A Paradox of an Ethnographic Sample

In his article McCarty’s Law and How to Break It, McCarty proposes a general timeline for filmmakers when filming a community other than their own. He states that “detailed visual and aural representation of a discrete community demands a minimum of three months' fieldwork” (70). Then he elucidates each month: the first is for getting over culture shock and language barriers, the second month for becoming familiar and tending toward intimacy, and the final month for reaping the rewards of material that is simple, natural, and unaffected by the camera's presence. He concludes by proposing his law which basically stipulates that relevant action takes place when the camera isn’t rolling —but that’s okay because filming isn’t supposed to go smoothly anyway. And that mere statement reminded me of, arguably and humorously, the most difficult documentary ever made —which happens to include themes of (a) establishing rapport with indigenous peoples (Brigard), (b) coincidental capture of relevant action (McCarty), and (c) the relationship of ethnology to film-making (Mead). The film to which I am referring is a paradox, the Inception of all films, a film within a film about itself. I’m talking about Burden of Dreams.


For some context, peep the trailer:


The film requires clarification: it is a documentary about the making of Fitzcarraldo directed by the legendary Werner Herzog. The character Fitzcarraldo, is based on the historical figure Carlos Fermin Fitzcarrald, was an actual rubber baron in the late nineteenth century. He literally tried to transport a steamboat over a steep hill in order to access oil in the Amazon River basin. Fitzcarraldo relied on indigenous tribes to create a system of intricate pulleys to pull the boat over the hill. So, in effort to pay homage to these workers, Werner Herzog also literally pulled a steamboat over a hill in Peru for his film Fitzcarraldo.
Herzog is renowned for risking high stakes in order to achieve images that have never been captured. He’s been called “nuts,” and, having met and interviewed him, I can attest to that colloquialism.

These things considered, the documentary on the making of this film elucidates common struggles of film-making while (I argue) serving as a metaphor for the function of ethnographic material. The following is a short clip from the documentary in which Herzog describes why he makes films.

My argument is that both of these films (Burden of Dreams and Fitzcarraldo) are pieces of visual anthropology that, although fictionalized, demonstrate a further development of ethnographic material. Brigard recounts the history and development of ethnographic film, but the process did not stop with the conclusion of the article. The development continues and is augmented to include semi-fictional content. In addition to this, and considering Mead’s argument, cultures have the potential to vanish without being captured for posterity (3). Films about films about real people demonstrate ethnographic tendencies, but furthermore, function as history for those who watch them. If anything, Burden of Dreams is one of the most entertaining documentaries you will ever see. It is worth watching in full and several times.