Andre Singer on the reaction of other anthropologists to Disappearing World

You’d come from an academic background, and I wondered what your fellow academics made of Disappearing World?

Oh, they hated it! Initially. It was seen as populous television then. I mean, it’s changed dramatically ever since, and now it’s almost a staple in every anthropology department around the country. That change has been quite phenomenal, partly I think because of the quality of Disappearing World, which has to be seen as the premier anthropology series globally. Partly it was as a result of the quality of the programming, but also, I think it was a change of attitudes. It was because at that time you didn’t really… it took a while to percolate, but we weren’t visiting zoos and things. It was kind of… or even David Attenborough in those days doing this stuff. The use of subtitles was, I suppose, one of the labels. The use of anthropologists in the film was a second thing. The ability to give people their own voice, which was relatively novel in television in those times. My personal pride of the series at that time was that it did actually change attitudes, and changed how people perceived anthropology, and that gradually percolated from not having anthropologists using film much and so on. Suddenly, they were all knocking on our door, and we could pick and choose almost, any anthropologists we wanted, who wanted their people to be represented on film. Suddenly, it became a very different, during the course of my time there, from the early days in the 70s up to the 80s, it suddenly became different to how it began. But initially, people in my department, they were polite, but I knew that it was not seen as serious anthropology.

I was just thinking as well from a kind of ethical point of view, operating as an anthropologist, when you’re making a film, you will have to make some selection and it must be quite difficult because presumably when you’re an anthropologist you’re observational, but when you’re making a film, you’re actually looking for something that is interesting. Was that ever a kind of ethical…?

Yes, I didn’t really have a problem with it. I mean, perhaps I’m not a purist in that sense. I felt that the role of using film to bring ideas and description of what’s happening over there to over here, and to be able to interpret people and give a sort of a greater understanding of how other societies operate, far outweighed the minutiae of trying to be that observational. I mean, I’ve always been seen in the anthropology world as almost on the wrong side of popularising the subject, rather than being a purist in terms of film. A lot of the anthropological filmmakers would not want to try and squeeze everything into a 50-minute thing. They would be following an event over a long period of time and so on. That would be for more academic and intellectual purposes, than the purpose than the purpose I thought our sort of film has. It’s always been relatively contentious, and I suppose I’ve got away with it by playing both games, because I kept my anthropological links, and I’ve sort of driven the film side of the Royal Anthropological Institute, which is sort of the central body in London.

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