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(cover picture) Husmann, Rolf & Manfred Krüger
2008 The Professional Foreigner: Asen Balikci and Visual Ethnography. Documentary Educational Resources: Watertown, MA.

Notes: DVD color, 60 minutes
(Check out my bio!) Reviewed 31 Mar 2010 by:
Troy Belford <troy.belford@gmail.com>
Wichita State University,1845 Fairmount, Anthropology Box #52, Neff Hall, Wichita,KS 67260
Medium: Film/Video
Subject
Keywords:
Anthropologists - Biography
Documentary films
Balikci, Asen, - 1929-

ABSTRACT:    This film is as a biopic documentary about the Bulgarian born and Canadian educated film maker Asen Balikci. It features background information about his life and works, arranged in chronological order with particular attention paid to the films he produced and how he approaches the craft and profession of visual anthropology.



This film is an interesting and thoughtful look at visual anthropology through one of its unintentional founders, Asen Balikci. Beginning with Balikci doing research work to assist his daughter in her anthropological fieldwork in Sikkim, India the film quickly turns to the narrative of the life of this visual anthropologist. Through a sequence of interviews with Balikci the film begins with the autobiographical accounts of growing up in Turkey, moving to Bulgaria to escape World War II and then moving back to Turkey after the war. Balikci recounts learning French in the private school he attended in Turkey, a by rote basic course with several classics of the French theater as the basic text. Following this he attended university in Switzerland, getting his degree in Economics and Geography.

He was unsuccessful finding a job in Switzerland, where he found his employment prospects dogged by his Turkish citizenship. He ended up taking a job cataloging folk artifacts at a museum in Ottowa, Canada. His roommate was an ethnographer specializing in the Inuit of Northern Canada. An accident resulted in his roommate’s death and the museum asking Balikci to continue his roommate’s work. This work would result in his advanced knowledge of the Netsilik. His ethnographic knowledge would become an important factor in a social science curriculum designed for the United States public school system entitled “Man: A Course of Study.”

Balikci recounts some of the details of the making of this film series, including his on-the-job training in sound recording and guiding the camera operator during filming. While artificial light was used when necessary and the scenes of seal hunting were edited down to digestible film time his major goal was to achieve verisimilitude without forcing the Netsilik social field to adapt to the camera. Reconstructions of activities that were no longer practiced but were still a part of living memory were done following pedagogical guidelines in order to flesh out curriculum plans. The films were used as intended in United States classrooms, but political objections to the themes of cultural relativism that were being taught through these materials resulted in the films and lesson plans being shelved.

He was to learn about this controversy while he was working in Afghanistan on a follow-up series that would later be released as the “Sons of Haji Omar.” He was able to negotiate funding from the Smithsonian and distribution from the National Film Board of Canada. Timothy and Patsy Asch were also brought onto the project as camera operators. Patsy Asch was able to give the crew access to the women of the nomadic Afghans, causing some issues which Balikci addresses in the documentary interviews. He points out the disruption that filming can cause and how it often creates some of the same problematic situations as anthropological fieldwork.

Balicki produced a fine film in “Sons of Haji Omar” but he was not able to publish much in the way of ethnography since the Soviet/Afghan conflict forced him to abandon his fieldwork. Denied a monograph to accompany the film, he returned to Canada where he found his skills and experience brought to the aid of the newly formed Commission of Visual Anthropology. He published a newsletter and networked for the cause of visual anthropology as well as organizing the training of several indigenous film makers. It was a project close to his heart and done as a way to pay back those indigenous people who allowed him to film them and their culture in the past. In many ways training the youth of a culture in the practice of documenting their own culture is a way to help maintain an interest in the local as opposed to the mass media images of places such as Hollywood.

The film makes good points about how the visual anthropologist has to select a subject both in terms of what culture will be filmed and who in that culture will be main “character” of the film. This is often a happy accident of the film maker, who often makes casting decisions based on who is the friendliest and most socially connected as opposed to any photogenic qualities, though such considerations are also important. The film makes the process of applying situational dynamics of the culture to the greater ethical issues of working with the group being filmed as opposed to making them a subject of filming.

It is also telling that in describing the training of indigenous film makers he refers to the short subjects that they film as “exercises.” The practice of ethnographic filmmaking is both a process of historical documentation as well as a method of observational discovery through the process of creating and editing footage. This might be the hardest thing to impress on the undergraduate anthropologist who has little experience in filmmaking and aims towards the filmed interview as the primary method of teasing forth ethnographic information on a particular subject.

Visual anthropology can be a unique process of detailing the activities of informants with an eye towards behavioralist patterns that are framed by the process of watching a film in an audience. Balicki makes an important point about how the filmic and anthropological are at a disconnect and hopes that an anthropologist can bring a learned sensitivity to both the filming and (importantly) the editing of ethnographic documentary.

I found this film to be a highly useful piece of documentary that provides a concise and clear view of what a visual anthropologist really does. In terms of visual anthropology training this information is really indispensable and eye opening. That being said, Asen Balicki is only one visual anthropologist. He is also not one of the most read by students, but he has many useful things to say. What he provides is the impetus to make films and move beyond watching them, a thing that is very important for the visual anthropologists of today who would seek to create content over criticism.

An extended interview with Asen Balikci can be found here: http://www.dspace.cam.ac.uk/handle/1810/1467.