“Truth” in Ethnography: The Blunders, the Missteps, and the Revolutionary Potential as Endeavored in Trans- (2020)
When I started working on my documentary Trans-, I came at it from a perspective of wanting to tackle the ethnography genre for all of its glamor and (mostly) grime. I also brought with me a question about truth in the context of ethnography–particularly, ethnographic films.
Trans– (2020) by Kal Yelle
My interest in ethnography started with a class I took with the risqué title, “Sex on the Beach,” a class about representations of the South Pacific in mostly non-documentary cinema, both by indigenous pacific islander filmmakers and western filmmakers alike. I found out later that the instructor, Vicente M. Diaz, chose this title because the vast majority of Western representations of the South Pacific in early film all the way up to contemporary cinema revolved around, to put it plainly, sex.
For over a century, Western filmmakers and ethnographers have been traveling to the South Pacific and projecting upon it notions of reconnecting with one’s “primal” desire in a land of lush and exotic flora and fauna, naked women, and sun-kissed shores. What nearly all representations of the South Pacific by Westerners had in common was a sense that in the context of the industrializing and post-industrialized world, the West had “lost” something that the non-industrialized, “primitive” pacific islanders had retained, and that the South Pacific was the place to “reconnect” with one’s primitive desire.
One of the first films we watched was Moana. Not the 2016 Disney flick that everybody and their mother clamored over like it was the best animated film ever created (as a side note, Professor Diaz has published some of the most famous and compelling criticisms of the film to date), but Moana (1926) by Robert J. Flaherty.
I spoke about Flaherty in my previous article about representing truth claims in documentary, and I’m not bringing him up a second time because his films are so good. They’re foundational to ethnographic cinema, but they’re so thoroughly and obviously laced with Westerners’ preconceived ideas about what indigenous people “ought” to be like as opposed to who they are–as individuals, as peoples–that it may seem unbelievable to modern viewers that anyone believed this stuff was real.
But here’s the thing: in many ways, ethnography–and ethnographic film in particular–has never been about studying groups of people and documenting them as they actually are. Since the dawn of ethnographic film as a sub-discipline of documentary, ethnographic films by Westerners have been about re-presenting Western cultural hegemony by documenting the culture of another group of people as we (the Western viewers) want to see them, and as we (the Western filmmakers) want them to “be seen.”
Of course, concurrently with the ongoing legacy of colonialism that needed to be consistently “retouched” to maintain the myth of its saving applications, Westerners living in industrialized nations at the advent of the 20th century now also had an emotional stake in ethnography. As mentioned earlier, these films (falsely) documenting the lives of “primitives” moved Western people who felt they had lost something or sacrificed a part of their humanity in the name of accumulating capital and engaging in “progress.” These films were thus a way to reconnect with what was lost and take heart that beautiful vistas with humans living “in harmony” with nature still existed somewhere out there, a fact which allowed them to continue on in their day-to-day.
So if ethnographic film has such an ugly past, why salvage it? Why not let it die out alongside other poorly-aged genre films such as the American Western? Well, as the Princeton department of anthropology website shows, partially because the real practice of ethnography is still being utilized in modern humanities research today. And if ethnography as a discipline is not something we can so easily let go of, I figure it’s best that we at least try to do better.
Coming into the art of the “reverse ethnography”
In my research into ethnography in film, I was distinctly inspired by two non-traditional types of ethnographic filmmaking that brought me to where I ended up with my methodology for constructing Trans-. The first is to be found in films such as Trinh T. Min-ha’s Reassemblage (1982). This ethnographic film, in which Vietnamese documentarian Trinh travels to rural Senegal, ostensibly to make a film about the women of the Sereer people, “does ethnography” in a way very alien to the traditional techniques of documentary or ethnographic film.
Instead of documenting or even describing the rituals of the Sereer women in any comprehensive way, Trinh is content to spend the majority of the screentime in her film showing images of the women, some with, many without context that cut in and out to black. Her narration is extremely self-reflective and self-critical. It wonders what it’s doing in the process of doing it. It makes clear that it cannot do what it has set out to do: “make a movie about Senegal.” But most notably, it exposes the “sin” of both the filmmaker and the viewer by actually privileging the gaze of the subject, who seems undaunted by the camera and even expresses a sort of dominance over it by staring directly into its lens.
The persistence of the subject’s gaze destabilizes the film by asking the viewer–who is and always has been an extension of the filmmaker in the context of ethnography–what they think they’re looking at. Trinh’s film highlights this act of looking instead of covering it up, which pulls back the curtains of the ethnography genre so to speak and allows for what feels like a more authentic, if not “truthful,” interaction between the subjects and the viewers. And she also guides the viewers to one of the most plain and poignant observations in all of ethnographic filmmaking: “What I see is life looking back at me.”
The second ethnography subtype that inspired me was what I like to call the “reverse ethnography.” In the sense that the typical ethnography set-up is filmmaker = us, subject = other, the reverse ethnography sets up the filmmaker and subject as one unit belonging to the same studied group, leaving the “typical” viewer stranded and potentially “othered.” If the viewer so happens to belong to the same group as the filmmaker and subjects, they may also feel included in the “us.” But the mainstream, stereotypical moviegoer/American–white, straight, middle class, able-bodied, etc.–will suddenly feel “on the outs.”
Specifically, the genre subtype of AIDS era documentaries made by queer folks, many of them HIV positive or suffering with AIDS, are the reverse ethnographies that inspired me. These films, such as Peter Friedman and Tom Joslin’s Silverlake Life: The View from Here (1993) and Marlon Riggs’ Tongues Untied (1989) are made by gay (and black, in the case of Riggs) men suffering from AIDS about gay (and black) men suffering and dying from AIDS. The films get extremely close to the subjects as a result of their personal identification with them, but this closeness does not feel invasive or unethical.
