Feet Washing Sermon

(a lecture transcrit)

Immigrant and citizens, thank you for being here and letting me wash your feet. With this small gesture, let us commemorate the plight of people who cross borders on foot.

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Look at these birds – always on the move across the earth, the concept of border is unknown to them. They are ceaselessly searching for food or a place to rest or lay their eggs.

I want to express some of my views on walking, searching and on finding place.

Let us now look at images of people walking and attempting to cross borders in search of a new home.

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These people are mostly from Syria, and some are from Afghanistan and other places of conflict in Middle East. These images started appearing in Western media once the migrant influx climaxed in the Keleti train station in Budapest. Thousands of people started arriving daily and the trains could not accommodate them – the authorities shut down the trains to Western Europe while the EU was trying to understand whether it can accept these migrants.

I spent the past year living in Hungary, and would pass by that train station, now flooded with people, regularly. In Hungary, I participated in the opposition conversation, and a topic of discussion was the policy towards migrants and Orban’s plans to build a fence. Now these plans have come to reality.

Google Maps traces  a direct route from Syria to Hungary – it is 2700 km. Many people have walked from Syria on foot. Many have first gone to Turkey, a Muslim country,  and from there they went to the Greek Island Lesbos, and then a ferry to the Greek mainland.  From Greece they started walking. Information about the routes is exchanged online and in forums, and it is easy to get a smuggler to get you from place to place. However, the likelihood of death in these cases is high.


Take a look at this map.

From Lesbos Island (between Turkey and Greece)  to Budapest it is 1400 km. The images of the “river of migrants” started appearing this August, however, given the distance, most of these people have been on the road for 6 months or so. What is it like to walk for 6 months straight?

Then we see images with a fence, these are from Hungary, where the fence  was erected on Aug 31, 2015. We also see a train station, Keleti, in Budapest, where thousands were stranded because they stopped the trains to Austria and Germany. These people are in unclean condition – many of these people have been sleeping on the street for weeks. It is curious for me how little they have with them- a plastic bag, a small backpack. Where are the rest of their things? have they been lost or stolen? Have they abandoned them along the way as they lost their value and gained weight?

There were instances of true hospitality in Budapest and then, in Western Europe.  These were donations of shoes, food, diapers, and welcome signs in Germany. My university in Budapest organized a program to allow migrants to audit courses. These instances are very heartwarming.

I have become obsessed with these images, because to me they show the limit of our humanity. Humanity is something that has to be recognized in the other, it is not a given. It is dangerous not to recognize the humanity in others, because it is through this rejection that concentration camps are erected.

This plight is also personal for me, I feel inscribed in it. I am a citizen of Estonia and am myself a migrant and an immigrant. My mother and I left Estonia for America to search for a better life. I have a greencard. My life is filled with a constant negotiation between citizenship, residence, place and home.

While I was living in Hungary, my US Greencard was being sent to me, but it was lost in the mail and my Estonian passport was expiring. I had to prove my identity while not being in the country where I am a citizen or resident. In these cases, you have to be present in the place that you “belong” to retrieve these documents.  Finally the Hungarian embassy in Budapest agreed to issue me a stamp that said that i am a US alien resident and am able to board the plane to America. This experience was very shocking for me, separating place and home, citizenship and residence, identity and belonging and making them something that you have to prove.

I am here but am not from here. I am trying to go home, but I am not a citizen in that place, and where I am a citizen I am also an occupier, an oppressor. Between the stamp I received in Hungary, I felt an affinity  to the stamp you get as a migrant. As a migrant, you have to stay in the place where you are “stamped” because you then belong to that countries’ refugee policy.

I eventually made it to America. I did not have to swim across the Atlantic. When the Budapest authorities refused to board the people on the trains to Austria, these people decided to walk. Thousands of people walking on the highway. From Budapest to Vienna it is approximately 250 km on the highway. I have made that trip several times last year. I don’t know what its like to walk 3000 or 1400 km, but I walked 200 km- 50 km less- this summer over the course of ten days.

