2006 When Visitors Come. Watertown, MA: Documentary Educational Resources.
Notes: DVD color, 32 minutes
Reviewed 26 Nov 2009 by:
Jack David Eller <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Community College of Denver, Denver, Colorado, USA
Medium: Film/Video Subject
A film about the relationship between anthropologist Rina Sherman and an Omuhimba family with whom she lived for seven years, filming and photographing aspects of their everyday and ritual lives. Halfway through her tenure in the field, Sherman presented a multi-media exhibition, entitled The Ovahimba Years: Work in Progress in Windhoek, the capital of Namibia. A group of young people from the community of Etanga travelled to Windhoek to participate in the exhibition.
The film explores the evolution of this relationship that lead to the exhibition, shows the group of young people discovering the presentation of their cultural heritage at the exhibition, holding performances as part of the programme presented, and shows the resulting discussions and consequences of the exhibition, once everyone is back in Ovahimba country. When Visitors Come is a film about an anthropologist in situ, and evokes several notions central to fieldwork, such as the nature of the bond between the observer and the observed, the observed observer, participant-anthropology and emotion as possible vector or hindrance in fieldwork.
ABSTRACT: This short film about a museum exhibition on Ovahimba (Namibia) culture has the potential to raise important questions about cultural knowledge and cultural representation but does not ever quite raise them.
Anthropology has two messages to convey, each equally critical. The first is the description of the diverse cultures of the human race. The second is the problems involved in describing the diverse cultures of the human race, what is generally called the problem of ‘representation.’ How do we go about acquiring information about another culture? Is this information ‘objective’ or constructed by our questions and our very presence? And how do we display or disseminate this information—what is the most accurate and valuable way (or ways) to present their culture to an audience that does not (primarily) include them?
“When Visitors Come” does not answer these questions, but it stands as an example of representation and the frustrations thereof. Part of a film series prepared by the fieldworker Rina Sherman on the Ovahimba of northern Namibia, which includes “Keep the Dance Alive” and “Shake Your Brains” (see http://www.ovahimba.info/ for more on “The Ovahimba Years” project), it fundamentally concerns a literal representation of Ovahimba culture in the form of a museum exhibit and a tour by the society’s members. As narrator, Sherman explains that after several years of fieldwork, in 2002 she conceived the idea of an exhibition that would illustrate “a slice of life in time and space of the ritual and everyday life that I had become part of.” She prepared a multimedia showcase on their culture, featuring photographs, sounds, written materials, videos, and live performances. For her host society, this was their first such experience, and most of the film portrays them walking through the exhibit themselves and commenting on the displays, or dancing in front of (mostly school-age) audiences and meeting the young people to discuss their culture.
According to Sherman, “The principal idea of the exhibition is to create a series of landscapes within which the ever-changing sound environment and the varied choice of arts would invite the visitor to invent his own trajectory within the space at large, much as we do in our own daily lives, and hence he would leave with the impression of having experienced a slice of life of Ovahimba culture.” Thus, her project is as much about the representation of culture—and the construction of an outsider’s experience of that culture—as it is about the culture itself. Questions of observation and representation are thus explicitly linked, if not conflated. In fact, unfortunately I would have to say that the film is not entirely successful at its task. It surely does depict a museum exhibit and the people’s (basically positive) reaction to their culture on display. But it does not really raise or explore the problem of representation, seemingly assuming unproblematically that a culture can be represented and that an audience can experience that culture—or at least have “the impression of having experienced it.” The film does communicate a little bit about fieldwork, and Sherman clearly appears to have a good rapport with the local people, but the more profound issues in participant observation and cultural representation are hardly raised at all. While the film constitutes a legitimate document of the people and the exhibition, it feels like an opportunity was lost: the deeper questions of cultural knowledge and representation were glossed, and the ‘experience’ of the audience was not explored at all. What exactly did the audience experience? What is the relationship between ‘the culture,’ the message that the anthropologist wanted to express about it, and the message that the audience actually received? We do not know, and that would have been the most valuable point to make. As a stand-alone visual document, then, “When Visitors Come” has serious limitations. Perhaps as part of the Ovahimba project it fares better.
Level/Use: Suitable for high school and college courses in cultural anthropology, anthropological methods/fieldwork, anthropological film, museum studies, and African studies, as well as general audiences.