Dirk Nijland

The Bilan Adventure: The Shadow-journey.

Dirk Nijland

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In this paper some remarks are made about the intriguing happening of the Bilan:
the presentation of all sorts of films and video’s which try, in their
cinematographic way, to bridge the gap between people from different
(sub)cultural background, each with their own activities, perceptions, opinions,
and ideologies.

Climbing up that long staircase, it is seemingly underlined that, in the third
week of March, the Musée de l’Homme houses a fantastic airport from which you
can take off, completely free of charge (!), in order to embark upon all kinds of
journeys in various directions. You pass the control tower where the traffic-
controller Foucault has organized outward-bound flights assisted by Rotschi or
Pellé. Pilots and others enjoy a cup of coffee. The traveller, however, walks on
towards the large, time-honoured departure hall dating from 1932. If he does not
see the blue eyes, he is on time. During the twenty-five years that the Bilan
exists, the traveller has often had to deal with minor delays regarding flight
schedules caused by the somewhat late arrival of the renowned tour guides Jean
Rouch and Germaine Dieterlen accompanied by their party. They were, however,
readily forgiven. Had they not, fortyyears ago, attended the Premier séminaire
pour l’évaluation des films ethnographiques et folkloriques in Florence in 1966?
The beginning of something Rouch had always wished within the framework of
the Comité du Film Ethnographique and the C.I.F.E.S. of which the Bilan, too, is
a continuation: viewing together and discussing films originating from the field of
anthropology/sociology as well as the world of film dealing with mankind in his
Prior to, after a short word of welcome, signaling the first take-off, the hall
is darkened, and we, the travellers, along with the shadows on the screen will set
off for our first destination, I will try to express part of my view on this weird and
wonderful adventure. It has not only to do with the informative, but also with the
manner you contact the Other on such shadow-journeys, the directness and the
evocative. How the Other looks you in the eye, how he presents himself to you in
his surroundings. In the latter case, it is all about approaching a reality generally
found in the arts: you draw that reality from a stereotype, a traditional
perspective, so that you see, hear it in a fresh manner. The intermediary ‘dégage’
(Van Gogh-1914 (1):200) treats it in a creative way. (Grierson c/o documentary:
Reisz & Millar-1972:298), seeks to turn it into a sensory experience in order ‘to
reach the secret spring of responsive emotions’ (the author Conrad 1967:58;
Read-1962:33-35). What goes for books, however, goes to a certain extent for
paintings and films, too: ‘Thus originates a book: the author writes it, the reader
makes it’ (presumably Diderot-1774; Monaco-1981:136-137). And, this certainly
seems to apply to trans(sub)cultural communication: ‘A foreigner’s eyes are wide
open, but only see what he knows’ (West African proverb: Jane Rouch-1956). Let
alone regarding the shadow-traveller, this is indeed quite a problem for the
anthropologist, too, for the filmmaker in direct contact with the Other. In my
opinion, this is splendidly presented in the following conversation between Rouch
and Dieterlen with reference to filming in the course of the Sigui ritual of the

Jean Rouch: What does the cinema mean to you?
Germaine Dieterlen: It is very, very important. For you have the
opportunity to view
once again that which you have seen with those people. You cannot understand
explain something if you have seen it only once. That is impossible. You must
see it again and again, understand, analyse, study it with those who themselves
performed the acts. (De Heusch-1984<av>; also used in Constantini-2004<av>)

