Fictitious Chronologies

Shortly after we left the field, we mounted some prints to represent a general account of our early period in the field. When we attend to the actual chronological order documented in the field index and the linear ordering of the contact sheets, we find fascinating discontinuities and reversals of "expected order."

For example, in Roll 001 the "natural sequence" or "expected order", which is the order in which the photos are mounted, would seem to be 1) arrival of the plane, 2) unloading the cargo, and 3) meeting the people. A glance at the contact sheet, however, shows that the first thing which happened after we landed was our meeting with the Maring men who had come to help us carry our things out of Simbai. It was only the next day that our cargo plane came in and we unloaded it. So what we use as the first image, is, in point of fact, one of the last to be photographed during our two days in Simbai.

It is fascinating to note that nowhere during those first two days did I think of photographing the patrol post or the mission station or any of the Europeans who staffed those little outposts of civilization.

A "discontinuity," what is, in fact, a total ommision from the record, is spotted by Marek, who was particularly familiar with the usual "economic" course of events, i.e., after local people helped with any major activity, there was always a gathering at which they were paid. In scanning the contact sheets for our house-building, he was surprised to find that it was not followed by a scene of paying. The scene which is used in the mounted set to represent the gathering for payment comes from some days later, after a new cook house had been built.

It is very easy to "cheat" in ways like this. But calling this kind of rearrangement of order "cheating" brings us up short in a conflict between "fact" and "fiction". All representations are selections from the welter of observable life. As long as the selection criteria are kept clear at all times and are appropriate to the goals of the final presentation, whether "scientific document" or "popular ethnographic film" or "coffee table book", it is not necessary to judge "fiction" as less "appropriate" than "fact". Maintaining absolute chronological order is crucial if one is doing research to understand how human interaction functions. In this case, each detailed "fact" must be kept sacrosanct. The subsequent communication of conclusions, however, requires a more general ordering and selection from among the research data.

Selection comprises the responsibility of authorship, whether of artistic communication or scientific communication. A sense of proportion is crucial in this regard. I remember Margaret Mead making an impassioned statement in regard to a criticism which had been aimed at a film showing the destruction of Navajo grazing lands. The criticism addressed the use of footage which the critic recognized as from another, though similar, area. As far as Mead was concerned, in terms of a film which was communicating an important message to the public, such criticism was gratuitous. She exclaimed, "Fiction is often closer to the Truth than Fact." (Margaret Mead Film Festival in 1977 (I think))

July 16, 1996

Last modified March 17, 1999



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