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Revelations in the Anthropology of Cinema

In the autumn of 2015 two books were published in the anthropology of cinema that could scarcely be more different in approach and demeanour. One is a hugely imaginative and experimental text about making Tamil cinema, the other a meticulous historical and ethnographic account of the Ghanaian video film industry over a period of 20 years. Despite both being based on long-term fieldwork within the everyday textures of filmmaking and film viewing, the outcomes of these endeavours are so vastly different, so obviously antithetical in aims, pleasures, and modes of address, that little appears to unite their pursuit of the cinema as an anthropological object of study.

Nonetheless, it is informative to read these two books alongside one another. If not merely for the ways in which they complement each other thematically and conceptually, then especially for the ways in which, when combined, they lay out a set of paths through the anthropology of the cinema that is now gathering force as a domain of investigation. Counterintuitively so. Film studies has been caught up in discussions around the viability of cinema as a discrete domain of scholarly pursuit, raising the question of medium specificity, as the New Film History reimagined early cinema’s continuities with other modes of mechanical vision, and as media archaeologists have further dissolved the boundaries between medias and their locations in distinct historical moments. Anthropology, in the same timespan, has discovered first the media and subsequently cinema as a domain of ethnographic work and anthropological thought. The books by Anand Pandian and Birgit Meyer[1] might be considered as two distinct sites within this field that now comprises substantial new ethnographic work focused on cinema (see Ganti 2012; Hoek 2014; Hughes 2010; Krings 2012; Larkin 2008; Matzner 2012; Mazzarella 2013; Ortner 2013; Wilkinson-Weber 2014). These works are clearly distinguished from the longer history of interest in ethnographic film or the use by anthropologists of moving image technologies as a means of producing knowledge about the world. Instead, the anthropology of cinema has emerged as a part of media anthropology. It asks what the cinema is (as technology, as institution, as form, etc.), and what it makes possible (as interdiction, as pleasure, as labour, etc.), within the particular contexts of the lives of our interlocutors. Drawing eclectically on film studies and media theory, as well as a broad range of philosophical debates, the anthropology of cinema uses ethnographic work in the domains of cinema and its extensions to contribute to debates within anthropology generally, and media anthropology more particularly.

Both Meyer and Pandian take the cinema as their site and vantage point, both use ethnographic methods. But this seems to be where the similarity stops. Reel World is steeped in a posthuman universe inspired by Deleuzian cinema theory and takes a radically experimental form that aims to push the text to embody the very properties of cinema. Sensational Movies is an anthropological monograph that presents a wealth of painstaking historical detail in order to illuminate the changes in the Ghanaian public sphere as expressed and made present through the development of the video movie industry. Sensational Movies uses cinema to give insight into (Pentecostal) religion, Reel World takes on the cinema to explore creativity. Sensational Movies is about the social formations the cinema is embedded within, Reel World pushes right into a post-human universe. Where Pandian resists “the grist mill of rational decomposition” (2015:15), Meyer pulls out all the analytical stops. While Pandian writes in free flow, his intricate crafting of the text the argument he wishes to make, Meyer’s prose is of meticulous precision and she positions her claims within a whirlwind of references and asides.

But despite these radically different sensibilities and aspirations, I’d like to suggest that these books are fundamentally concerned with the same central questions. Both authors ask about experience in a universe formed of images and what it is that the cinema makes visible about such a world. In particular, both investigate what unseen forces are made present by the cinema and how anthropology may be able to approach such forces.

To explore these issues, Meyer and Pandian take two entirely different paths. I’d like to track their movements here, setting out their positions on key points: the nature of the image, the relation between the cinematic and the real, the body, cinema’s efficacy, the imagination, the invisible and finally the human. Laying out their perspectives gives a sense of how Pandian and Meyer produce their arguments about filmmaking and viewing in India and Ghana. But it is also a means of staging some of the central debates that animate the anthropology of cinema today.

