Creative Engagement: Performance Based Participatory Cinema

By Paul Wolffram - Discussant

This paper explores the potential of a performance based ethnographic cinema and suggests a methodological practice, defined here as, “creative engagement”. Following David MacDougall, I seek to examine ethnographic film as capable of creating a different kind of knowledge to that which academics produce through writing (2006: 5-6). In particular, this chapter examines the ways in which cinema is capable of soliciting an emotional engagement in an audience through the combination of images, sound and narrative. I then seek to examine how this emotional engagement can be effectively employed in ethnographic film. Emotion has traditionally been seen as counter to an objectified scientific approach, which seeks to strip away the personal, embodied and experiential elements of the ethnographic encounter. However, the more recent anthropological enquiry of radically empiricism has begun to investigate the realms of sensory and embodied forms of knowledge. These new sites of enquiry present an opportunity for ethnographic film to not only consider new things but also explore new ways of knowing. Using examples from my own film “StoriTumbuna: Ancestors’ Tales” I endeavour to show how “creative engagement” and the use of a performance based methodology can generate narratives and structures that communicate through images and sound. This communication uses techniques that privilege embodied and emotional ways of knowing and being. While MacDougall’s films seek to address the potential of ethnographic film and its promise of “new ways of knowing” by providing viewers with a shared experience of being, the performance based ethnographic cinema that I advocate for here, invites viewers to share a narrative and emotional experience.


Paul Wolffram teaches film production at Victoria University of Wellington. His work as an ethnographic filmmaker focuses on Maori and Pacific communities in Micronesia, Melanesia and Polynesia. Paul also works and publishes as an ethnomusicologist and has conducted extensive fieldwork in Papua New Guinea. His recent films “Rubber’s Kastom” (2011) and “StoriTumbuna: Ancestors’ Tales” explore ethnographic narrative forms and community engagement.

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