Before coming to Santa Fe, I did a pilgrimage on foot to Santiago de Compostela. It is a city in Spain with the relics of St James and one of the most popular pilgrimages in the world. About 300,000 people do it a year for different reasons. 300,000 is a small city, a number equally unfathomable as the number of migrants crossing Europe now. 300,000 people going to Santiago de Compostela from all around the world. Hundreds of thousands walking from Syria to Western Europe.

I want to tell you about my experience in relation to the “pilgrimage” of the migrants across Europe.

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You can start the pilgrimage from anywhere in the world, but the official “yellow arrows and shells” – the mark of the camino- start at 500 km from Santiago. I walked 200 km from Porto, Portugal to Santiago.

You try to prepare for the journey, but nothing can really prepare you for how heavy your backpack will start to feel, or how many blisters you will get – I’ve seen people’s feet that look like raw meat. In any church, you can get a pilgrim’s passport – a document that you use to mark your journey. Each destination- church, cafes, albergos can stamp the passport for you. Along the way there is accommodation for pilgrims which is “donation based”- just a mat without bedding – and in the busy months, these fill up, so after reaching your destination, you might have to sleep outside or continue walking. Some firefighters, police stations, etc accommodate pilgrims.

71 decomposing bodies were found in a truck on the highway between Hungary and Austria.  The wonderful thing about the camino, is that everything feels like it is happening for the best, and it has meaning as long as you follow the arrows – you might get lost and end up in a monastery with monks singing evening prayers who feed you a warm meal.

People tell you stories about miracles – many people come because there was a death or an illness that cut through their life, and they come to come to terms, to find meaning and their path. People understand that life itself is a journey – a migration. We are all displaced until we find our place in the world.

I’ve heard incredible stories of miracles and people’s lives being changed. The camino has an economy outside of capitalism. People are generous in a new way, and open their hearts to you, but also look for a gift they can give you – they look and listen to see if there is something they might be able to do for you. I gave a pair of shoes to a girl, people constantly exchange socks, water, food, someone passing me by on a mountain gave me his walking sticks. A woman gave me her pilgrim’s shell and told me to put it in the water for her, since she had an injury and would not be able to go on to Santiago.

I’ve seen people carry other people.

I crossed a border on foot between Portugal and Spain by simply showing my pilgrim’s walking stick and the custom’s officers shouting at me “Bon Camino!”. People along the way waving at me, smiling, offering me water.  No one ever asks where I am from, or what I do for a job – they just ask you “Where did you start?” and “What do you need?”

In Santiago, you use your passport to get a spot in a massive palace – it is a former seminary that can accommodate thousands of pilgrims. A luxury for one night. You recognize people you have seen at different part of your journey, embrace, cry and exchange stories. You feel part of a community, and through that, you feel part of the world.

I hope that the people walking through Hungary felt the power of their journey, exchanged food and made real friends.

I walked 200 km. My most memorable experience was of a man who washed my feet. He told me his story in the course of two days, about being molested as a child by his mother, then having inability to speak to people until late twenties, then becoming involved in radical movements and being a terrorist in the Middle East against the American presence there- he was shot at, had friends die, and spent time in prison. After he got out, he wanted to be a farmer, and so he became a farmer and a hunter in Sweden for 10 years. During this time, he went in the camino, walking for a month. When he reached Santiago, he realized that he can’t go back, and he flew to Sweden, sold his farm, and started walking from Sweden- it took his 6 months. Along this 6 months, he felt for first time that he had a place in the world, and he realized he can talk to birds. This man also told me that each day that he walks, he gets happier and happier. He is now living on the camino.

Who doesn’t have the right to have this experience of searching and belonging?

Most of all, I witnessed the potential of humanity blossom when a person finds their place.

I returned to Budapest to fly to America amidst this migrant crisis, which separates self from other, mine from yours. We live in a world that thinks that we don’t have enough, and we trace borders and capitalism helps us do that. For a short time, I experienced what is it like to be without borders and what generosity is, and it was hard for me to come back to this world. I witnessed a parallel, best possible world. Having returned,  I have faith that through giving we receive.

Here is an image of the shoes of migrants, abandoned somewhere in Eastern Europe and the shoes of pilgrims in the seminary in Santiago.

