David MacDougall is a visual anthropologist famous for making ethnographic films and for his compassionate and nuanced understandings of different cultures, customs, and behaviors. He studied English literature, ethnographic film, and film studies at the university level. His first film was about herders in Uganda after which he depicted the lives of Kenyan camel herders and nomadic groups. His recent works have been in India and focused on children, growing up, and schools, but have also included one about a children’s shelter for orphans and juvenile detainees, portraying and detailing different educational and life experiences.
MacDougall has also written books related to his work, such as Transcultural Cinema and The Corporeal Image. His writings have an accessible personal essay style with little jargon and address the differences between film and written text. He also focuses on images and their relation to the bodies of both the subject and viewer. He has even claimed that visual anthropology has always been at odds methodologically with traditional [word based] anthropology. Furthermore, in the 1970’s MacDougall and his wife began incorporating subtitled speech rather than voice-overs for their films’ subjects, helping to give them more of a voice in order to speak for themselves to others, and have worked on forging more collaborative relationships with those they have portrayed.
In this video you can see the trailer for one of his documentaries dealing with children. After doing two films that focused on elite schools, David realized how his ethnographies had only shown middle class children and institutions in India. The following clips are from the 2008 ethnographic film Gandhi’s Children. You can catch a glimpse of the experiences these boys have living in a shelter, as well as how some of them ended up there. The facilities are generally shared and often worn down, inadequate or outright broken.
I was unable find a free sample of Familiar Places. Photo Wallahs was the only film I could find online that was directed by both Judith and David MacDougall. The nine minute excerpt provides examples of techniques that were common in macdougall films, such as: subtitling as opposed to voice-over narration, acknowledgement of the presence of a camera (8:50), and long takes (1:49 to 3:34).
Judith and David MacDougall
Both Judith and David MacDougall graduated from the Ethnographic Film Program at UCLA and married shortly thereafter. They began producing ethnographic documentaries in the late 1960s, during which time they studied indigenous populations in Africa and Australia.
While the MacDougalls are highly regarded in the field of visual anthropology, they are less known by documentary makers as a whole. This has largely been attributed to the fact that the MacDougalls have consistently defied the mainstream conventions of documentary editing that mimic the practices of fiction filmmaking. Their goal, according to David in an interview with American Anthropologist, has always been to develop an “unprivileged camera style” that preserves, for instance, long takes and initial encounters. In this way, the viewer is able to better observe daily practices as opposed to hearing about them through scripted narration and interviews in which the subjects reflect on their experiences after-the-fact.
That said, the MacDougalls have never claimed omniscience. In fact, they have labeled their work as reflexive even before this term became popularized among anthropologists. In their films, the MacDougalls acknowledge their presence, include first-person commentary, and allow the viewer to hear both the questions they asked and the responses they received from those whom they studied. The MacDougalls have even been known for deliberately including the reactions of their subjects when they realize they are being filmed.
One practice that has been highly popularized by the MacDougalls is subtitling indigenous speech as opposed to utilizing an English voiceover. Although commonplace now, in the early 1970s, this tool was instrumental in bringing ethnographic subjects to life on screen.
Although the pair has separated, both David and Judith have continued to make ethnographic films. Currently, David’s interests lie in children’s educational institutions in India, while Judith recently published work pertaining to how the digital and cultural revolutions in China have affected one another.