It is not about a completely finished film here but about footage, at the most
roughly edited, recorded by Rouch. It can help Dieterlen with her task as an
anthropologist during research: getting to understand the meaning the Dogon
give to their complex actions. It is the problem linked to communicating between
two cultures, to the connecting between two different systems of codes. In other
words, we can assume that a culture expresses itself by means of the actions of
its participants and the consequences thereof. These expressions originate from
the actual heart of that culture: a complex of views on how you must co-exist with
your fellow human beings, and with your cultural, natural, and supernatural
surroundings. It is an entirety of ideas organized hierarchically by means of a
system of values. It determines the faculty of cognition, the emotion, and leads to
perceptive faculties that may be called configurative and slightly deformed. A
member of the society concerned experiences, relives the (enculturation) view
and expression as an entirety (meaning and sign) through his education. Only
together, do they form ‘his reality’ or even better ‘his culturally conditioned view of
reality’ (Planck 1949; Bidney 1970:18/19). Each participant again has a slightly
different view on reality, but there is enough in common to be able to
communicate and that which is shared could be named the ‘culture’ of that
society (Sapir-1914, 1934; Goodenough-1963: Chapters 7+10). If you enter a
culture as a foreigner unaware of the culturally conditioned reality, you are not
familiar with the codes, then you do indeed ‘look’ and ‘listen’, but you do not ‘see’
and ‘hear’. If you do not know a language, then you do not even re-cognise a
word in the stream of sound forms, do not recognise a lingual signal, let alone the
meaning. This is also the case with non-verbal communication: if you look at a
game of chess as a non-chess player, you do not really see a thing. You can
hardly recognise the difference between a pawn and a castle. The orchestration
of each and every chess-piece in relationship to the other, determining the
position of both players, escapes you completely. (‘Eyemarker’: Mackworth-
1958<av>, Boekhout & Kylstra 1972; Anonymous 1951<av>; Allport & Pettigrew
1957). To which degree are outsiders in touch with the reality of another culture
when looking at/listening to expressions of that culture? With the human
tendency to classify the unknown, the new in the present system of knowledge,
he will be inclined to recognize, also on film or video, parts of expressions of that
other culture, as signals similar to those departing from his own, culturally
determined system of codes and connect to it the corresponding significance,
possibly leading to considerate misunderstandings. Of course, the film has a
commentary. Quite rightly so in that translation process from one system of
codes to the other, but indeed somewhat ‘cold’, from a distance (France-1989).
Alternatively, the Other who personally tells it to you. Much closer. I was much
impressed by the Jie who at the start of To Live with Herds (MacDougall-
1972<av>) talks in his way about the neighbouring societies. However, really
near? How much translation work do those sub-titles include? How do I
understand those words? From which system of knowledge? Can I instantly
grasp that which took that anthropologist took months and months, years and
years to understand? In order to fully understand the meaning of that film should
I not view it many times, in combination with repeatedly reading the
monographies concerned perhaps even linked to an Excel sheet on DVD for a
more encyclopedic approach? However, in spite of these reasonable
considerations, this image of that man touched me, seemed to tell me something
about man and human kind in general and something about myself, too. Is this
the real reason that the shadow travellers like to come?
Dieterlen’s answer also makes clear she is not dealing with an artistic use
of film. She aims at other possibilities this medium offers, namely registering
actions in a manner they are presented as best as possible in their physical form.
It is not about ‘objectivity’, seemingly a useless concept in anthropology, but
about the best possible perception of the physical action thanks to a descriptive
use of film. You see this, for instance, in an excellent way in Flaherty’s film
Nanook or the North (1922<av>) during the walrus or the seal hunt with the
family members running to the assistance (Bazin-1958:131-135), or in Ivens’s
Zuiderzee (1931-33<av>; see Ivens-1970:39-45). Films made by anthropologists
such as Rouch or my former boss Gerbrands clearly show this notion for acting,
you could say avant la lettre. Claudine de France brings to the fore a crystallized
development of theories on human actions in connection with the use of film in
her important publication Cinema et anthropologie (1982). Leaning on Marcel