Life in a World of Images

If on little else, at least Meyer and Pandian agree on the centrality of the image in everyday life. Pandian asks us to imagine that “whatever we’ve done, felt and thought has always happened in the thick of images”, within the “universe as a flux of images” (2015:4), while for Meyer a life lived among images must encourage anthropologists to explore “the complexity and diversity of human-picture relations” (2015:247). But their understanding of the image draws on entirely different intellectual traditions. Pandian’s work is deeply indebted to Gilles Deleuze’s Bergsonian cinema books. Meyer derives her understanding of the image from the work of Hans Belting. Where Pandian draws on a French intellectual tradition of theorising the image, Meyer positions her ideas within a set of German scholarly debates regarding Bildwissenschaft. These two divergent traditions have far-reaching consequences for the ways in which Pandian and Meyer approach the cinema as a field of study and thought.

In the introduction to Reel Time, Pandian draws upon Deleuze to describe a mobile universe in which all movement constitutes “image-making activities” (2015:4), among which cinema is one. Such a broad understanding of the image, as that which is the very texture of the universe, should be understood in opposition to the picture, as in Heidegger’s ‘Age of the World Picture’. Towards the end of his introduction, Pandian invokes Heidegger’s notion of the ‘world picture’, understood as attempts at human mastery of the world. Unlike this sort of picture, the Deleuzian image leads us away from anthropocentric modes of thinking, towards that which lies beyond the human, towards “the vitality of this globe” (Pandian 2015:18). While the picture is tied up with human attempts to calculate and control, the image is that which flows, of which the human partakes but which it does not control.

Sensational Movies sets out entirely different conceptualisations of the image and the picture. Meyer draws centrally on German art historian Hans Belting’s Bild-Antropologie (2001), which is founded on the distinction between the image and the picture. In Belting’s work, the English term image refers to the visual shape of mental forms, those internal to the human. The term picture, on the other hand, refers to the externalised form of those internal images, that is, outside of the human mind. For an image to become a picture, it requires a medium: a physical embodiment by which it can emerge as concretely perceivable. The medium gives body to the internal image but does so according to its own material and technological particularities. The embodied images that we perceive as pictures are internalised once again as new images, thus creating a feedback loop between internal and external images (Meyer 2015:17-18).

These divergent ways of understanding the image in Reel World and Sensational Movies makes for two modes of the anthropology of cinema that move in fundamentally different directions. Pandian’s engagement with Tamil cinema aims to lead us beyond the human, towards the forces of a universe beyond us. Meyer’s account of Ghanaian video movies directs us the other way, as the image stands not outside of, but is deeply embedded within, the human.

However, in both works, the image (whether understood as a universal mode of movement or as a mental form that may be externalised) isn’t just a representation of something else, something that stands outside of its imaging. Both move, in different directions, beyond such a representational approach and its various ideological implications regarding the relationship between the image and the ‘real’ world.

Real & Reel

The nature of the relationship between cinema and the real is significant for anthropologists focusing on media production and consumption. Not infrequently do they face the question of what the relation is, if any at all, between media and the ‘real’ world, apparently located elsewhere. The ethnography and arguments in Reel World and Sensational Movies both respond to this question in different ways, each confirming the inadequacy of such a way of conceiving cinema.

Pandian and Meyer each move beyond the “naïve and flimsy distinction between truth and fiction, reality and representation, the tangible matter of the world and mere images of it” (Pandian 2015:4). Ethnographically, it is on the movie set that the intermingling of the ‘real’ world and the world of the cinema becomes most acutely palpable. Both Pandian and Meyer recount the porous boundaries between actors and the characters they enact, as actors lend their bodies and voices to the cinematic process, and both authors highlight the ambiguous nature of the set itself, upon which such enactments take place. The boundaries are continually breached, such as when, for example, a Tamil hero focuses intently on his body as it must enact his character’s outrageous physical feats (Pandian 2015:159-60) or when Ghanaian actors pray before a witchcraft scene, lest the witches who roam nearby are disturbed by it (Meyer 2015:230). Pandian is beset with vertigo on an outdoor set along a deep gorge, a set that is not a passive backdrop but rather “something…that acts and reacts with the action that takes place upon it” (2015: 80). Similarly, when set designer Nnenna Nwabueze produces a shrine as a set piece in Ghana, she must balance the imperative to produce a shrine that looks convincingly real, yet not so convincing that it would actually come to be a real shrine, with all the dangerous implications this might have. More prosaically but no less significantly, the seamstress Floxy, in Accra, produces the latest fashions from watching Ghanaian and Nigerian films and South American telenovelas (Meyer 2015:105) while Logandurai in rural Tamil Nadu sings a film song while he works the fields (Pandian 2015:1).

