How Editing Tells a Story in Anthropology

Written by: Jacob deBlecourt

While there are few “rules” to filmmaking, showing a character performing an action is almost always better than telling the audience what is happening. In both a cinematic and anthropological sense, editing allows a director to shape their narrative subliminally, pointing out what is important in a particular shot without explicitly describing it. A film like Dead Birds or Four Families relies on a narrator to describe the actions of the people on screen. Two films which we have studied in this course, Eric Steel’s The Bridge and Bruce Beresford’s Black Robe, have managed to tell their story not only through dialogue, but through unspoken cuts and movements of the camera.

            Good and active editing strives to ask a question, one which the director asks.

Sometimes these questions can be profound: The scene in The Godfather when the Corleone’s baptize their new child is cut between scenes of brutal murder performed by the Corleone mob. Coppola seems to be asking “can a man like Michael really separate his personal or religious life and his business?” Sometimes these questions are simpler: The ending to Bonnie and Clyde cuts back and forth as the two wonder “what’s happening” before being repeatedly shot to death. In regards to The Bridge, the director seems to be asking “why do people choose the Golden Gate Bridge?” Steel asks this question by giving the audience two separate perspectives on the Golden Gate Bridge: In many shots, people can be seen painting, sailing boats, selling photographs, smiling, laughing, etc. Steel is trying to convey that the bridge is a happy place for a lot of people. However, at the same time, Steel also captures the moments when people jump off the Golden Gate Bridge, a frankly grotesque image. These two perceptions of the bridge is an intentional dichotomy which is asking the question “why do people choose the Golden Gate Bridge?”

Good and active editing should also convey implied messages. When the train goes into the tunnel at the end of North by Northwest, Hitchcock isn’t literally describing a train in a tunnel; it’s very much a double entendre. In a film like Black Robe, Beresford uses active editing to imply the great distance between France and New France, cutting between scenes in the wilderness, accompanied by the sound of walking on fresh snow, and scenes in old France, accompanied by the sound of footsteps on cobblestone. It emphasizes not only the great distance between the two areas, but also the dangerousness and unfamiliarity of the journey.

Editing can be a very powerful tool for anthropological films. It allows a director to put a more direct focus on the actions of a group of people without having to explicitly state anything. The use of good and active editing can also help with those unaccustomed to the more traditional anthropological documentary. Using the techniques of cinematographers might help the general audience see these anthropological documentaries as more watchable when designed as a traditional film.

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