Arts & Culture

Innovative filmmaking marks VES program

3 min read

An intimate relationship between the residents of Harbin city in northeastern China and their mother river, the Songhua. A revealing insight into the personal struggles and national identity of Sudanese potters on the banks of the White Nile. These are the subjects of two ethnographic films premiering Feb. 11 at the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnography.

The program, “Sensory Ethnography: New Harvard Student Ethnographic Works,” features films about experience, culture, and nature by Harvard’s Visual and Environmental Studies (VES) and anthropology students. The films, “Songhua” by J.P. Sniadecki and “Mud Missive” by Fatin Abbas, are part of a VES/anthropology course that challenges students to bypass traditional forms of ethnographic filmmaking and engage both familiar and unfamiliar cultural phenomena with fresh eyes and ears.

“Both ‘Mud Missive’ and ‘Songhua’ exemplify innovative ethnographic filmmaking — where the filmmakers retain a patient and unwavering gaze upon their subjects going about their daily lives,” says the Peabody Museum’s Associate Curator of Visual Anthropology Ilisa Barbash, explaining that when most people consider ethnographic filmmaking, they imagine a National Geographic-type documentary. “In contrast,” she says, “these films are slices of life, portraits of individual people in a particular time and place. Any narration is personal, and the editing is comprised of long, patient takes.” This approach allows the audience to enter the sensory worlds of the film subjects in an intimate way, she explains. “The focus on minutiae invites the audience to contemplate these activities in a larger global and political context.”

“‘Songhua’ is the first visual work I’ve made in China,” says Sniadecki, a doctoral candidate in social anthropology. “It’s also the first time I’ve explored a sense of place through the lens of a camera and the electronic signal of a microphone.” While studying film as an undergraduate in Michigan, Sniadecki spent his junior year learning Mandarin in Shanghai. His interest in Chinese society and media anthropology eventually led him back to China to film “Songhua” and his most recent project, “Demolition.” Both screened internationally.

“This is my first film,” says Abbas, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Literature and Comparative Studies. “It’s kind of scary in some ways.” Scary, surely, judging from the intimate nature of “Mud Missive,” which reflects not just on the people of Sudan, but on Abbas’ own life as a Sudanese expatriate. By interweaving the materials and activities of Sudanese potters, Abbas delves into the issue of identity — through her subjects, herself, and a Sudanese nation in conflict with itself.

“It’s also very exciting, too,” she is quick to add.

Sniadecki agrees. “I am grateful to share this piece with the Harvard community, and am continually amazed that, no matter where it is shown, viewers find within it a range of significance which cannot be reduced to a single interpretation.”

After the screening, the filmmakers will partake in a discussion moderated by Barbash, who welcomes Sniadecki and Abbas to the legion of filmmakers who have received critical support from the Peabody Museum. “The Peabody Museum’s involvement in ethnographic film projects is over half a century old,” says Barbash. “It was the birthplace of Harvard’s Film Study Center in the 1950s, which has produced some of the most important and seminal ethnographic films of the 20th century.”