The reality effect of the cinema here is not the great verisimilitude between the world of cinema and the world outside of it. Rather, what these ethnographic encounters show is that these worlds are inextricably entwined, their boundaries disappearing entirely in places. Whether actively sought out by the actor who steeps his body in the reality of his enactments or fiercely resisted by a set designer who takes all steps to ward off the veracity of her creations, the reality of the cinematic is overwhelming.

To argue for the collapse of the distinction between the cinema and the world outside of it, both Pandian and Meyer provide an account of the sensate body and its experience. The work of film scholar Vivian Sobchack (1992, 2004) is foundational for both Meyer and Pandian to locate the experience of cinema within the body. Sobchack stresses the carnal force of cinema, as it is felt in the body that engages with it. The cinema, for its sensate audience, is a visceral force that stirs the senses and resonates deep within the body. This approach to the cinema grounds it fundamentally within the body of those who encounter it, nestling it deep within us. The everyday intimacy this produces is in many ways the starting point of Pandian’s book, who draws on previous fieldwork in agricultural communities in Tamil Nadu to illustrate the slippage between everyday life and the life of cinema that happens in villages and fields in Tamil Nadu, where farmers sing film songs and goddess movies cause possession (2015:1, 237).

Agreeing on the visceral nature of the cinema that disrupts clear distinctions between the subject and the screen, Meyer and Pandian part company with Sobchack in different ways. For Pandian, Sobchack remains too wedded to the idea of cinema as something that can be encountered as a distinct entity, not pushing her own insight sufficiently far to dissolve the very distinctions between subject and screen. For Pandian, such dissolution is not the effect of the visceral and embodied nature of cinema per se but rather pre-given, a consequence of the way in which he sees the cinema and the subject as always incomplete and partial to start with (2015:289n9). The location of his research among makers of film, rather than audience encounters with final filmic products, encourages such a view. Pandian undoes the very integrity of cinema and filmmakers as concrete objects, and of the spectator as their counterpart. The visceral force of cinema is merely one point of connection between incomplete entities that are shot through by “forces, flows and relations” (ibid.). Such a conceptualisation of the cinema as a force field flows from his understanding of the image. It positions the experience of the cinema by sensate audiences on a vast continuum of becoming in which the very question of the real versus the cinematic is undone.

Meyer’s departure from Sobchack is in an entirely different direction. While agreeing on the sensory connections between the subject and the cinema, in her reading such connections minimally require some form of shared “communicative fabric” between filmmaker and audience (2015:120). Rather than discerning any ‘direct’ sensorial experience that precedes the social in our encounter with the cinema, Meyer takes bodily engagement with the cinema back into the domain of structured social relations. Perception, she lays out by drawing on Rancière’s notion of the ‘distribution of the sensible’, is not free-flowing but rather regimented, part of a “socially constituted world that foregrounds certain sensibilities and sense impressions and discards others” (2015:122). By suggesting that movies are part of the regimes by which the sensory experience of bodies comes to be ‘tuned’ to perceive in certain ways, and to understand the nature of the real, Meyer too disrupts the possibilities for making clear distinctions between cinema and a greater reality outside of it. Our very engagement with the world, our basic sense perceptions and experience, have already been formed by living among media, including cinema.

Sensational Movies and Reel World therefore each collapse the boundaries between the real and the cinematic by placing the cinema among sensing bodies. For Meyer this is because the ‘real’ is always already a production of mediation. For Pandian this is because cinema is itself already part of the movement of flows that is the real.


The grounding of cinema within the body, setting up relations between the subject and cinema that ties them intimately together, paves the way for both Pandian and Meyer to show how cinema acts in the world, rather than merely reflecting it. This is helpful because it gets us away from seeing visual culture as reaffirming something we already know, when we “unwittingly claim to find evidence in the visual that in fact we have discovered elsewhere”, in Christopher Pinney’s words (2005:260). For Pinney, the capacity of the visual to be other than the time we already know lies within the “torque of the image” (2005:268). In different ways both Pandian and Meyer describe the experience that arises out of our visceral encounter with that tension in visual culture.

