Sardinia on the screen, 1899-2008

Silvio Carta   University of Birmingham

ACIS_coverMy recent book, Visual Anthropology in Sardinia (Peter Lang, 2015) is devoted to the largely under-researched area of documentary cinema [1]. One of its aims is to redress the scholarly marginalisation of documentaries about Sardinia; another is to introduce a little-known subject area to an academic audience. The documentaries I analyse, made in Sardinia between 1899 and 2008 but not necessarily by Sardinian directors, have not received any critical attention in English and almost none in Italian. Historically, this lack of attention has to do with the classification of documentary film as a minor subset of Italian cinema and, more specifically, with the limited circulation and commercial availability of documentaries about the island. But how exactly should we define a ‘documentary’ film?

The issue of what counts as an ethnographic/documentary film is a much-discussed issue in visual anthropology. The first ethnographic film was a four-minute piece taken by members of the Torres Strait islands expedition in 1898. A sensible definition categorises ethnographic films as those made with the intention of communicating cultural patterns. Some scho­lars and filmmakers have, however, distinguished ethnographic films from documentaries and aesthetic cinema in general, maintaining that the criteria to define ethnographic films are equal to those used to define satisfactorily written anthropological research. Their definitions of ethnographic film tend to exclude films made by non-anthropologists. Because the scientific credentials of anthropology have been associated with literate and articulate analysis, ethnographic film does not always meet the methodological expectations of the mainstream discipline. For this reason, filmmakers such as Jean Rouch, David MacDougall and Luc de Heusch have rejected the adjustment of ethnographic film to a codified filmic lexicon corresponding to the scientific standards of anthropology.

Implicit in the technical and strategic processes of filmmaking is a set of ideas about representation and experience. No one would contest that simi­lar subjects can be represented in different ways, emphasising certain ideas and aspects at the expense of others, and that what is presented and how it is presented are influenced by one’s philosophical orientation towards the world. The philosophical stances of filmmaking and the ethical issues implicit in the practical procedures by which films are actually made are often associated with the dynamics of anthropological cinema, a kind of cinema that struggles intensely with the relationships between self and other, sameness and difference, distance and closeness. Ethical and metho­dological criteria in filmmaking have been discussed at length by critics of the documentary form, and especially by practitioners of the subgenre of ethnographic film. If ethical issues are particularly felt in the domains of ethnographic and documentary film, it is not because film critics are generally uninterested in the ethics of representation, but because the problem of an ethically informed ethnographic practice is central in the representation of other cultures. The tension between ‘us’ and ‘them’, and the urge of contem­porary anthropology to transcend binary dichotomies of self and other, are central features of the relationship between filmmaker and subjects in ethnographic and documentary films. It is difficult to define the nature of ethnographic cinema and, on the whole, there is a similar problem in defining ethnographic filmmakers, a community of practitioners who meet regularly at international con­ventions, universities, anthropological film conferences and festivals.

My study provides an over­view of the development of documentary and ethnographic film in Sardinia while simultaneously highlighting the innovations and potential of this kind of cinema within the broad contemporary context of postmodern anthropology. [A more detailed history can be found here]. My main aim has been the interpretation of the formal strategies and methodologies by which ethnographic and documentary films are actually made, that is, an analysis of films that highlights how different modes of interaction of text and images in film – but also camera position and shot duration – tend to structure the audience’s consciousness in different ways for reasons related to epistemological considerations. How are cultural realities constructed in documentary and ethnographic films? In what ways do practical filmmaking strategies reflect wider epistemolo­gical questions and ethical concerns? These questions are difficult to answer in the abstract so I have chosen to study specific examples in depth in order to examine the general stylistic principles that have guided the making of this substantial body of documentary films. I pay particular attention to a range of different methods used by a select number of documentary and ethnographic filmmakers, covering important theoretical points on the distinctive set of technical, aesthetic and ethical problems embodied in the epistemology of their filmmaking practice.

Perhaps using a case study approach might seem too reductive, since the focus is mainly on specific instances and single films. However, it is also a necessity, given the range of variations and examples in the history of documentary film in Sardinia. I have exclusively focused on films shot on the island. Within this delimited scope, I have paid particular attention to films by Fernando Cerchio, Raffaello Matarazzo, Gino Rovesti, Fiorenzo Serra, Ubaldo Magnaghi, Vittorio De Seta and David MacDougall. The films have been selected on the basis of their relevance within a larger discourse on the epistemology and ethics of filmmaking. The modes of analysis I use do not follow the methodological gui­delines of archival research and quantitative analysis that lead to a com­prehensive catalogue of documentary films made in Sardinia. Instead, my research focuses on a qualitative and interpretive approach driven by specific theoretical concerns that attempt to open new spaces for film analysis – a critical perspective on film based on the increasingly productive dialogue between visual anthropology and film studies.


[1] This is the most recent volume in the series New Studies in European Cinema which includes two earlier volumes on Italian cinema (Italian Cinema: New Directions, ed. William Hope, 2005; Italy On Screen: National Identity and Italian Imaginary, eds. Lucy Bolton and Christina Manson, 2010).

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