Going native: the art of ethnographic filmmaking

Coffee with Ethnographic Filmmaker Bruno Moynié

Peeps Talk Speaker Bruno Moynié took the time to meet with us and share some experiences from his life and his work at a small Italian Cafe near his Toronto office…

“When I was a student, I was studying the Senegalese community in Paris, and my thesis teacher came to the bar I was hanging out in, which was a hub of Senegalese culture, to see my work. And I remember, she said to me: ‘You’re not integrated, you’re assimilated!’ And this was not a compliment in her mouth. There is a term for that in ethnography: you went native.”

Going native is a controversial thing in the ethnographic community, however it is something of a calling card for Bruno Moynié, Toronto/Paris based ethnographic filmmaker and the founder of Monde Moderne (a firm that creates ethnographic films for marketing or design research). When asked what his opinion on it is, Bruno answers decisively: “I love going native! If I could go native in many different cultures I would! To me it’s like having many lives.”

It is not surprising that a young boy growing up in small, traditional town in Western France, where his only encounters with diversity were in the movies, would seek to experience “many lives” in his work as a man. This passion for the exotic, placed alongside a magnetic personality and an ability and desire to fit in and be accepted in any environment—“One thing I have as a talent is that I’m a social whore.”—are what make Bruno a successful ethnographic filmmaker.

To Bruno, ethnographic filmmaking is the art of immersion, the ability to accept and be accepted by the people you are filming. “Whatever practices you want to learn about, there are two ways to get that: by asking questions or by observing it. It is way faster to ask questions of course, except for me it is less relevant than to spend a week with you, not ask you single question, and observe you. You get more valid insights.” Bruno follows in the footsteps of one of his teachers, the father of cinema vérité, Jean Rouch. “Cinema vérité is a fly on the wall school of documentary filmmaking. Not interviews with nice lights, but getting to a point where people forget that you are there.”

When asked about the products his films generally focus on, Bruno emphatically states that he does not deal with products, he deals with people. “What I do is much more about the lives these people are living, rather than the relationship with the product. The subject is never the product. The subject is how do people relate to their identity—and through that to the product.” While we may all relate to products through identity, this appears to be where our similarities end. Bruno has found that the way that people relate, even to the most universal products, varies greatly. “Things you assume are universal are not,” he says, giving food as an example. “When you are starving, you will not relate to food the same way as someone who is not hungry. However, past this there are many different ways that people relate to food. This blows my mind on a regular basis!” With all these variations, how do you design a product or campaign that will satisfy such a diverse market? “I look for the commonalities. Sometimes a small insights can change the whole thing.”

Bruno’s love of “going native” is easy to understand when you meet him. He is present, lively, and above all, interested. Interested in you, interested in the person you’re with, interested in everything around him. He wants to understand what makes you tick, and you can imagine him applying this to his work in the field. He describes his work as existing somewhere in between science and art, and it would appear that something magical occurs in that transactional point: an opportunity is created to share in the life of another. The insights that Bruno is able to provide to us may not be hard science, but there can be no doubt that they have great potential to affect the behaviours and beliefs of his clients. No one expresses this better than Bruno himself: “I try to create art with my work, but its relationship with science is quite incestuous, promiscuous.”

Written by Aliah El-houni, Peeps
Photography by Nation Wong, Peeps

Bruno Moynie is one of a handful of bona fide anthropologist filmmakers working the market and design research industry. He holds two Masters degrees, one in Social Anthropology from Aix-En-Provence University, France and on in Ethnographic Film from the University of Montreal, Canada. He is a Frenchman based in Toronto and Paris, however his work takes him all over the world. To see his work at his website: www.mondemoderne.com

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TAGS /ethnography; Bruno Moynié; Peeps Talk /