For Pandian “[t]hese visceral modes of experience [of film], steeped with potent yet still profoundly unpredictable forces of feeling, shape what such films can do in the world” (Pandian 2015:270). This can be the relay between screen and audience in a cinema hall, “every film … an experiment with the thoughts and feelings of its audience…” (2015:270) or the above mentioned intimacies of cinema inhabiting one’s body or thoughts in which “there are romances kindled as echoes of cinema and lovers destroy themselves in the shadow of the screen” (2015:71). More broadly, however, the cinema, as a site of creation, is part of “those forces and processes that make human beings other than what they are” (Pandian 2015:270), containing “a potential … lodged with all such arts of perception and sensation” (Pandian 2015:16). That is, cinema is one among many modes of perception caught up in the flux of the world through which we become and change, not a passive reflection of something static.

Amongst cinema’s acts is the capacity to “recast the very horizons of imagination in the contemporary world” (Pandian 2015:159). Pandian and Meyer describe the productive power of the imagination in identical language as a “creative faculty” (Pandian 2015:152; Meyer 2015:13). This means that the “imagination makes things appear” (Pandian 2015:152). For neither is this productive force a solely inward phenomenon but is linked to the world outside and therefore a key mode through which cinema acts. While for Pandian this is an open-ended process that stresses difference, Meyer discerns a highly structured relation that embraces repetition.

Meyer describes a process in which the “media are at the center of the transfer between the ongoing incorporation of external pictures and the externalization of internal images” (2015:18). The imagination is shaped at this intersection of the inward reception of external images and the externalisation of internal images as pictures through embodiment in a medium. Note that cinema is just one among many media, and a crucial part of Meyer’s argument relies on the notion of transfiguration, by which “a sensory gestalt” (2015:156) is transmitted across different media, such as when images from a sermon appear on TV screens. Evidently, such transfiguration allows the remaking of older repertoires in continuously new forms, as Meyer’s frequent drawing on her earlier work about conversion among the Ewe attests. Mediation links the internal world of the imagination and the outside world, moving in both directions. The senses and the imagination are therefore fed by, and feed, the cinema. This is not just an individual encounter but always already social. The imaginary is an assemblage of mental images that “takes part in reproducing [the material world] as a phenomenological lifeworld…” and “is shared…by gathering people who imagine in synchronization” (2015:15). Cinema’s efficacy, from this perspective, is as part of a vast domain of mediated and echoing figures, which are produced by and shape the imagination of individuals and tunes their perceptions, thus forming their engagement with the world.

The imagination, therefore, is crucial in discerning how cinema acts in the world. It either illustrates how the objects and processes of cinema are caught up in a larger movement by which we become, in Pandian’s terms, or it is the site of the exchange between internal and external images, in Meyer’s terms. Either way, it is here that the efficacy of cinema as not merely an outcome or reflection of an already understood and settled present can be understood. This is what may move us away from sociologically inclined textual analyses that find in films the social, political or economic realities that were already known about before watching the films in question.

Cinema as Revelation

The “torque” or excess of the visual, or its place in making us other than we are, is significant in each of these two very different books because at the heart of both is a struggle on the part of their authors to illuminate how cinema makes visible forces that otherwise remain unseen, and whose reality or presence we might doubt. That reality is not just ‘observable’ but is made visible by the cinema, in its technology, its lifeworld of making, its texts and its mechanisms of going public.

Pandian writes that “to live with a film in its piecemeal fashioning was to perceive the virtual horizons of a world in motion” (2015:146). It is this unseen reality, of the universe as a flow of becoming, and reality as changeable, fertile, and unfinished, that his ethnographic work ultimately illuminates. Drawing strongly on Bergson’s idea of creation, Pandian finds within film processes and among cinema artists “the essential mutability of reality” (2015:145). Creative works “give body … to an unseen dimension of [reality’s] potential (2015:278). His text therefore describes an ecology of creative process, “less an exercise of human agency on an inert and inactive world than a way of working resourcefully with the active potential of diverse forces, feelings, beings and things” (2015:272). Deleuze’s idea that life itself is concealed from thought is formative both for how Pandian approaches the cinematic process as revealing life, and for his writing style, seen in “the structure of chapters themselves, each composed as a montage of images and episodes in which the most significant points often come precisely in the gaps between” because “thoughts are never simply given by text” (2015:279).

