Alison Griffiths

Wondrous Difference: Cinema, Anthropology, and Turn-of-the-Century Visual Culture (Columbia, 2002)

Book Reviews


Wondrous Difference: Cinema, Anthropology, and Turn-of-the-Century Visual Culture (review)
Sophia Siddique Harvey
From: The Moving Image
Volume 4, Number 1, Spring 2004
pp. 159-161 | 10.1353/​mov.2004.0009

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:
The Moving Image 4.1 (2004) 159-161

Wondrous Difference: Cinema, Anthropology, and Turn-of-the-Century Visual Culture. Alison Griffiths. Columbia University Press, 2002

In her preface to Wondrous Difference: Cinema, Anthropology, and Turn-of-the-Century Visual Culture, Alison Griffiths asks if any ethnographic films existed prior to Robert Flaherty's seminal film, Nanook of the North (1929). Rather than providing an exhaustive history of the early ethnographic film, Griffiths's project offers an astute cultural reading of the emergence of ethnographic film during cinema's early history (1890s to 1920s). She defines the ethnographic film as "actuality films featuring native peoples that were produced by anthropologists, commercial, and amateur filmmakers alike" (xxix). With this working definition, Griffiths situates the development of the ethnographic film within the culture and politics of precinematic visuality, as well as its entangled position between nineteenth-century anthropology and popular culture.

This exhilarating journey is framed within an ambivalent gaze of what she calls "wondrous difference," which, according to Griffiths, "marked the historically disparate efforts of western painters, photographers, and filmmakers to visually evoke the encounter with the ethnographic Other" (xix). Griffiths is concerned with how filmmakers, anthropologists, museum curators, and the audience (both Western and indigenous) negotiate, translate, and process their fascination and astonishment with this difference. Griffiths, for example, explores the institutional and representational practices of the museum with its life groups, the world's fairs with its native villages, and anthropometric anthropology to tease out how these spaces visually evoke the ethnographic Other. In these contexts, the ethnographic Other is often shrouded in a form of salvage ethnography, where indigenous peoples, clad in primitive garb, display or enact cultural practices that are no longer culturally relevant. In the case of anthropometric photography, the ethnographic body is made "legible as an ethnographic sign" (96). These practices of visuality, argues Griffiths, informed the manner in which ethnographic cinema fashioned its representation of the Other.

Griffiths, concerned not merely with the politics and practices of visuality in precinematic spaces, turns to reception practices employed by audiences who frequented these spaces to examine how cinema spectators of the time were conditioned to read the early ethnographic film text. How, for example, did audiences observe the life group displays within a museum setting or the native villages at the world's fairs? The act of looking and navigating, Griffiths speculates, has less to do with the casual, detached, strolling figure of the flaneur and more to do with Walter Benjamin's other character of the badaud or gawker. The badaud journeys through the physical spaces of the world's fair or encounters the life group displays in the museum or sits in a darkened theater with a "desire to disappear into a crowd and simply stare at native peoples" (74). According to Griffiths, the spectator/​museum goer as badaud underscores the tension between spectacle (gaping at, entranced with native peoples) and pedagogy (the intent to impart anthropological knowledge about the life group display/​native village/​ethnographic film) that museum curators and anthropologist-filmmakers hoped to quell in order to secure the legitimacy of ethnographic film as a rigorous scientific document.

Such tensions reveal the uneasy dialogues circulating within the interstices of nineteenth-century anthropology, the space of popular culture, and the emergence of ethnographic film. Ethnographic filmmaking, with its often slippery relationship to popular culture, as evidenced by popular travel pictures like Edison's In and around Havana, Cuba (1911) and From Durban to Zululand (1913) and the wide appeal of world's fairs, threatened to destabilize nineteenth-century anthropology's claim that it was indeed a scientific discipline (205). Griffiths speculates that this entangled position between spectacle and pedagogy, rationalism and pleasure, science and art, was a mitigating factor in anthropology's tentative embrace of ethnographic filmmaking. It was also during the early twentieth century, Griffiths writes, that field-based anthropology was moving beyond visuality (anthropometric anthropology) to fieldwork that was more reliant on textuality (field notes). Hence, anthropologists attempting to incorporate the motion picture camera within the discipline faced an uphill battle.