Mauss (1936) and Leroi-Gourhan (1943, 1945), she presents human beings in
an ever-changing dialogue with their surroundings: other people, objects,
instruments, enclosed spaces such as houses, work-places, streets, fields, kinds
of food, the remaining nature and supernatural world as recognized by culture.
Having distinguished the four main groups of techniques and the important
spatial territories of action belonging to these ‘dialogues’, Claudine de France
goes on to present us with indications for the standpoint of the camera and
cadrages. The course of time, too, has her attention, but there we are also firmly
supported by Dauer (1980) with his analysis in distinguishing main acts and
repeating acts. Furthermore, I also consider the criteria Heider (1975) set for the
ethnographic film to be of importance for a documentary approach, as is also the
remark of Gerbrands that you should show activities of other cultures more
extensively in the editing because the public has less or no foreknowledge
(1969:6; Monaco 1981:136).
I feel that directly when seeing it: such camera technique, such montage,
such découpage paying attention to work, to action. Is not  activity indeed the
core of the ethnographic film? That is why I very much like to view those films
made by students from Nanterre, as shown on the Wednesday morning of the
Bilan: that is playing billiards with many cannons. Must those découpages always
be? Not at all. That Jie was not at all cut. The camera follows him at length. One
sometimes wishes to shorten the time, sometimes one does not. Think of Plan
séquence d’une mort criée (Baraldi-2004<av>) shown last year during Bilan. We
were allowed to attend, in the back rows, a gathering of mourning of gypsies. We
looked and listened along with the others in front of us, through a wide-angle lens
and an almost static camera. On the one hand, you were swept away in the
waves of emotion, not caused by artistic filmed images, but by the event itself
with those violins. On the other hand your eye itself was allowed to choose. No
decoupage to lead you or take an emotional hold on you. We are in the excellent
company of Chantal Akerman with Jean Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce,
Bruxelles (1975<av>, for example the bathroom scene) and Jim Jarmusch with,
for instance, Stranger than Paradise (1984<av>). Sometimes the filmmaker must
dare to withdraw in order to activate the viewer, to allow him search for himself.
This is also the behavioral researcher’s approach when looking for descriptive
images in order to bring about an analysis and feedback.
In ethnographic museums, you find the esthetical approach aside of
attempts to present the artefact in its cultural context. Filmic poems, impressions
such as The Nuer (Harris & Breidenbach-1971<av>) or Forest of Bliss (Gardner-
1985<av>) can entice me to a certain degree with their beautiful images and
montages but at a certain moment, I will miss the cultural context too much. My
soundboard as an anthropologist does not really vibrate. That is absolutely
indeed the case with a film like Salamou 1969 (Echard-1971<av>): beautiful
descriptive imagery with a very distinctive handling of sound. An emphasis on the
working-sound, perhaps even from the studio, through which it is completely
lifted to a kind of surreal plan and I seem, in a correct way, to contact the marvel
of this acting, of this other human being. Another counter point, that for me
brought an event to a singular level, was the investigatory comment of the
anthropologist Piault in Akazama (1985<av>) who tries to understand how one
arrives at the choice of a new chief. ‘Direct cinema’ suddenly appears to have
needy aspects due to its realistic approach next to the rich aspects we see in
Sidheswri Ashram, the baffling report on an eating-place in Calcutta (Valissant-
Brylinski & Jouas-2004<av>) or the various parts of Les maîtres du balafon
(Zemp-2001/03<av>). With that crystal-clear, plastic images (Spectra lens), those
flowing, compliant camera movements and that balanced information presented
by means of imprint titles. Fragments lingering quite strongly in my memory are
the one of the man looking at a photograph of himself in Ondas Surdas (Halloy-
2001<av>), or the fragment showing houses and streetlife in Havana during a
search for herbs in El monte de la Habana (Fito-2000<av>). This happens
sometimes because of the fragment itself, sometimes only because of the
preceding montage. My neighbour will probably recall other moments. Including
ethnographic films such as Hamar Triology (Head & Lydal 1990/91/94<av>) and
many others making up the Bilan adventure, of which we, shadow-travellers,
sincerely hope it may long exist in an attempt to construct bridges, and to present
magical moments of intense human experiences that, although often originating
from a different culture, indeed seems to formulate regarding our own feelings,
our own lives.

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