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I wanted to end with a prayer to St Francis, the saint who lived in poverty, gave everything away to charity and who talked to birds. Birds are a powerful symbol for me, because they are the epitome of migration. They circle around the earth, dismissing all borders always searching for a better place to eat and rest. I recall the image of Pope Francis washing the feet of migrants, and the prayer comes from the St Francis Cathedral in Santa Fe. These small things make me feel like I belong here.

“Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy.

O, Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love; For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; it is in dying that we are born again to eternal life”.

Thank you.

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They Grow in the Sand without Water

We know that around the year 900 a cluster of Native American settlements lived around what is today Santa Fe. Estonian Vikings conducted raids against Scandinavian tribes on sea.


Santa Fe de Nuevo Mexico became a province of New Spain in 1598. Thirty nine years prior, Bishop Osel-Wiek in Old Livonia sold his lands to King Frederick II of Denmark for a cart of gold.


In 1848 the United States gained New Mexico in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. As a province of the Russian Empire, Estonia experiences the Age of Awakening and the publication of the national epos Kalevipoeg in 1862.


In 1912, New Mexico became the 47th state of the United States of America. Estonian Declaration of Independence was issued in 1918 in Parnu.


Santa Fe is the capital of New Mexico. Tallinn is the capital of Estonia.


It is located 2,194 m. above sea level. Estonia is located 50 m above sea level.


49% of New Mexico is Hispanic. 25% of Estonia are Russian.


Originally from Estonia, I came to Santa Fe two days ago.

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“Borsch at my Godmother’s,” 2015 (9.2 min)

“Borsch at my godmother’s,” (9 min) is an interview based video that reflects on notions of  belonging and identity  through the political predicament of stateless people in Estonia. It is originally shot with Super 8 film and digitalized.

The project is part of the Faustian Deal series of interview-based videos with stateless people in Estonia from 2013. The interviews are edited and combined with footage from my own return to Tallinn after having immigrated in 2000. None of the films show the faces of the individuals, to reinforce the concept of invisibility.

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Faustian Deal: “”Borsch at my godmother’s,” 2015. Video, 9 min

Visual Anthropology final project, 1page film notes.

“Borsch with my godmother” is an experimental documentary set in Tallinn, Estonia. The project is part of my ongoing exploration of concepts of home, belonging, identity and invisibility in the region. The project is part of the Faustian Deal series, based on interviews with stateless people in Estonia that I put to video. The original footage is filmed with Super 8 film in 2012, to mimic the technology of the 90’s. It is then digitalized.

My film footage and personal narration are reflections of my own return to the country – my “home”- after twelve years abroad.

In this video, my own identity as an immigrant is meant to be in conversation with the immigrant status of the stateless people, many of whom are my relatives and friends. I am fascinated by the idea of becoming an immigrant without ever moving. Over the course of the interviews and conversations, I have come to understand how the experience of statelessness and lack of documentation can be a particular kind of identity, and for some, a form of spiritual protest against representation. In a poetic turn, I have come to conceptualize this experience as “invisibility” and a migration into one’s soul – the title of the project, Faustian Deal, is a metaphor of the negotiation with the Devil over one’s soul. As opposed to an immigrant living abroad, who can become a living stereotype of her cultural past, the “immigrants” in Estonia are somehow invisible, migrating into their shadows. Potentially, this is because the stateless individuals are primarily of the older generation, and the problem they pose in society will simply be solved with time. There is an urgency to my work that comes from these reflections.

My first Faustian Deal film, “Irina,” was 20 minutes: it was one single shot from a tram window and the voice of Irina, a stateless person in Estonia. As a psychologist and an activist, she was very political and self-reflexive. We had a 3 hour conversation, which I cut to 20 minutes.  The film was shown in galleries as an installation that mimics being on a tram, and is not meant for viewing online. My experience with making the first film was very difficult: I felt responsible to depict the situation in Estonia as an insider who has “made it out.” Making cuts was painful, and the choice not to show the face of the person was intentional: I felt extreme burden of representation in my choices, which limited me.

