Posted by: | 24th Nov, 2020

To Walk in our Ancestors Footsteps

For some time now I’ve been engaged in coastal alpine research in Laxyuup Gitxaała (Traditional Territory of Gitxaała Nation). These trips have involved harvesting mountain goat wool, experimenting with winter access, and more generally learning what one would need to do to live for extended periods in the coastal alpine.

This short film takes the viewer to Gitxaała’s coastal alpine and shows us as we walk in our ancestors’ footsteps.


Posted by: | 23rd Nov, 2020

Moving into New Facilities!

Update: November 23, 2020.

After early two years of discussions, planning, applications, and then construction, the new purpose-built digital production space for The Ethnographic Film Unit @ UBC is now a reality. Due to the ongoing pandemic we won’t be able to physically use the new space for some time. However, things are moving forward and furniture is soon to be moving back into the rebuilt space. While the new lab was primarily envisioned as production facilities for the Film Unit, other members of the department will be able to make use of the new space as well. Currently a new working group for the Digital and Virtual Media Lab is getting set up.

As part of a retention agreement, the Faculty of Arts and the Dept of Anthropology committed to rebuilding the production facilities of The Ethnographic Film Unit. This was in part to ensure that graduate students could have an above ground main floor lounge in the former film unit lab. The Film Unit is now the primary occupant of the rebuilt space.  Space surplus to the Film Unit will be available for use by the emerging Digital and Virtual Media Lab Group.

The Film Unit remains as separate digital film production unit of the department. People who wish to join the unit, or use the unit’s equipment, may do so as per the details found at The unit remains pleased to share equipment and space.

It is envisioned that the Film Unit will be a partner in the newly emerging DVML Group and play a role on a steering committee to coordinate access and activities of the régroupment.

Update: August 26, 2019.

After a year of applications, waiting, discussions, negotiations, and just more waiting; the good news. Funding to accomplish the renovations for the Film Lab have been approved!  Work is scheduled for summer 2020.  In the meantime the film lab remains in AnSo 2306. Two years from the date of the department head’s first request to repurpose the film lab to having funding approved for creating a suitable purpose built space for the lab that ultimately provides a win for all concerned. The first idea was a displacement of the film lab with no suitable replacement space offered. Glad to see that with determination and discussion equitable resolutions that respect all parties can be achieved.


ANSO 2306:  Film production lab

ANSO 118, 120, 128, 129 (individual small rooms adjacent to one another with connecting doors):  Lab of Archaeology Archives Collections Processing and Storage Area

After Renovation:

ANSO 2306:  Graduate Student Research Lab

ANSO 118, 120, 128, 129 (renovated into one room):  Film production lab

Proposal:  to renovate an adjacent series of under-utilized small rooms in the lower floor of the ANSO Building (Rms. 118, 120, 128, and 129) in order to transform them into a single larger video production lab for undergraduate and graduate video production.  At the same time a room currently being used for video production (2306) will be renovated and converted into a graduate student research space.

The good news is . . . our project has been approved – – we have signoff!

Great news for the Film Unit. We will be relocating into a purpose-built space in the next little while. The current lab has served its purpose well, but is essentially a long room not designed with collaborative film production in mind.  A confluence of unrelated events and processes has made the move to upgraded facilities possible.

Opportunities are indeed located in disruption! Over the quiet summer months administrative staff in the department and faculty were engaged in their regular review of facilities.  The faculty of arts, in particular, faces a serious problem of lack of adequate space for research, teaching, and social activities. As our faculty grows, our facilities have not kept pace; many of our buildings are long overdue for renovation and replacement. AnSo Building, a former women’s dormitory built in the 1950s, is sorely in need of repairs and can barely meet the needs of the departments of anthropology and sociology.  Administrative staff were exploring ways to find efficiencies in facilities use and identify areas where renovations would make a difference.

At the same time, the Department received a list of requests including one that has been a longstanding area of concern for graduate students in anthropology: more usable, safe, and effective social and study space. Given current building configurations there isn’t really any spare space around.

That’s where the two processes came together.

The Film Unit has needed better purpose built facilities for some time now. Graduate students need a place to meet and work in the department. The administration was already working on renovations to improve research and teaching spaces in the building. This created the perfect moment to make changes to meet all of these various needs.

