As the majority of you probably know, and the rest of you will know by the end of this sentence–I have a degree in anthropology.
When I started Pedal Powered Anthropology, I thought for a while about what I would “call” myself. Anthropologist didn’t seem to quite fit, although it wasn’t inaccurate. I wasn’t a “documentarian” or “documentary film maker,” although more and more that latter part is coming to the forefront.
I billed myself as a Researcher and Anthropological Educator, because I’m not really out in the field (at least not my field of choice, but more on that in a bit) and I’m not teaching anthropology courses. I mean…I don’t even have an advanced degree. So to mitigate the guilt and imposter syndrome, I’ve qualified myself as an “educator,” which can be as amorphous as I need it to be without demeaning the life’s work of good friends of mine who are better anthropologists than I’ll ever be, even when I come to have several consonants added to the end of my name.
I have a pretty strong research background, and during my undergrad I completed two different thesis projects…and one “thesis-like thing” in English lit. I expected making documentary films to be kind of close to the research experience I had…and to some extent I couldn’t have been more wrong.
My honors thesis was in biological anthropology. I consider bioanth to be my specialization within anthropology, such as I can have one at this stage of the game. It’s been a life long passion and most of my time has been spent romanticizing and reading about the field. Quite a bit less time working in it, however.
To give you the gist of my thesis–I measured the bases of the skulls of different nonhuman primate species to get a general understanding of the kinds of variation seen within and between species.
The reason for this was because we find things that are fossilized and have a desire to categorize them. If you find two skulls that look kinda similar, how do you determine whether they’re the same species or not?
Well…by understanding the ways in which individuals vary in making up a species, and how one species varies from another. It’s one thing to be like “that one’s bigger,” it’s another thing entirely to know what, if anything, that implies.
The research portion of this project, once I had read up on the relevant science, basically consisted of me sitting in the basement of a museum and recording several thousand measurements taken from the base of several hundred primate skulls. 15 linear measurements (point A to B) and 2 angles. On hundreds of individuals.
The data collection spanned a little over two years. It was then transferred from my laptop to my desktop, transformed into a monstrous spreadsheet, and crunched in a bunch of different ways to statistically compare variation between and among my different data sets.
As I could, throughout the entire process, I was writing up the thesis paper part of it. It wound up being I think 47 pages, of original science that was built off of a framework of what other scientists have done. From there I had to create a 45 minute presentation.
What I’m doing now is NOTHING at all like that. For the most part.
Take Rhode Island’s Industrial Revolution, for example. All that stuff already happened. The research was so much different it almost felt like cheating. I picked the topic of the Industrial Revolution…well, really I picked the topic of the 1922 textile strike and generalized to the Industrial Revolution for historical context. But people have been researching and teaching about these things for a long, long time.
My job was to create a framework of several critical points within the theme of the Industrial Revolution, and build a narrative based on that.
In this case, the subject of the narrative wound up being a bike path. It sounds stupid, I know! But my first feature-length documentary can be boiled down to the history of a 19 mile bike path in central Rhode Island.
But the story of that path is what humanized the story of the Industrial Revolution. The path connects you to history. Revolutionary War heroes were there. Abraham Lincoln was there. People lived and died to create and reinvent this country on that path. There was no better conduit for this history than a public path. And no better way to make it Pedal Powered Anthropology than just plain old anthropology.
The creation of the railroad and development of the different towns along it, the transformation of labor and the massive strike in 1922, with the Great Depression and subsequent disuse of the railway…it’s all right there. I could have picked a family or an individual worker, but the railway was there through it all and still there today.
I had the additional benefit of stumbling across the National Register of Historic Places database for Rhode Island and finding out that nearly every stone of every textile mill in the state has been measured and researched for significance and put into documentation with historical maps, photos, and written descriptions of each building with time periods of significance and development along with the surrounding area. And it’s all been digitized.
I could find a mill, and type “Arctic Mill National Register” into Google and have hours of reading and studying without any other effort. It was serendipitous.
And I’m finding that historical documentaries seem to be able to be broken down like that.
For another example, and one that I have no business referencing in relation to me, take Ken Burns’ Civil War.
Again…all that stuff happened. I don’t know what his research process is or was, but for over a century, people have been researching and writing endlessly on the topic of the American Civil War. There are countless experts on all aspects of the conflict. There’s a lot of information.
So you can take the Civil War, break it into key points and create your rough framework.
