts have really been.