The Film Unit is excited with the prospects of a new purpose-build lab within the AnSo Building that will clear the way for a new social and work space for our graduate students.  The transition won’t happen overnight. There is a lot of work to do first. The great thing is that we will be able to meet the needs of all concerned in a respectful, dignified, and just manner.  The Film Unit will be better able to serve the needs and interests of the wider community with the renewed support of the department and university. Students will have a place of their own. The university will have found a way to respect students and faculty at the same time.

Originally published September 11, 2018.

The Ethnographic Film Unit is one of several faculty run labs based in the Department of Anthropology at UBC. These labs are focussed around individual faculty members’ research interests and often support graduate student research and, when able, the research of other faculty and students on or even off campus. The place of laboratories as units of research is more common among our colleagues in sciences, but as our long-standing history of laboratories in the Department of Anthropology shows it is not something foreign to us.

The ethnographic film unit had its roots in a Forest Renewal of BC (FRBC) funded extension project in 2001 (FRBC was a provincial initiative dedicated to high quality applied research related to forest dependent communities and enhancing BC”s forestry sector). The objective of our extension project was to organize youth oriented workshops that drew upon a previous FRBC project (First Nations Involvement in the Forest Sector, 1998-1999). In the middle of planning the workshops we stumbled upon the idea of trying to create a more lasting impact then simply holding a youth workshop. What emerged became an integrated set of high school lesson plans, short documentaries, and a special issue published in the Canadian Journal of Native Education. A lot of mistakes were made with this first foray into filmmaking, but the experience laid the basis for what became a decade long collaboration between myself (C.Menzies), filmmaker Jennifer Rashleigh, and UBC alumna Dr. Caroline Butler.

Right from the start the Ethnographic Film Unit has been a production and research unit funded solely by research grants. While it would have been wonderful to receive some form of core institutional funding we have never been successful in securing dedicated funds to operate the ethnographic film unit. This creates a lot of administrative and logistical headaches. When funding is in place we gear up and more gets done; when there is no funding, things are mothballed and projects drag along waiting for the next grant. This kind of funding makes it difficult to provide any kind of more generalizable services beyond the immediate core of the unit. Just the same over the years the film unit has tried to meet the needs of others when possible and, as we were made aware of them.

The core idea behind the ethnographic film unit was a desire to link Indigenous sensibilities to anthropological practice in collaboration with members of participating communities. Elsewhere I have described the three kinds of films we have produced: traditional narrative documentaries , community videos, and video vignettes. These three very different kinds of filmic voice can be produced with relative ease today given the flexibility of digital editing, sampling, and resampling. This makes it possible for us to take a stance –in the form of our narrative documentaries and simultaneously release control of the narrative via a community driven video or even more radically by spinning vignettes free for others to sample, reorder, and contextualize according to their own whims.

The core team of Rashleigh, Buttler, and myself has led most of the film work we have produced, but not all of it. Dr. Jennifer Wolowic directed For Our Street Family  while a master’s student in the anthropology graduate program. Her film emerged, in part, out of her field school project in a course taught by Butler and myself in 2007 and was a central component of her MA research.

Dr. Denise N. Green, already an accomplished filmmaker her own right before she joined our doctoral program in Anthropology, embedded several films directed in collaboration with Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations communities exploring textiles, language,  identity and Aboriginal title while a member of the ethnographic film unit: Mamuu : To Weave/To WorkTsawaayuus – Rainbow GardensYacpanachshi-althin (Let’s go for a walk)Histakshitl Ts’awaatskwii (We Come From One Root).

The course Ethnographic Film Methods (ANTH 478) has been taught by members of the ethnographic film unit five times. Each time the students work in collaborative production teams to produce short ethnographic videos. The films from the first two sessions were produced as DVDs. A selection of films from the latter three sessions are posted to vimeo. The topics of the films range from local shopkeepers to organize gardening to performance and political activism. The course itself is unique in that rather than being an abstract critical theory or intensive technical course it is instead a hands-on production course tailored to those interested in learning through doing. Students are always advised though, that if they want detailed technical instruction or high theory they need to seek other courses as that is not part of this course.

