Observing the Observer

Finals week at DePaul University this quarter included the fifth installment of the jump/cut ethnographic film festival ─ the result of the Ethnographic Documentary Film Production class in the department of sociology taught by Associate Professor and SSRC Director Greg Scott, Ph.D.

The festival is ultimately like a poster session, designed to present the culmination of each student’s hard work. Many students enter the class without any experience in video production and move from having never created a film to conceiving, directing, and editing a completed work. Some students begin with little to no knowledge of what ethnography is or what ethnographic methods are. In all cases, each student experiences this as a rite of passage and a foray into actually thinking about filmmaking from an ethnographic perspective, which is not as easy as one may think. Ethnographic filmmaking is not simply interview style documentary with a few non-interview images edited in. It is an elusive and sought-after filmic expression establishing a sociological argument through visual means. The most common method of ethnographic data collection is observation; therefore, in ethnographic filmmaking, observation is the key.

This year’s festival included nine, eight-minute films with topics ranging from hipsters and dog walkers to communal living and educational inequality. However, the most profound moment of the festival was during the Q&A session with the student filmmakers that concluded the program, although the coffee was good too. Through this conversation, you learn how challenging it is to make an ethnographic documentary and how profoundly the process affects each student and further develops their critical skills of observation.

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