From there, he chose the lives of Elisha Hunt Rhodes and Sam Watkins as the general narrative. Why? They both enlisted early on and were Privates at the start of the war. They both survived and their experiences are well documented. Rhodes through his diary and letters, Watkins through his memoir. Rhodes fought for the Union while Watkins fought for the Confederacy.
Their detailed accounts allowed Burns to correlate their activity to pivotal moments in the war, while also allowing him to elaborate on unique aspects of their lives. He humanized both sides of the conflict. Rather than a drudging recount of the war, you see both sides through their eyes.
The endless amount of experts and historians meant there were no shortage of people to interview. He had his narrative, he had his plot points, he had experts that could further elucidate every aspect of the war.
I’m not saying it’s easier. It’s still time consuming and tedious. But the “real” work is in creating your story. Don’t mess that up. A poor story draws nobody in, even if your information is excellent.
The film production part is pretty tricky, but “decent” filming with clear audio can go a long way. I’m pretty good at this point, but far from “professional.” I use equipment that’s accessible to most people and get excellent results. But I focus on my writing–that narrative.
Then the other “real” work is in making it a useful film.
For Rhode Island’s Industrial Revolution I had hours of footage–mostly of different takes of my talking segments. When you do 3 takes of a single 20 minute segment, it adds up quickly. I took hundreds if not thousands of pictures and downloaded/scanned countless others.
You’ve got to edit the audio, toss it all in your video editing software and start chopping it up. I had the added benefit of it being broken up by very clear segments. Rhode Island’s history, Slater Mill, The Onset of the 19th Century, The Rise of the Knight Corporation. They all almost stand alone as far as content. I could edit it a bit at a time without getting overwhelmed.
In all, I spent about 1,100 hours on that film. But really, it took only about 8 months from concept to completion. By “completion,” I mean being screened at the Museum of Work and Culture to a standing room only audience. I’m told that seems fast. It didn’t feel fast at the time. The accessibility of the National Register databases meant that I was attached to my research at all times. I ride to work on that old rail corridor. So my commutes could be transformed into filming. I could stop along the way, meaning I could film on location at the epicenter of the 1922 strike.
It was a really convenient project for me to have chosen as my first film. But that’s the point!
Pedal Powered Anthropology is supposed to show you–you specifically, not the royal you–how to do this. How to walk outside and look at anything. A style of architecture, a name on a street sign or school, an old church–anything. And turn that into an anthropological education.
I spent a summer in the Kenyan bush and made a close friend from Ethiopia for whom that landscape is his back yard but who wishes to see the sunset over the end point of the bike path that I put off riding for months on end because I get sick of it sometimes.
Those places that evoke an emotional response…those are relative. I spent a significant portion of my life trying to get somewhere that wasn’t a big deal anymore for someone who is now a good friend of mine. With Pedal Powered Anthropology, I hope to bring others to that realization as well.
Through making documentaries, I’ve connected to a lot of people. I never expected to. I never even expected to be making documentaries. I described my first video project as “documentary-style.” I didn’t think of it as a short documentary because I didn’t think of myself as a documentary film maker. But at this point, I apparently am.
Compared to the research I was more familiar with, amassing the information I need for the film seemed uncomfortably easy. But with making documentaries…that’s not the hard part. I could just dryly explain to you everything that happened and you’d never bother with my content again.
In creating a documentary, I’m taking the data and information that’s already available and distilling it into a narrative–a story. My job is to bring that history to life and make you see and feel and experience its presence in culture today. I have to draw you in.
In some ways it feels “easier.” In some ways it feels harder. In some ways…it’s both. It’s just different. It’s no less important or valid. Either as research or end product.
It may not be what I expected…but at almost a year and a half in, with almost a dozen videos published, one on DVD (and currently going to a second pressing!), thousands of images and a whole mess of written content that I’m only getting better at.
I’m getting a lot of feedback, all the time. I’ve got people telling me what’s a good idea and what’s on the stupid side. I’m building a network of people who know about me and my work and who want more people to know about what it is that I’m doing.
That means that eventually, someone else is gonna wanna do this. I’m not worried. There’s so much to study through the lens of anthropology that nothing anybody does can ever be considered competition. Even if you did the same project I did, you’d probably have a different take. And you’d probably do it better than I did, anyway.
So do it! Get curious about what’s around you and go find out about it. Tell me about it when you do! It might not be at all what you expect to find out, but I promise it will be awesome.