Membership in the film unit is restricted to students working directly with myself or to those working with other faculty participants in the film unit.  Equipment is often shared with others as requested and where feasible rental charges are forgiven. Advice is always free. Collaborations are encouraged across units and projects.

The journey of the ethnographic film unit at UBC has not been smooth. With our start in a major extension project in the late 1990s through today we have needed to navigate the various reefs of inadequate funding, criticism of our Indigenous framework, misunderstandings of what we can do, and wonderful successes despite all of the obstacles. It is an amazing feeling to realize that with a bit of effort, a sense of the possible, courage to keep moving forward, one can indeed produce and direct films that resonate with one’s Indigenous community of account that challenges the whitestream dictates of a major settler research institution.

Posted by: | 7th Apr, 2015

8th International Festival of Film

Main Screen Features. April 12, 2015. AnSo Building, rm 207.

10:15 OIL & WATER is the coming of age story of two boys as they each confront one of the world’s worst toxic disasters, the prolonged contamination of the Ecuadorian Amazon by Texaco and other oil companies. Hugo comes to America to fight for the survival of his tribe, the Cofán, while David goes to Ecuador to launch the world’s first company to certify oil as “fair trade.” Can Hugo become the leader his tribe so desperately wants him to be? Will David clean up one of the world’s dirtiest industries? Eight years in the making OIL & WATER is a shocking and inspiring David and Goliath story.

11:30 JIKOO, A WISH. The inhabitants of Bakadadji, a village located in a Senegalese national park, are trying to finance fencing to secure their fields from protected species of animals that ruin their crops year after year. In doing so, these farmers are claiming recognition for their rural way of life, to which they are deeply attached. Reflecting the village’s everyday reality, this film talks about a meeting that does not actually take place, as well as how we view rural society, whose voice is barely heard.

13:00 THE WEIGHT OF GOLD. Ten million artisanal small-scale gold miners in 70 countries around the world. I had never heard about their existence, yet my father devoted his career as a Mining Engineer trying to help them. Ten years after his death in a car accident in Bolivia, where he was working on a project to reduce mercury contamination caused by artisanal small-scale gold miners in the Amazon, I embark on a journey to understand the flip side of his numerous work trips. I discover the man my father actually was, through the every day lives of Bolivian miners working and dreaming to the rhythm of the international gold price. They are the actors of this modern gold rush, a reality that is feeding the economic instabilities of our times.

14:30. TAIGA. The Mongolian economy is growing because of a mining boom, ancestral traditions and values are evolving as new relations develop between man and nature. Like most nomadic shepherds in Mongolia, Purejav is a hunter. Tempted by easy money and by revenge, he declares war on a pack of wolves constantly harassing his herd. But the old man becomes aware that he is violating an ancient pact between man and nature…

15:30. TOKYO BLUE, The place beside the river. About twenty years ago, a tent city of about fifty homeless people took root on a small green space next to the River Arakawa in Tokyo. They call their home Kasenjiki, the place beside the river. They have all adapted to this way of life, far from “normal” Japanese. But it is coming to an end. Kasenjiki is going to disappear…Takeda-san has gone away. He could not stand the idea of being expelled from what was his home, a tent in Kasenjiki. Before disappearing, he left me a letter asking me to make a good movie. I can only hope to have fulfilled his wish…

Posted by: | 28th Apr, 2011

Travel and Displacement

The idea of travel captures our imagination; it opens up possibilities of change, adventure, and perhaps even personal growth.  But this is travel that is planned, intended, and carried on for fun.  What happens when we are compelled to travel or find ourselves displaced within our own homeland?  Three films in this year’s international Festival of Anthropology Films take up the question of travel and displacement.

The Strangers of the Inca Trail takes us into the world of youthful trekkers – Australians, North Americans, Europeans, coming together to form a brief and tenuous community as they walk along the ancient Inca Trail.  As they go a traveling they sing, play, dance, and explore their personal relations.  This is a pause from their normal lives, which they will return to.

