Documentary Filmmaking as Transformative Practice: Anthropological Reflections

Documentary Filmmaking as Transformative Practice: Anthropological Reflections

Author: Katja Rieck

14 January 2022

A shift in perspective, film as product versus film as process

As a scholar in the humanities my relationship to documentary films has been shaped by my relationship to other so-called “source materials” like written documents, or interviews. I have tended to view them as actor’s expressions of a specific perspective that is shaped by their culture, social background, political inclinations and persuasions, gender, and economic standing. These films, like interviews, newspaper articles, letters, e-mails, social media posts are materials to be analyzed as perspectives on actor’s lived experiences or as a kind of social commentary.
As part of the Max Weber Foundation’s Wissen entgrenzen subproject “Performance of Culture, Religion, and Body as Strategies of Self-Empowerment in the Islamic Republic of Iran” being conducted by several research fields at Orient-Institut Istanbul, I have been involved in organizing the film forum “Iran at the Crossways: Documentaries and Dialogues on a Changing Society” in which over the course of three days we show numerous documentaries on Iran or made by Iranian directors/producers. This has put me in contact with several Iranian filmmakers with whom I have been able to discuss different aspects of their work. During these conversations I noticed that creating films is not just an artist’s expressive act, but also a process that creates and cultivates relationships in several ways. The preparations and research for such documentary films often takes time. Some filmmakers spend years with their film protagonists, becoming involved in their lives and part of their protagonists’ communities. This builds bridges between the urban middle class world of the filmmaker and the world of the film protagonists that may be quite different.

Making films, transforming relationships

For example, for the film How Green was our Valley (2009) the filmmaker Fereshteh Joghataei spent three years with a Bakhtiari community in the Iranian province of Chaharmahal and Bakhtiari. During this time, she came to share in the hopes, dreams and fears of this community, to understand their particular relationship to their land and their village in a river valley that was soon to be flooded by the construction of a dam. Many films on rural Iran focus on rural areas as sites of the preservation of ancient traditions, which are constantly under threat by the encroachment of modernization be it through tourism, urbanization or industrial development. The inhabitants of rural areas thus often stand in relation to Iranian urbanites as ‘ancient others’, essentially different, inhabiting a different socio-cultural universe very distant from that of Tehran. But through the process of making this film, Joghataei makes possible a new kind of relationship with inhabitants of rural Iran. She (and by extension the film’s audience) comes to engage with them as contemporaries, as fellow citizens, who inhabit rural areas but are also very much a part of national events, as the construction of the dam that contributes significantly to the national power supply shows. The villagers’ ethnic identity and traditions exist not outside this modern national order, but inside it. A number of villagers profited from the dam’s construction via the well-paying jobs it brought to the area. Moreover, as Joghataie herself commented in an interview, some of the village youth attend university in Iran’s major cities but return to the village regularly to participate in local rituals and festivities. Tradition therefore exists alongside and within the contemporary context; it is not some frail survival of ancient times, but something that villagers conscientiously cultivate and maintain as a socio-cultural value, as a part of who they are.
In my conversations with the filmmaker Mina Keshavarz, she spoke about various practices of film distribution in Iran. Since the censorship authorities keep a particularly close eye on films shown at major cinemas and artistic venues in Teheran and other major Iranian cities, filmmakers can opt to show their films at smaller venues in provincial towns. Such practices give filmmakers, many of whom as based in Tehran since this is where there is a vibrant artistic community as well as an infrastructure for artistic production, opportunities to leave that very specific socio-cultural context and to interact with audiences in provincial capitals and smaller towns. The Paris-based filmmaker Mina Rad also values engaging with diverse audiences as she shows her films at various venues. In her view it is not only that films in and of themselves capture different perspectives perhaps unfamiliar to audiences, but also that new perspectives are opened up through audience engagements with her work.
For Nahid Rezaei, as she discusses in her collaborative film project Profession: Documentarist (2014), the relationships between those working in the filmmaking profession – everyone from directors to sound engineers, cutters, etc. – are central to the filmmaking practice. And, she makes concerted efforts to facilitate and cultivate these relationships of mutual support and friendship. Particularly in the context of the difficult material and social circumstances currently prevalent in Iran, such professional networks and friendships as well as shared spaces of collaboration counterbalance the economic and social pressures weighing on the filmmaking and wider artistic community. The close-knit community portrayed by Rezaei in her contribution to Profession: Documentarist represents a counter-space of possibility for a kinder, mutually supportive way of being that is very different from the competitive individualism that is predominant in other aspects of Iranian socio-cultural life.

Filmmaking as ‘third space’

It was through Mina Rad’s film Persian Tales: Jean Rouch in Iran (2019) on the impact of French anthropologist and filmmaker Jean Rouch that I first began to engage with the idea of films not just as artistic products and objects of socio-cultural analysis but with filmmaking as an engaged and potentially transformative practice. Jean Rouch himself highlighted how the actual process of filming and the resulting interactions between filmmaker and film protagonists created a ‘third space’, a new shared reality distinct from that of either person. In his view, this new reality disrupted and destabilized the status quo, opening spaces to re-design and re-invent social reality. However, my initial conversations with the filmmakers who will be guests at the Istanbul edition of our film forum Iran at the Crossways: Documentaries and Dialogues on a Changing Society suggest, the transformative capacity of documentary filmmaking is much broader since it is not only in the actual act of filming, but throughout the entire production process that everyday realities are challenged, new perspectives and social relationships formed. I very much look forward to continuing this conversation at our next event in Istanbul from 20–22 January and hope very much to be able to welcome some of you readers as well into that exchange.


To register for the Istanbul edition of the film forum, which will be held  20–22 January 2022 as an in-person event at the Institut-Français near Taksim Square in Beyoğlu, please go to this website: Films will be shown in original language with Turkish subtitles. Sessions will be in Turkish or English with simultaneous translation into Turkish. Admission is free.
Please note due to current pandemic conditions we will request all attendees present their HES code and proof of full vaccination against COVID-19 at the entrance and that they wear an FFP2 mask at all times during the event. We hope to have an engaging as well as safe and healthy event.

Cited literature, further reading

Jamie Berthe (2018): „Disruptive Forms: The Cinema of Jean Rouch“, Studies in French Cinema, 18:3, 248-251.

Cristóbal Escobar (2017): „The Colliding Worlds of Anthropology and Film Ethnography: A Dynamic Continuum“, Anthrovision (Varia), 5:1,

Katja Rieck is senior fellow and head of the new research focus on Iran. She is also project lead for the Max Weber Foundation’s “Knowledge Unbound” subproject 2c “Iran and Beyond: Breaking the Ground for Sustainable Scholarly Collaboration (IRSSC)“, which is being conducted at Orient-Institut Istanbul. Her research focuses on various processes of social change as they are currently transpiring in Iran.

Citation: Rieck, Katja Documentary Filmmaking as Transformative Practice: Anthropological Reflections, Orient-Institut Istanbul Blog, 14 January 2022,

Iran; Islamicate World; 21st century; OII-IRSSC; film; documentaries; social change; anthropology


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