Skip to Content
Taking Pictures cover image

Taking Pictures 1996

Highly Recommended

Distributed by First Run/Icarus Films, 32 Court St., 21st Floor, Brooklyn, NY 11201; 800-876-1710
Produced by Les McLaren and Annie Stiven
Directed by Les McLaren
VHS, color, 56 min.

College - Adult

Date Entered: 11/09/2018

Reviewed by Patricia Sarchet, MLS, State University of New York at Buffalo

A 1930s black and white clip of Papua New Guinea (PNG) people opens this stunning documentary film. We never see the photographer, a white Australian explorer. The people in front of the camera are not actors yet they are acting. Victor Turner called life a performance and we are all in the play. In a documentary film we expect reality and yet only get a glimpse of what we want reality to be. The question is, are the people playing to the camera or is the action real? Is it part of reality or a play?

The directors/producers of Taking Pictures, Les McLaren and Annie Stiven, give us a powerful reflective look at documentary film making in PNG by Australian and PNG film makers between the 1970s and 1990s. The discussion running through the film is about the ethical ramifications of film making in other cultures and in one's own.

When the Austrailians began filming in 1970's PNG was still a colony of Australia. PNG received independence in 1975. The film makers wanted to portray people of PNG the way they really were in everyday life. They were convinced that the colonial powers had not portrayed the people accurately for political reasons.

The colonial films had English speaking narrators and were filled with colonial politics. In the new film the people spoke their own languages with English subtitles and included native politics, or so the film makers thought at the time. Actually, the independent indigenous people of PNG had been assimilated into a western form of capitalism and their politics were a mixture of native and colonial.

Many of the Australian film makers worked in collaboration with anthropologists, but this film does not deal with the collaboration or the anthropologists. It is a film about documentary creators, both foreign and indigenous, coming to understand what film is, what it does, and how it works.

Are the new film makers doing anything different from the colonial film makers? It is a complex problem, and the answer is difficult and ultimately filled with more questions,.

The two producers are different in some ways but the same in others. The film makers choose what to film and in many cases what will be edited. Even the indigenous film maker must choose what to film and what to leave out, yet is what is left out important? The lens is always clouded with cultural and personal bias.

Robin Anderson, an Australian film maker, noted that, "The filming part of documentary is more like the writing the script in the drama situation. I mean you are virtually living in a sort of film script. Here you are surrounded by all of these people and you've got to kind of be there and try and assess which of these people and what situations you want to film." Filming in any culture, even one's own, is never easy because one is always confronted with the question what is important what is not, what is valid what is not, who should I film who should I leave out? Bias is always a film maker's nightmare.

For anyone interested in film and the people behind and in front of the camera this is a great view of what it means to be on either side. For those interested in cultural ramifications of documentary film or ethnography this is more than a glimpse into the lives behind the lens and in front of it. I would highly recommend this film for college/university undergraduates, graduates and faculty.