In fact, both movies feature the filmmakers themselves prominently (Joslin for Silverlake Life and Riggs for Tongues Untied) in the context of the film, the filmmakers laying bare their stories for the viewer to absorb alongside any other subjects present in the film. This act of “laying bare one’s story alongside one’s subjects,” motivated me to lay bare my own story alongside my subjects in the context of my film.
How I made Trans- in the tradition of radically transformative ethnographies
Due to the dual nature of my film, I constructed Trans- using techniques from Trinh’s work and the AIDS-era reverse ethnographies. The reason I say “dual nature,” is because my film contained subjects who I wholly identified with and some I only partially identified with. Like the black gay men living with AIDS that Riggs depicted as a black gay man living with AIDS, I identified wholly with some of my subjects as a white, middle class, trans individual.
However, like Trinh identified with the Sereer women as a woman who belonged to a non-Western culture but did not have the particular experience of living in rural Senegal, I recognized I could relate partially to some of my subjects through our shared transness but could not relate directly to their experiences as children of immigrants, as BIPOC, or as chronically ill people. I also wanted to be sure that I didn’t attempt to suggest there was any sort of “universal” trans experience or give any indication of that. Instead, I wanted my work to just show trans stories–as much or as little as my subjects wanted to disclose–including my own.
Trans– (2020) by Kal Yelle
I utilized Trinh’s techniques in the structuring of my film. Like Reassemblage, Trans- relies heavily on asynchronous sound, wherein the narration may or may not align directly with what is being visually represented. At times, there is sound but no images. At other times, there are images but no sound. At times, the two work together: most notably at the end, in the dance sequence where Prima performs an improvised dance to the film’s theme, Desire.
The asynchronous sound and images was directly inspired by Reassemblage, and I believe it works in the same ways to give the viewer the sense that they are witnessing partial fragments of the stories of the subjects I had been given to represent. The jarring nature of the cuts and auditory lulls keeps the audience aware that this is not a seamless narrative. It is not a narrative at all. What I have attempted to represent is fragments of truths (in the plural) about trans experiences (also plural) that correspond to a whole only in the internal world of each individual subject, not in the whole of some overarching storyline about trans people.
I was motivated to include poetry, music, and dance from Tongues Untied, wherein Riggs used these expressions of art within his film to convey something more transcendent about black, gay, and AIDS-affected peoples’ experiences. Dance and music permit the expression of joy, of desire, while poetry provides an outlet for conveying the feeling behind experiences in a way that simply telling a story does not (it should be noted that I did not plan ahead of time to include the first poetry piece in the film–Na Choih, Donna at the time of filming, contributed this piece unprompted and I happily included it).
I was also inspired by Joslin and Riggs to lay bare my own story for the film in the sequence following the interviews, which contains hundreds of images of me taken throughout the years between my adolescence and the present day (2020). As many trans people will agree, the process of looking back at one’s own pictures can be uncomfortable at best and extremely painful at worst.
For those of us who may have taken a while to arrive at our trans identity, looking at pictures of ourselves from “before” when we were unaware, often unhappy, and likely looked much different can be difficult. It was certainly difficult for me. But I felt that it was important for me to include this “laying bare” component as a way to visually represent my own history with transness. The pictures show me happy at times, miserable at other times, uncomfortable in between, and in the end, reaching a point of something like acceptance. At the time I recorded the last few images, I had been sober for several months, living with and out to my parents, and pretty thoroughly sound with my identity, even if some of those around me were still trying to grasp it.
Trans- (2020) by Kal Yelle
Looking back on the film now over a year after it was completed, I realized that I and the other subjects of the film have continued to change and grow in unexpected ways. Some folks have changed their names. Some couples I interviewed are no longer together. Some peoples’ circumstances have changed, both for the worse and for the better. I certainly do not look the same now as I did in those last few images in the sequence I lent to the film. I have stayed in contact with some of the subjects of the film, and others I have lost contact with. But one reason I am proud of this film and believe it stands up to the test of time (not that a year is a very long time, but it’s an indication) is because it never attempted to fossilize the stories of the individuals it represented or pin them down to absolutes. It left the door open for changes, reconstructions, growth.
And that’s also reflected in the title: Trans-. My point in including the dash after the title was to make it clear that I was capturing a piece of something that was incomplete, unfinished, continuing, both for myself and for the other subjects. Coincidentally, the word “trans” itself is a prefix that means “across” or “traveling through” and does not suggest an end point. That’s one of my favorite things about being trans: there’s no perfect way to be trans and there’s no destination to reach. It’s a process of going through changes and growing or striving, not necessarily arriving.
This is part of what I have learned about ethnography, and depicting real people more generally on film. When tasked with re-presenting a life on film, the key to doing so “truthfully” is to do away with scientific descriptions, concrete claims, definitive narratives with a beginning, middle, and end. And I believe Trinh may have come to this understanding, too, when she said “What I see is life looking back at me.” The question for the filmmaker then follows: how do I show that they are living, and alive?
And the answer is unfinished.
Trans– (2020) by Kal Yelle
A plug for Professor Diaz and some of the cool work he has been known for in the indigenous studies academic community.
A few articles Professor Diaz has written about in criticism of Moana (2016), if you’re so inclined. They’re extremely compelling and I highly recommend them, but just be warned that if being a Moana fan is a large part of your self-identity, they may be a bit destabilizing to read.
Full link to the Princeton page describing what ethnography is.
Nathanael Hood’s 2017 article that explains how Moana (1926) was basically all a lie.
An overview of Trinh T. Min-ha’s film, Reassemblage (1982).