The second film. “Borsch at my godmother’s,” where I worked with footage from two years ago, was much easier to experiment with because I have had emotional separation from the subject. It is made of different shots which are combined together: the elevator does not exist in the building of my godmother and is inserted from another apartment, the footage in the apartment is manipulated to be slowed down, and the conversation with my godmother is extremely cropped. I have also inserted my personal narrative into the beginning over the footage of walking: I was aiming to create the sense of “return home.”  The identity of my godmother is manipulated through the manipulation of what she is saying and a coherence is given through the continuation of “kitchen” sounds. You do not see her in the film physically until her photo in the end: the portrait is painted with space and sound. I specifically chose things that were somehow jarring and put them close together in her audio narrative. I left her references to my name and other activity that shows place, time and my personal involvement. Several of my own things are scattered through the space, as I was staying on her balcony during my time in Tallinn.

My godmother is a very strong personality. Much of her conversation is abstract and about distant things: Muslims, Estonians, Jesus, Nirvana, etc: not about herself. It is a kind of schizophrenic identity, which I feel connotes a certain strong identity that is formed in reflection and in protest with her marginalized identity in Estonia, as a stateless janitorial worker.   I feel that she can be humorous is this representation, but it is also rich and strong reflection of her character, and is really a kind of intimate, rhizomic portrait that does not contain, but bursts out of the frame. My godmother is very shy when photographed and taping her would have been impossible.  Under the influence of the texts in the course, I was interested in creating a sort of subjective space for experience, and also a kind of space of becoming and embodiment – shared both by myself and the subject, my godmother. Space in Estonia is highly political, and I specifically wanted to make this space ambivalent, subjective and shared by contested narratives.

I think this film is more viewable than the previous, “Irina.” I aim to continue working with the subject, as I have 4 more interviews and footage.

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Appropriation of Anthropology by art and Art that behaves likes an anthropological subject Part II

Contemporary artists often appropriate anthropology. Performance artists from regions that have once been the subject of anthropologic “curiosity” in particular make work that is a reflection of their otherness. This type of work is usually in the performance genre and comes as an extension of identity politics fused with postcolonial thought and critique of global capitalism. One of my favorite from this genre are Pocha Nostra, the Mexican-American performance group:

They create engaging performances that appropriate the extreme versions of all the stereotypes about ethnic identity, and as such, offer a poignant and entertaining critique of the center.

Guillermo Gomez-Pena, one of the members of the group, has written several texts on the subject of identity and identity performance. For example, “The New World Border,” “Dangerous Border Crossers,” and “Ethno-techno.” Below is a link to one of their manifestos, from which I highlight some parts:

II Pocha live: A crosscultural poltergeist

Over the past years, perhaps our most significant contribution to the field has been in our hybrid realm of performance/installation. We create interactive “living museums” that parody various colonial practices of representation. This often includes the ethnographic diorama (as found in museums of natural history), the freak show, the Indian trading post, the border “curio shop,” the sex shop/strip joint window display, and their contemporary equivalents in global media and corporate entertainment. We “exhibit” our highly decorated bodies sometimes as “specimens” from an endangered tribe or “border saints” from a persecuted religion. We surrender our will to the audience and assume composite identities dictated by the fears and desires of museum visitors and Internet users. The composite identities of our “ethnocyborg” personae are manufactured with the following formula in mind: One-quarter stereotype, one-quarter audience projection, one-quarter esthetic artifact, and one-quarter unpredictable personal/social monster. These “artificial savages” are cultural projections of First World desire/fear of its surrounding subcultures and the so-called “Third World Other.” The live performance becomes the process via which we reveal the morphology of intercultural fetishes and the mechanisms propelling the behavior of both our “savages” and our audiences.


Prior ro Pocha Nostra, Gome-Pena collaborated with scholar and artist Coco Fusco. They made one of the most iconic performances in the history of the genre, The Couple in the Cage. In the performance, they posed as aboriginals in a cage of Natural History Museums. The work explored the reaction of the visitors. Personally, I find the work to be cruel because it is made at the expense of others, whereas Pocha Nostra’s more recent work collaborates with the audience and is not made at the expense of any ignorant, old white men.

Looking at this work, as well as many others, and reading about the participatory turn in anthropology and activism within anthropology- such as Enjoy Poverty and Cannibal Tours – I see a clear conversation between the two “genres.” I wonder why the appropriation of anthropology by performance art is not included in the syllabus of visual anthropology?

