Visual Anthropologist in the Director's Chair

Times Staff Writer

Daniel Marks spent the last year filming the day-to-day drama of Los Angeles County Sheriffs pitted against South-Central L.A. gang members. The resulting film, "Gang Cops," is the kind of documentary that could go over well on TV and possibly create a demand for its producer.

But Hollywood is not getting its hands on Marks. The 24-year-old USC student is a visual anthropologist, one of a new breed of scientist who uses film to study the customs and institutions of humankind.

Before visual anthropology came along, documentary films were usually made by film makers who knew little about anthropological data-collecting procedures. And those anthropologists who occasionally did use film didn't have the technical training to create a high-quality product.

Years of Disrepute

Now, at the 3-year-old Center for Visual Anthropology at USC--one of the first such centers in the world--students like Marks are learning to adapt Hollywood-style cinematic skills to the detailed, slow-paced work of an anthropologist.

After years of disrepute, visual anthropology's "day has arrived," said Gary Seaman, an associate professor of anthropology at USC.

Because the discipline is still in its infancy, USC visual anthropology program director Timothy Asch and others are concerned that visual anthropology keeps true to its aims. The idea is to have film serve anthropology, Asch said, not the other way around.

If an anthropologist goes commercial, he or she risks making a glossy feature at the expense of accurate reporting, Asch said--although some feature films such as "Tokyo Rose" or "Rebel Without a Cause" have been anthropologically significant.

Asch himself has remained true to his first allegiance--anthropology--in the course of making more than 70 widely screened films on anthropological topics.

While filming the Yanomamo Indians in Southern Venezuela, for example, he elected to record 60 individual events--an ax fight, hunting crickets, etc.--rather than create a narrative film. The unconnected episodes provide more anthropological data than a film with a storyline might, he said.

Asch, 55, was first attracted to photography as a young man when he apprenticed with still photographers Ansel Adams, Minor White and Edward Weston.

In 1952, he enrolled in his first anthropology course at Columbia University. While the professor told the class he disapproved of the use of film in anthropology, he showed them several ethnographic films that Asch found intriguing. The films spoke louder than the professor's objections, and Asch began his training as a visual anthropologist.

A Frivolous Sideline

Asch said his professors warned him that he wouldn't graduate if he insisted on pursuing this frivolous sideline to the true science of anthropology.

Only Margaret Mead, who was then instructing at Columbia, supported Asch, he said.

According to David Givens of the American Anthropological Assn. in Washington, Mead was one of the pioneers of visual anthropology. "Some of the biggest names in anthropology did work in visual anthropology," Givens said, "for instance, Margaret Mead with her studies in Bali."

But until recently, film was considered academically suspect, Asch said, and was tolerated only as a supplement to the real work of an anthropologist: writing papers.

Givens said that since his association formed a separate visual anthropology society in 1984, this attitude has been changing. Practitioners of the new discipline are now "highly thought of," he said.

USC's master's program in visual anthropology was inspired by the late anthropologist Barbara Myerhoff and other USC faculty members who believed that since observing without bias is the crux of anthropology, film could only allow anthropologists to observe more fairly--and thus be more successful at their work.

Another advantage of film, according to Asch, is that it can be played back again and again until a previously inscrutable behavior is deciphered.

For instance, Asch once filmed a burial ceremony in Bali. One part of the ritual appeared to consist of a man lighting a match at the foot of the grave. When he replayed the film, however, Asch found that the ceremony actually involved the cooking of a meal in reverse--including the lighting of a stove at the end of the meal--to satisfy the topsy-turvy demands of the spirit world.

USC graduated its first batch of visual anthropologists this year and at least one student believes the world will be the better for it.

"If you have faith in anthropology and some faith in film as a medium, then training a cadre of people who know both is a powerful thing to be doing," Daniel Marks said. (Besides Marks' "Gang Cops," other USC student films look at the homeless in Venice, Chinese shamanism, the Portuguese-American community, the Peking Opera and other topics.)

Marks said his fellow students are not motivated by money ("anthropologists live off piddling little grants"), and that they tend to be idealistic, believing that if they can capture societies exactly as they are on film, viewers may realize that people are more alike than different.

Somewhat Idealistic

A person has to be somewhat idealistic to endure the difficulties inherent in this sort of film making, Marks said.

One tale of fieldwork woe: when Asch was filming in Venezuela, the aluminum boat he was riding in sprung a leak and eventually sank, freeing film packets and sound tape to float away in the piranha-infested waters.

Marks encountered his own share of frustrations in filming "Gang Cops." He and his partner Thomas Fleming wore bullet-proof vests during filming and had a bare-bones crew of two--while across campus at the film school, he said, students work with "a crew of 26, and someone to make coffee." (The USC School of Cinema-Television and the journalism department contribute to the training of visual anthropology students.)

Marks said there are always problems trying to capture unrehearsed events. "With fictional films, you tame life, control life, and try to keep the camera still," he said. "In anthropology you let life roll and you have to film around it."

Some anthropologists argue that the presence of a camera alters the situation being filmed, said Asch.

"But whether you're there with a camera or not you're changing the situation," USC professor Seaman said.

Marks said that he didn't find the camera to be much of a liability in studying gang life. For the most part, he said, the people in the streets of South-Central L.A. had more important things to worry about than a couple of young men with cameras.

Before venturing out with a movie camera, Marks and Fleming spent the better part of a year researching their topic. They rode with every gang detail in the county before settling on a particular outfit, they said, and spent long hours learning the language, the written and gestural symbols and the organization of the gangs.

During the 15 months of filming, Marks said, "We were working off our local knowledge." Because things happen fast in the streets, he added, they had to know at every moment where to look and just what they were looking for.

Asch, who had no formal film training when he began his career, is excited by the potential of people like Marks who have adopted anthropological ethics in addition to being trained at one of the most respected film schools in the world.

But film making and anthropology are each demanding disciplines and it is still unclear whether visual anthropology will be a successful hybrid.

"I'm wondering if these students can do both," Asch said.

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