How very different is the story of Faith Kim (alias) a North Korean woman who travels through China, Thailand, Laos to eventually arrive in Syracuse, New York in the film Voice Unknown.  Her journey takes years, not the days of the young trekkers.  It is a life-changing journey through which she too comes face to face with the nature of her personal relations.  Yet, the enormity, decisiveness, and irrevocability of her travel is so fundamentally different as to question the reasonableness of comparing her travel with that of the young trekkers.  But perhaps what is the same in these two journeys is Faith’s attempt to enter the same place, the same social and cultural place, within which the young trekkers live; a place in which travel for pure pleasure is a reality and not simply a dream.

The story of Guests of Space involves a different type of travel.  Here we are looking more at a sense of displacement.  The indigenous Nukak Maku find themselves transformed into strangers in their own home.  It is as though they have been compelled to move, to leave their home.  This is a persistent issue for Indigenous peoples; that is, to find themselves displaced from their own homes by people (perhaps people such as Faith or the young trekkers) who are re-imagining the social landscape in ways that erase history and culture.

These films screen May 1, 2011 at the Old Barn Community Centre as part of the 5th International festival of Anthropology Films

Guests of Space screens at 11:50 am.  Voice Unknown 1:00 pm.  Discussion to follow.

The Strangers on the Inca Trail screens at 1:40.

Posted by: | 27th Apr, 2011

Death and Social Custom

Issues of death and associate customs have been on the minds of many people who live in the University Neighbourhoods areas of UBC.  The University’s longstanding attempt to bring a hospice for the near to death onto campus ran up against the cultural values and sensibilities of a group of residents living in a high rise complex called Promontory.  This wasn’t, however, the first time the hospice has faced opposition from campus groups.  Previously, UBC students, allied with the Wreck Beach Preservation Society, raised concerns about the first planned location for the hospice – near to St. Johns College and the Marine Towers Residence on Marine Drive. The students and their allies were concerned that having dying people near them would extend what they called UBC’s Campaign Against Fun into their front yard and student residents would find themselves under the control of the silence police – late night parties and other sophomoric celebrations would need to be curtailed.  So the university retreated, regrouped, and then relocated the hospice to a site literally under the shadow of Promontory in the Hawthorn Place Neighbourhood.

The issue for Promontory residents involves more than a recreational annoyance – but strikes to the core of cultural sensitivities – both of these mainly new Asian immigrants AND of well established settler/immigrant communities.  This issue also picks up longstanding racialized antagonisms and themes that have dogged BC politics since the early days of settlement.

But what is it about the issue of death and the way we deal with it that evokes such strong responses from human beings?  In an amazing book about death in Brittany, anthropologist Ellen Badone talks about how death was medicalized and separated from daily life in rural Brittany through the 20th century.  In her account, something was lost by hiding death away in sanitized medical institutions that looked more like factories than places for people to live – even if they were soon to be dead.

Amongst north west coast Aboriginal peoples there is a strong sense that the dead must be treated with respect.  Along the north coast of our province the dead were placed on platforms in trees or, if a person carried a strong or potentially dangerous spirit, in caves on cliff faces or on islands placed at some remove from the village.  Yet, the dying did so amongst family in their homes – not in isolation or seclusion.

Two films in the 2011 Film Festival feature social customs around death and dying.  A Japanese Funeral brings us on an intimate journey with the family and friends of a young man who passed away suddenly in his sleep.  In Loving Memory brings us into the sitting rooms of a series of Irish women who talk about and show us their collection of memory cards received and given at the occasion of the death of a family member or friend.  These are two very different worlds  -one Japan, the other Ireland, yet they are united by a concern with how one lives with death and remembers the ones who have passed away.  Despite the differences in place and culture we grow in our understanding of the importance of living with death as a part of life.

These films screen May 1, 2011 at the Old Barn Community Centre as part of the 5th International festival of Anthropology Films

In Loving Memory screens at 11:00 am.  A Japanese Funeral at 11:25.   Discussion to follow.

The ethnographic film unit at ubc has formally been in existence since 2005 and informally since 2001! We had our start in research-based videography and have long since morphed into a full-time digital video production unit.

For nine years we hosted an annual international festival of anthropological film at times co-hosted with MOA  and at times co-hosted with the University Neighbours Association.  Every few years we  teach a course in ethnographic film production, ANTH 478.





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This work by The Ethnographic Film Unit is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.5 Canada.