From Ethnography to Metaphor: Recent Films from David and Judith MacDougall

Essay Excerpt

Yet the central issue of these films is not just the epistemological foundation of representation. The indexicality of the MacDougall films speaks to a question that really concerns the Aboriginal people themselves, to the politics of representation. The humanity that the MacDougalls represent in their metaphor is not some abstract and essential, timeless humanity, but a politically significant representation of Aboriginal people struggling to define themselves in a white world. Preserving the agency of these people as active subjects is more than a theoretical commitment. The active identity and dependency of Aboriginal people is presented just as they act toward the camera and us: as the film represents them to an outside audience, so do they attempt to incorporate it and us into their discourse, values, and purposes. What we see, consequently, is a complex political act-the assertion of who they are in an essentially hegemonic situation.

There are many voices here,some deeply ironic. In representing the struggle for transmitting and preserving Aboriginal values, the films index what they are clearly supporting; in documenting the transmission for us as part of the audience, they help accomplish Aboriginal goals. But the films offer a terrible, tragic vision, just as they rightly celebrate the creativity and energy of Aboriginal continuity and action. The tragedy is the ultimate lack of Aboriginal control of the conditions of their life. In this, they are to some extent a metaphor for all of us. And yet there is hope, as we see some continuity of an Aboriginal vision and sensibility despite enormous changes. (Myers, 219)

About the Author

Fred Myers is a Professor of Anthropology at the New York University. His interests are: Indigenous people and politics, Aboriginal Australia; exchange theory and material culture; anthropology of art and contemporary artworlds; the production and circulation of culture; in identity and personhood; theories of value and practices of signification.

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