While stylistically, nothing could be further from Sensational Movies, Meyer’s encounter with Ghanaian cinema leads her towards a similar position on how cinema makes visible the unseen reality of the world. Filmmakers and viewers in Ghana both affirmed the nature of the world as an intersection of a seen physical dimension and an unseen spiritual dimension. Audiences approach films as “harbingers of truthful insights into a dimension that is considered inaccessible via ordinary perception” (Meyer 2015:157). Similarly, for those involved in film making, it was clear that “[i]n the murky zone between model and imitation there emerged new figures that were not fully contained within the universe of filmmaking” (Meyer 2015:236).

Both Reel World and Sensational Movies are concerned with the ways in which cinema mediates the unseen that is a source of the new and unsettles what is. Cinema makes this present to the senses. The authors do, however, depart significantly on the nature of those forces. While for Pandian the forces of creativity are unexpected, open-ended, incomplete, for Meyer the forces of the spiritual are familiar, recognizable and powerful. But in both cases, it is film that provides vision. Cinema acts as revelation.

The Human

What is it that cinema reveals? The entire thrust of Pandian’s book is to understand and make visible creation as a force that is larger than the human figure, who is caught up within the flows and movements of the world’s fertile reality. This is not only the outcome of his fieldwork in the film industry, but is presented as an ethical position on the part of the author. He writes, “there is something to be said as well for another kind of perspective on the world, neither global nor transcendental, a vantage point more deeply implicated in the force and momentum of what we engage” (2015:281). Pandian’s anthropology of creation is aimed to see beyond the horizon of human endeavour and perspective, to leave behind the ‘world picture’ and move towards the image, in which we are all caught up but which does not stem solely from us. The value in studying the cinema lies, for Pandian, within its capacity to make visible the “potential of a larger universe beyond the human” (2015:8).

The forces made visible in Sensational Movies are equally unseen and non-human. However, the value of studying the cinema for Meyer is precisely how the relationship between the human and those forces is made visible. She writes of “the capacity of video movies to appeal to the much broader human concerns about the sphere of the unseen, the anxieties and desires evoked and the potential for their depiction. In this sense they are not exotic cultural forms … but first and foremost instances of a broader human quest to picture the unknown that is part of life itself” (2015:296, my emphasis). For Meyer, in the final analysis, that which lies beyond the human is a fundamentally human concern. Ghanaian video movies make such concerns legible and visible, both to anthropologists and to its viewers.

What cinema reveals for Pandian and Meyer is a fundamental reality that lies beyond cinema but which ethnographic engagement with cinema can make visible and present.

Anthropology of Cinema

It is at the intersections between the human and non-human, the reel and the real, the image and the picture, that it is most valuable to read Sensational Movies and Reel World against each other. As they weave their arguments, Pandian and Meyer map possible paths through these key questions confronting the anthropology of cinema. The answers they provide, and the new issues and concerns that these answers themselves bring into focus, contribute to a series of debates that will continue to give shape to the anthropology of cinema as its modes and technologies change but its profound engagement with human subjects persists.


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Hoek, Lotte. 2014. Cut-Pieces: Celluloid Obscenity and Popular Cinema in Bangladesh. New York: Columbia University Press.

Hughes, Stephen. 2010. Policing silent film exhibition in colonial south India. In Ravi Vasudevan (ed.) Making Meaning in Indian Cinema. Delhi: Oxford University Press. Pp. 33-64.

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Meyer, Birgit. 2015. Sensational Movies: Video, Vision and Christianity in Ghana. Oakland: University of California Press.

Ortner, Sherry. 2013. Not Hollywood: Independent Film at the Twilight of the American Dream. Durham: Duke University Press.

Pandian, Anand. 2015. Reel World: An Anthropology of Creation. Durham: Duke University Press.

Pinney, Christopher. Things Happen: Or, From Which Moment Does That Object Come? In Daniel Miller (ed.) Materiality. Durham: Duke University Press. Pp.2

Sobchack, Vivian. 1992. The Address of the Eye: A Phenomonology of Film Experience. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Sobchack, Vivian. 2004. Carnal Thoughts: Embodiment and Moving Image Culture. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Wilkinson-Weber, Clare. 2014. Fashioning Bollywood: The Making and Meaning of Hindi Film Costume. London: Bloomsbury.

  1. [1]Full disclosure: Birgit Meyer was one of my PhD supervisors, during the period 2003-2008, when she was at the University of Amsterdam.

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