Avoiding Influence

“It’s up to you.”

In his individual interviews with students on the first day of class, Sol Worth emphasized that they should “make any kind of movie you want to,” assuring them that, “I won’t tell you what to do” (1).  In Through Navajo Eyes, Worth and John Adair explain that they

tried to teach our students only the mechanical rationale of the camera and the chemical rationale of film, and then observed how they went about using the box, what images they wanted to produce…(2).

They go on to say that when students asked if they could or could not do something in their films, for the most part,

we answered that they could do whatever they wanted to do. Sometimes we explained that something wouldn’t work, as, for example, if they loaded the camera incorrectly (3).

Richard Chalfen’s field notes reflect a commitment to this approach:

Al Clah later asked me how can I make it go backwards. I told him to experiment with the film like in upside down etc; he then asked me if it was okay to do this – Again I uttered what has now come to be the subtitle of our project “It’s up to you”…the film was his not mine (4).

“The teacher-researcher problem”

It is clear that the researchers were aware of how their own teaching methods might inadvertently influence their students. Worth wrote about one conversation between himself and Chalfen, describing how,

At one point I had thought very seriously of telling the Indians that there were 2 ways to edit. One could edit on motion, or one could edit on concept…Chalfen felt that they would still want to copy what the teacher did. I felt that it would be impossible for them to get the concept of, for example, editing on motion or editing on idea from watching what I was doing. If they do get that concept from watching what I am doing they are probably the most brilliant intuitive filmmakers that I have ever met (5).

At times, the researchers also wondered how many of their students’ ideas were truly original. According to Chalfen,

Johnny Nelson made an interesting change that I’m afraid I might have stimulated and promoted. He had a sequence in which he showed a shot of a faucet running water before a shot of Sol Worth pumping the well. I asked him if this made sense. He wasn’t quite sure so today he called me over to show me a change: he now had Sol Worth pumping the well, then the faucet with running water then just the pump handle then the second shot of running water out of the faucet. I couldn’t hold back my praise of this sequence. However I’m wondering about how much of this sequence I stimulated and how much Johnny Nelson did. Here is another example of the teacher – researcher problem and its inherent contamination characteristics (6).

In both in their field notes and in Through Navajo Eyes, the researchers discussed the conflict between the roles of teacher and researcher. The best-documented example of this conflict was a filming session at Sam Yazzie’s hogan. Mary Jane and Maxine Tsosie had planned to film Yazzie preforming a sand painting ritual. Worth was frustrated because Mary Jane was not filming the way he though she should. He feared that “he couldn’t allow the girls to fail in their depiction of this scene. It might make Sam and many others in the community angry” (7). Eventually, he filmed parts of the ceremony himself. Afterward, he reflected in his notes that

Being a teacher I naturally wanted the students to succeed. Being a researcher I was supposed to leave them alone to see what would happen. You don’t think that my motivation was so much one of wanting them to succeed, as not being able to stand somebody doing something poorly when I could help them do it better. I was, I suppose, doing more of a preacher role as well as the teacher role than anything else. I was the representative of the “right” way of doing things, and they were doing it “wrong” (8).

All three researchers considered this decision a breach of professional boundaries. Adair, concerned about the legitimacy of the project, wrote,

Sol told me that he had had to direct her closely, tell her just what to take, what lens stop to use etc. He said that when she started she was just petrified. That she utterly didn’t know what to do. That he could see her having to show this film back to Sam with no credible footage and this then being destructive to her and the project. So he said without knowing it, or rather not planning it that way, he found himself guiding her. He said that he had taken the close ups of Sam’s face when she asked how she could do such a shot. And sol told her to get down on the floor with the camera and look up. “Oh I would be afraid to do that” she said and “You take that one.”

I told Sol that I thought that that was wrong, and obviously showed that I was upset over his using the camera. I said that I thought this would be a point for criticism from those who would like to snipe at the bio-documentary approach used cross-culturally. I said that I thought the whole thing should be shot over again by Mary Jane and Maxine without him there. It was agreed that this was a good idea as the film would have to be shot again anyway as the sand painting had been destroyed before the patient was sung over…So it was agreed that Mary Jane shooting alone, with only me there was a good idea, that the contrast between what she shot without guidance and what she shot with guidance was a worthwhile experiment (9).

Worth was then faced with deciding how to proceed after overstepping professional boundaries. He wrote,

Although I felt bad about helping them, I couldn’t really agree with John all the way. We talked about this some more and John said he could very well understand the conflict that I was in. Being a teacher and being a researcher (10).

In fact, Worth described how this event had been beneficial to their research. He argued that he had shown how difficult it was to influence the students, as they had refused to follow his fervent and explicit instructions.

But since it had been done I thought that I might just as well try to make the best of it and try to use it in some experimental way…Here was a situation in which I had deliberately given them one way of doing things. If they did it this way a second time you could say that it was compatible with their cognitive structure, and that it was possible for them to learn it. If, however in a second situation they didn’t seem to show that they were doing it this way it was all the more evidence therefore that this was a way that was fairly alien to them. It seemed to me that this was a very nice little experiment to conduct, and one that we had talked about in Philadelphia with Actenberg and Chalfen (11).

It should be noted that Worth said nothing to the Tsosie sisters about including the footage he had shot in their final film. He wrote,

Dick just asked me if I had forbidden the Tsosie girls to use the footage that I had directed. I said no. I had not said a word to them. They re-shot the sand painting because sand painting had been erased and they felt they needed the same painting for Dick to sit on as the one they originally photographed. I never thought that they would use that painting because they originally said that they couldn’t (12).

A different set of rules

In Through Navajo Eyes, the researchers discuss their conversation with Edward Hall, an anthropologist.  Hall explained to Worth that,

For God’s sake, if it is so clear to you that they are doing it all wrong, it must be because they are breaking a set of rules which you have and which they don’t. Your job will be to make explicit the different rules you and they are operating under (13).