I’m a huge fan of the documentary maker Louis Theroux, as his work often has a very ethnographic flavour to it. While he famously choices “weird” and often highly distasteful subject matters, he shares with ethnography the attempt to empathise with his subjects, that make his films more than voyeurism. Rather than encouraging the viewer to point and judge, his seems to be trying to understand the world in the way his subject understands it – even if he doesn’t agree. And that, ultimately, is what anthropology is about.

I’ve been watching his documentaries again recently and trying to use them as ways of thinking about doing ethnography – as a kind of foil perhaps. Given that I think so highly of them as a form of (very popular) communication and education, what do they have in common with ethnography, and what are they lacking? Given that in a documentary you see what in ethnography would be both the data gathering (fieldword) and the presentation (publication of a final work) stages at once, watching them provides some food for thought on both how to relate to subjects in order to find out something about them, and how then to present what you’ve learnt to a wider audience.

(All this in in the context of the fact that I’m reading the fantastic book “Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes” right now, which is a bit like ethnography bootcamp. Its full of insightful but sternly phrased instructions on what one must and must not do as an ethnographer, most of which I had never even thought about before. Its seriously whipping my ass.)

I’m starting with Louis’ documentary on African hunting holidays, which I think is one of his weakest films, while paradoxically one of the most interesting subjects. While there was a lot of good stuff in there, I was left with the feeling that it was too complicated a subject for him to handle. That in this case Louis’ own view point made him unable to explore the issue from a different – and ultimately more interesting – angle.

The 45 min long documentary follows Louis as he spends a weekend on various South African ranches where wild animals have been bred in order to be hunted by US tourists. We see him talk to a couple of hunters from Ohio, as well as various South Africans involved in the business. Louis is obviously highly distressed throughout the entire process. He can’t get over the fact that the animals are being killed, and when at one point he tried to bring himself to join in and shoot something himself, he backs out at the last moment.

The impression Louis seems to want to make with this documentary is that there is something really fucked up about shooting wild animals for sport, when the animal is practically domesticated and you are shooting it point blank with a very powerful gun. The problem is that this is really not that insightful a point. Most people viewing this film probably already share the same opinion, so we are not really learning much that is new. What I wanted to learn more about was why, then, do these US guys (and girls) want to do it? While Louis keeps asking them, he never gets closer to an explanation other than that it just feels amazing. At which point I read into the situation my own interpretation – that there is something about that adrenalin rush we see in their faces after they “make a kill”. That its not so much about a sense of skill (because there is barely any involved), as a sense of power.

But I don’t know whether that’s the case or not, because its never asked or explored.

Other more fundamental questions were raised though, that seem only unintentionally to have come up. And by ‘unintentionally’, I’m refering to the moment when one of the ranch owners gets really pissed off and starts telling Louis he’s asking all the wrong questions. While Louis keeps going on and on about how pretty the animals are, the owner points out that they would kill him if he got too close. Louis says isn’t it sad they have to die, and the owner replies that Louis doesn’t think its sad that cows and chickens die in far worse circumstances. Louis asks in a sad voice whether the owner likes animals, and the guy finally explodes that his country is “fucked”.

His land used to have orange trees and cattle, but that’s all gone. This is all the sells. The animals they are standing looking at were on the verge of extinction, and thanks to his work raising them for hunting they’ve been saved.

As the program ends Louis is still getting weepy about the pretty animals, but I’m left with more sympathy for the owners of the ranches who he has spent most of the program trying to run down. I might possibly be able to understand why someone would want to shoot an animal for sport. But I think I would find that person revolting. I think I can understand why someone would want to turn their failing agricultural business into a successful tourist industry, by switching from breeding domestic animals to wild ones and throwing in a hotel. And I don’t really have Louis moral repugnance to that.

Which then throws up the entirely unintended question of, why does Louis Theroux have such an issue with the whole set up? What image of the urban liberal is he projecting, that he can’t look at an animal without seeing Bambi?

So if this were an ethnography with the luxury of being able to spend one or two years doing fieldwork on this topic, rather than a 45 min documentary based on 3 days of research – I guess I’d start with the following:

    There ought to be more attention to context. What are the bigger social conditions in South Africa that have made farming so unprofitable, and tourism so attractive?
    How come he only ever talks to the owners of the ranches? Who are all those (black) guys we see working doing the driving and beating and skinning and hauling… What do they have to say?
    So those US hunters – what’s with them? So much of the kill seemed to be focused on getting a good photography. They kept using the word “trophy” without anyone asking anything about what that meant. How come its mostly men (and young men, given that the older ones all said they “grew out of it”)? Asking some deeper questions than “don’t you think its mean” might help get a little more insight.
    In this case – and this isn’t usually the case – Louis couldn’t get over his own issues enough to listen to the people he was studying. What is that saying about Louis’ own conceptualisation of animals?

I don’t think this was Louis Theroux’s best work, but it did get me interested in this topic. Next up to watch – plastic surgery!