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Appropriation of Anthropology by art and Art that behaves likes an anthropological subject

My initial interest in anthropology started through art. I recall how I was at an exhibition in a museum in Chicago and was given a tour by one of the curators. As we passed from room to room, the things that the curator highlighted in the works were color, size, placement – plus the artist’s biography. Insight about color – “it is a very unique shade of pink” and other parts of his narrative were combined with the words “interesting”… “amazing,” etc. But I simply did not understand how this particular color or size can evoke such amazement. These references always seemed banal and irrelevant to me because they were not human and could not fully be embodied or experienced.

Untitled, 1969. Brass and fluorescent plexiglass on steel brackets

The Donald Judd sculpture above is a perfect example of a piece of art that would evoke such a conversations: one discusses the pristine nature of the shape itself, the us of light. etc. Many other artists, in particular from the American post-WWII school by way of Minimalism and through today are of this sort of conversation. This conversation was pioneered by critic Clement Greenberg and centers around the idea that the subject is completely autonomous. Placing this subject into a narrative or emotional engagement devalues the work. I can respect that theoretically, but it has always been disgusting to me on another level.

During this tour, as well as during many other experiences of this sort, I always wanted to throw up. This conversation about color and size would make me feel nauseous. I also noticed the air-conditioned sterility of the place, reinforced by the white walls. It was like a mental institution or a mausoleum: dead items were displayed and the corpses were considered in terms of color. Have these people ever been subjected to seeing Lenin decaying softly in Moscow to perfect air-conditioning? The nausea came from the persistent thought that this is how people were once talked of when they were sold as slaves…

Art for me has always been alive. I have always experienced it as alive. Perhaps this nature of my relationship with art comes from early childhood “conversation” with icons (which persist to this day), perhaps it is a more mature conviction that comes from my spiritual and ethical relationship to the world. I have always felt a certain inadequacy in life but a repulsion for death at the same time – art was the overcoming of death and a means to integrate myself through art into the aliveness of the world. Instead, I was often given something that was either irrelevant and boring on one end – or a form of slavery on the other.( Or else it was ironic – also a popular option.)  And it was not in the object itself, this sterility, – almost any object can be breathed life into by Doctor Frankenstein or a shaman. Of course, as an art historian, I would not subject objects that are cleraly part of a certain tradition of autonomy to  this resuscitation.

The methods and ethics of anthropology I have applied to my consideration of art more than people. For example, I had a long academic infatuation with the Brazilian artist Lygia Clark. Clark was a philosopher and part of the Brazilian Constructivist movement. She started with minimal, geometric paintings, but she was always interested in transforming the plane and pushing through it. You can see hints of this in the work below. This led her to make multi-dimensional work, then sculpture and eventually to make sensorial objects for the human body to wear.

Superficie Modulada – Lygia Clark

Lygia Clark. Bicho

Essentially, Lygia Clark has felt that the “plane” (canvas) was an oppressive placement, and she was driven by the emancipatory impulse when she “freed” her subjects from the plane and into sculptures. She was always agaisnt showing work in white gallery spaces. Her sculptures, such as the Bichos (middle) were meant to be touched and re-shaped: there was no correct way to place them. When asked by curators how to place the bichos, she famously replied that “ask the Bicho, he knows!” These objects were alive for her and she wanted them to be used to enable an emancipatory experience for the spectators- to transform them from spectators to participants. Clark was under the influence of phenomenology, postcolonial though and psychology at the time; her later works are objects to be worn by people ( especially somehow disabled people) to have inner experiences. The objective is to use the art (and let the art use you) to emancipate your subjectivity. Lygia Clark must have been a terrific lover.

In my work on Clark, I have stressed the aliveness and emancipatory potential of her art. Instead of a proper academic engagement, my presentation was modeled as an extension of her ideas: I tried to create an experience through the shape of my physical paper and my use of language. And I do not think that my work was then “art;” no, it was speaking about something with due respect to their ideas. To represent something by illustrating how it functions. The concerns of anthropology – especially as pioneered by MacDougall, Gardner and Rouch fold into my engagement with art and my ethical commitment to letting  the subjectivity of the works reveal. I am also very interested by the participatory turn in anthropology and the discussion on the representational role of the medium.  I am not familiar with any art historical scholarship that achieves such a  goal and I am also unaware of the degree to which speaking about objects as if they were human is frowned upon: but I do know that last month a monkey was deemed to have subjectivity in a Brooklyn lab and released into the wild by court order. I also know that the controversial Documenta 13, curated by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, was dedicated to the post-anthropocentric engagement with the world.

