Danses de Dogons (1910s, Ministère des Colonies, France)
A first step. This is a short film from the American Museum of Natural History’s visual archives. The film presents a series of dances from the Dogon tribe in the central plateau region of Mali, Africa. The film engages the body, its physicality and force, the minutiae of its movements, and the surface of its skin. The film reads as raw, unedited footage. A haphazard assortment of shots, united only in their representation of unfamiliar Malinese in motion. It is, by any measure, a frenetic and unstructured series of moving bodies and body parts, perhaps most keenly exemplified by the representation of a cartwheeling dancer over and over again. He cycles through his routine three times before the camera inexplicably retreats. Concentrated as it is on the Dionysian energy of dance, this film communicates a kind of no-place-and-time. The film goes nowhere, means nothing on its own. The concluding title, “fin,” is laughably unexpected. Nothing has finished or really even begun. The film seems a mistake, a failure, a supplement to some other, more meaningful ethnographic practice.
I have been thinking and writing about this short film for a couple of weeks now. It is at once an excellent example of early ethnographic cinema and a film that presents the very problem of ethnographic examples. No part can stand in for the whole. Ethnographic films are joined in radical difference, contingency, disorder, failure.
The AMNH library catalogue includes a brief description of the film:
“The dances of the Dogon in Mali are the focus of this film. Three distinctive dances are highlighted. First, a simple dance is performed by women clothed in bandanas, long shirts and skirts. The next dance is an energetic circular cartwheel dance performed by a group dressed in skirts of leather strips. The last performance is a fast parade of dancers wearing kanaga masks. The film ends with a beggar impersonating a sorcerer. It is unfortunate that the image is blurred in this print of the film.”
Buoyed by the anonymity and authority of the library catalogue, this description imposes a kind of narrative order. Save perhaps its inclusion of the curious beggar/sorcerer figure, this brief text creates a coherence that the actual film simply lacks. Yet the text concludes with an unexpected editorial remark that betrays the aims of an archive. It describes the blurred quality of the image as unfortunate, inviting a number of questions: What would we have gained by clarifying the focus of the image? What gets lost in the poor transfer that was not already ambiguous from the start? The catalogue description gestures toward historical origins and model images. It insists that this film could be useful or valuable, if only we could see more or better. But the blur seems only to buttress the form and content of the image, the rendundancies and mysteries that stream across its three minutes’ time, or perhaps the time code haphazardly stamped on the digital transfer.