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Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Public anthropology and the Millennium film project: Cinema of Advocacy or Contradiction?

During my summer internship at the National Anthropological Film Collection (formerly the Human Studies Film Archive) in the National Anthropological Archives. I worked on rehousing and processing the Millennium trims and outs collection. This collection consists of the film edited into a 1992 television series hosted by Harvard anthropologist David Maybury-Lewis.
Small index cards representing footage removed for inclusion in final cuts of episode.
This is typically one of the final steps in production.
 To process the materials, the film rolls were rehoused in archival film cans, which were placed in the National Anthropological Film Collection (NAFC)’s state-of-the-art environmentally controlled sub-zero vault, located at the Museum Support Center in Suitland, MD. In total, the collection comprises 1336 rolls of double-perf camera original rolls that have been rehoused into 399 cans. In addition to preserving the film rolls, the other major goal when processing the collection was to keep valuable contextual and technical information associated with each film roll. Happily, the Millennium trims and outs collection is now safeguarded for future researchers, preserving high quality ethnographic film that portrays a diverse collection of subjects.
Millennium outs and trims collection in sub-zero storage vault.
In addition to handling the collection, I also had the opportunity to learn something about the Millennium film series. What I discovered is that the film collection is particularly fascinating because it reflects some of the methodological and humanistic transformations that were occurring in anthropology during the end of the 20th century. These transformations, I think, display some of the contradictions between ethnographic film and the burgeoning discipline of public anthropology.

In the last few decades of the 20th century, anthropology underwent a transformation as applied anthropologists and academic researchers began to converge on a form of anthropology today known as engaged, or public anthropology (Lamphere 1053). As a result, the discipline became more self-reflexive about its ethics and the politics of its work (Hart 7). This new branch of anthropology called for an increase in collaboration and partnership with the particular communities in which anthropologists worked, as well as increased engagement by anthropologists in the public and political spheres in an attempt to influence policy (Lamphere 1053).

At the forefront of the changes to the discipline was David Maybury-Lewis (Borofsky; Lamphere 1052). Maybury-Lewis strived to counteract negative feelings and popular disdain for indigenous groups, or the so-called “Other,” and to advocate for the interests of these small-scale societies (Hart 1041). Perhaps the largest contribution to his legacy was his creation of the organization Cultural Survival, an NGO dedicated to collaboration that would strengthen the ability of indigenous people to operate their own organizations and advocate for their own rights, including land rights, health care, education, and political power (Lamphere 1051). The 16mm films from his Emmy award-winning 1992 ethnographic film project, Millennium: Tribal Wisdom and the Modern World, which are now processed and housed in the Millennium trims and outs collection at the NAFC is another key piece of Maybury-Lewis’ legacy.

The Millennium documentary film project aired on television in ten 60-minute episodes before being released on VHS in 1992. Holistically, the project challenged the morality of the state (in their various particulars) and attempted to generate broader appreciation for forms of indigenous knowledge that had been amassed over millennium. In short, the series sought to illuminate “tribal” values and knowledge that could “contribute to the transformation of public ethics” in the coming millennium (Hart 1037). The series examined large universal topics, such as love, marriage, politics, wealth, spirituality, power, identity, and art, while looking at specific ethnographic examples from at least 15 distinct countries. Among the indigenous societies filmed by Maybury-Lewis and his crew were the Xavante of western Brazil (the society where he did his original fieldwork), the Mashco-Piro of Peru, the Wodaabe of Niger, the Nyimba of Nepal, the Gabra of Kenya, the Makuna of Colombia, the Dogon of Mali, the Weyewa of Sumba (Indonesia), the Huichol of Mexico, and the Navajo of the southwestern United States. As a way to drive home the universality of themes that it considered, the series contrasted this footage of “tribal” communities with the challenges faced by individuals in Western societies. Examples included an artist dying of AIDS, a teenage suicide-attempt survivor, and a New York City garbage man. Interwoven among these stories is a reflection on the positive and negative impact anthropological pursuits can bring to indigenous societies, as well as an attempt to advocate on the behalf of such communities.

Maybury-Lewis’ goal for the Millennium project was to shed a light on the importance of cultural diversity and to advocate for the rights of indigenous peoples. The project, however, still received critique from his fellow anthropologists. Although self-reflexive about anthropology, Millennium represented indigenous people similarly to earlier ethnographic cinema and revealed in visuals of the exotic “otherness” of indigenous people (Rony 220). Television’s entertainment model did not allow such a project to fully break free of ethnographic cinema’s traditional conventions because it called for dramatic storylines and mystery, clashing with anthropology’s late 20th century critique of exoticism, essentialism, and objectification (Hart 9). While the Millennium series often focused on important socio-political issues, such as the Canada’s Oka Crisis of 1990, it also employed dramatic English voices-overs imagining deeply personal stories of indigenous individuals from a Western perspective.

Regardless of the contradictions of the series, the project is rich in documentary value because of the exceptional footage captured by Maybury-Lewis and his crew, as well as its demonstration of the philosophical tensions in anthropology during the late 20th century. In the National Anthropological Film Collection in the National Anthropological Archives you can now find the original outtakes and trims from the Millennium project.

Caroline Waller, Intern
National Anthropological Film Collection 
National Museum of Natural History

Works Cited
Borofsky, R. (2000), COMMENTARY: Public Anthropology. Where To? What Next?. Anthropology News, 41: 9–10. doi:10.1111/an.2000.41.5.9

Hart, Laurie Kain. "Popular Anthropology and the State: David Maybury-Lewis and Pluralism." Anthropological Quarterly 82, no. 4 (2009): 1033-042.

 Lamphere, Louise. "David Maybury-Lewis and Cultural Survival: Providing a Model for Public Anthropology, Advocacy, and Collaboration." Anthropological Quarterly 82, no. 4 (2009): 1049-054.

Rony, Fatimah Tobing. The Third Eye : Race, Cinema, and Ethnographic Spectacle. N.C.: Duke University Press, 1996.

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