Most crucially, I loathe the possibility of contributing to the static or authoritarian representation of something -I am looking for ways to enable work to speak for itself, or somehow become a part of it and live by its rules. The Malinowski romanticism is very present here : I believe in time spent with work, and believe that with time, and intimacy can develop with any object: you will have a conversation. And the meaning of art is not for it to remain art on a pedestal, but to let it change you, and you in turn, change it. And we see that great, lasting works of art achieve this experience: they have an inner tension that is catalyzed in an encounter with eyes and context. This is also why I object to the given model of art viewing – where you peruse a museum as if it were a shopping mall. Ethically, I think one should only see one work at a time for it to be about the work, and not just the pleasure of your eyes.

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Between Invisibility and surveillance

Some of MacDougall’s methodology effectively reflects upon the seemingly incommensurable divide in anthropology “from the viewpoint of a disinterested social scientist” and “indigenous social actor.” The problem with film as medium for recording is that one has to decide whether to take it for reality or not. This decision is loaded with the contested hierarchies in anthropology: analytical versus experiential approaches to observation. MacDougall believes that these need to coexist and that a multidisciplinary approach helps integrate knowledge back into society and works against “intellectual and moral tunnel vision.” MacDougall encourages anthropologists to stand on the verge of their disciplines and … to jump.

MacDougall is interested in representing the subjectivity of a person in his ethnographic film. However, he asserts that subjectivity is “both a product of the work and quality we assign to the work, always subject to revision and rereading.” Beyond a specific individual or a specific culture, MacDougall wants to capture the changing construction of the subject within its changing relation to the social. His film Gandhi’s Children is an illustration of his methodology and ethics;

Gandhi’s Children. 2008. David MacDougall, India/Australia 185 min

Gandhi’s children follows a single child, who is new to the orphanage, through his acclimatization to the new surroundings and people. Sometimes the shots are brutal in their honesty, which enables the viewers to experience the emotional world of the child more intimately. The film is shot low to the ground, capturing the experience of the kids. I think MacDougall succeeds in creating films that are in line with his thinking; many of the shots allow the subject to become and remain somehow stay un-captured. There is also nothing about the film that focuses on the exotic or the different- although the poverty is stark, the representation of identity negotiation in folds into a universal human  knowledge.

Frederick Wiseman’s Titicut Follies, an expose about the patient-inmates at a Massachusetts hospital for the criminally-insane, has a different approach. Wiseman’s subjects are static and caricature-like: the viewer never identities with them and we are isolated from their emotional world. The film offers many close-up shots of faces that are somehow grotesque. The subjects change and reveal themselves through interaction and performance – it is also a social system, but it is closed and isolated in a way that makes it seem predictable and determined.  Access to Wiseman’s ethics is not immediate: through the conversation between a prisoner and a prison guard in particular, the viewer starts to doubt the perspective of the film. The film is successful because it manages to make the viewer doubt the classification of sane and insane in an experiential way and offers a critique of the system without any explicitly imposed analytical criticality.  I found the film to be brilliant.

Titicut Follies (1967) Frederick Wiseman, 84 min.

There is a “surveillance” component to Wiseman’s films which is reflected in his interest in closed spaces. Individuals in these spaces always become caricature-like and they perform.  For instance, in his film High School   is filmed from the perspective of a real “fly on the wall,” before extensive editing of the footage. Unlike MacDougall, Wiseman diminishes the individual humanity and subjectivity of his characters for the sake of the performance itself. His films train the criticality is experience-based observation.

Titicut Follies (1967) Frederick Wiseman, 84 min.

Gandhi’s Children. 2008. David MacDougall, India/Australia 185 min

MacDougall, D. 1998. The Subjective Voice in Ethnographic Film. In MacDougall Transcultural Cinema. Pp. 125-139. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

MacDougal, David (1998) Visual Anthropology and the Ways of knowing. In MacDougall, Transcultural Cinema. pp. 61-92. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

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