Michael B. MacDonald Films

Filmmaker-ethnomusicologist and associate professor of music at MacEwan University in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. Check out my film and writing pages.

I also offer a filmmaking workshop.

Contact: Michael B. MacDonald, macdonaldm226@macewan.ca



studies in film ethnomusicology 

As a graduate student I was drawn to surrealism and made short experimental films on music topics that focused on being a musicking being and how film methods might be used to report on affect, especially as it is informed by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, where artists create affects “block of space-time”. With the guidance of Federico Spinetti and John Baily I began to develop ethnographic and documentary film techniques. An ethnographic film is a form of an anthropological documentary film about culture, about people doing interesting things together. Unlike the documentary film that has a lineage in propaganda films and lecture films, ethnographic films tend to be more observational and the best of them are also recursive, they assist the viewer to see themselves embedded in a culture that is also embedded in an ecology.

I see some forms of ethnographic film as an extension of existentialism into film. Existentialists have commonly employed art as a way of forwarding their philosophy. From Dostoyevsky to Sartre, de Beauvoir, and Camus the novel and play made a contribution. Filmmakers like Jean Rouch (cinéma vérité) and Les Blank (cinéma vitalité) continue and expand this lineage by adding an ecological element. I locate myself here, exploring a form of ecological existential filmmaking that connects Michael D. Jackson’s existential anthropology with ethnographic films about music cultures located in an ecology.

 Film has an impact on the viewer’s experience differently than print.  I experiment with editing to communicate other kinds of research outcomes that have traditionally been marginalized by print publishing, like affect for instance. Helping the viewer not only learn facts about Others people but to feel closer to other people.

Music can be studied from a great many perspectives. As information, as meaning, as technology, as history, as material culture, as economy. I take an existential approach to music research and ask how music is used to give meaning to people’s lives. Since music has been a part of human life for all time, what role does musicking play across evolutionary time? And instead of trying to theorize I dwell in the particular, to tell many ethnographic stories about lived music experience.

I am heavily influenced by Christopher Small’s Musicking,  in particular, his use of Gregory Bateson, and have been working out the consequences of musicking for music research. But I realize that these authors do not inquire after the individual experience.   While Small introduced the work of Gregory Bateson into ethnomusicology, Bateson’s work has been developed into biosemiotics and cybersemiotics as a way to get ‘above’ the two-culture problem, the divide between humanities and science. To this end, I am working to fold-in a cybersemiotic mode of analysis into existentialism for music research that will help explain the work that ethnographic film does, or can do, and in so doing the role of the screen in culture.

ethnographic fiction

Jean Rouch’s exploration of ethnographic films led him to develop ethnographic fiction, research based fiction films that are improvised along with members of the culture he is studying. He called this method participatory anthropology and was eager to create a form of humanist filmmaking that lived up to the radical ideas of the Russian filmmaker Dziga Vertov, a cinema based in reality. I take two approaches to ethnographic fiction. The first following Rouch, is improvisational and collaborative and draws from the ideas of Paulo Freire. The second is influenced by Michael D. Jackson’s existential anthropology and is a fiction film form. This second form turns ethnographic research into a research film using the conventions of the screenplay that present a situation. I am working to understand the learning potential of filmic situation through praxial philosophy.

film screenings as situations

With the extension of the cinema into everyone’s living rooms and pockets (through your phone) the possibilities of filmmaking to share knowledge about our lives in our shared world has increased exponentially. However, the control of Hollywood over the telling of stories has also increased. Stories driven by profit and stories driven by humanist concerns are often two different kinds of stories.  The critical part of my project is the sharing of films and filmmaking practice, the development of critical film praxis that puts our stories into circulation.

If you are interested in hosting one of these workshops send me an email: macdonaldm226@macewan.ca

Beyond the Screen: Academic Writing

I have published a bunch of academic articles and three books on popular music and critical pedagogy  and am currently working on a critical pedagogy of film book:

  • “Playing for Change: Music Festivals as Community Learning and Development” (Peter Lang, 2016)
  • “Remix and Life Hack in Hip Hop: Towards a Critical Pedagogy of Music” (Sense, 2016)
  • “Finding Phish” (Peter Lang, 2018)