Michael Yorke

Dr. Michael Yorke is an anthropologist, photographer and documentary filmmaker. After hitchhiking in India in 1962 he decided to become an anthropologist, specialising in South Asia. He has always wanted to engage people in the understanding of the ‘other’ which is evident in his work and ethnographic pieces on tribal culture. His films and visual anthropology have explored subjects such as Hijras, The Raj Gonds and Sadhu Holy men, among many others. With many broadcasted with the BBC Anthropology Unit and Channel 4. He later taught digital filmmaking at UCL and is now retired. Michael is an active member of the Royal Anthropological Institute Film Committee and has been on the jury for many film festivals such as the London International Documentary Film Festival.

PM – Michael, you were a photographer first, then you studied anthropology and went into ethnographic film? 

MY – I was a professional photographer for 3 years then I got fed up with that lark. I went hitchhiking in India and became fascinated by India. When I came back and started reading about anthropology, I decided to go to Edinburgh university and study it. When I did my PHD I made a totally personal film which didn’t get broadcast. Later on, a great colleague of mine, who is an anthropologist joined the BBC and set up the ethnographic film unit. He knew I was an anthropologist and filmmaker, so he brought me in and the first film I made, was nominated for a BAFTA. So that was me being an anthropological filmmaker.

PM – What was it called? 

MY – ‘Dossers’ on vagrant alcoholics living on the streets of London. I had already done an undergraduate thesis on this at Edinburgh university, and a masters.

PM- What’s been your most interesting research or fieldwork that you’ve taken part in?

MY – Well there were two major fieldworks. One amongst the Ho tribe, a Mundari speaking tribe in India. And then later, as postdoctoral research, amongst the Raj Gond tribe in India. In a sense the Ho tribe was much more human, passionate and exciting. Perhaps less intellectually fascinating, than the Raj Gond tribe, who are hardly a tribal people. They are highly complex, they have feudal kings, and a feudal system and they governed themselves. They had forts, armies, collected rent, they were a highly cultured advanced tribe. They had a complex ritual lifestyle. They were also politically motivated; their land was being alienated. They subsequently became communist Naxalite revolutionaries, who were controlling about a quarter of India. They prevented the government from doing anything in their patch, as they thought the government was managing their economy and their culture badly. In that sense, the Raj Gond were more interesting. I went back and revisited them this February. Foreigners had been forbidden for 30 years to enter the area, because it was too insecure, so I was not able to go back until now.

I went back to the most stunning reception. I met people who I had worked with 40 years ago. It was quite extraordinary. I was able to exhibit my photographs and films, amongst the tribals and in Hyderabad. There is an annual tribal gathering which happens in February, when about 600,000 tribals all gather in one place for a major ceremony. The government put on a huge film screening of the film at night and there are about 3,000 people watching it. It was a big success.

PM- What kind of films do you make?

MY- I made ethnographic films, almost all of them in India. I’ve done one on Hijras (eunuchs, intersex and transgender people), I’ve made one on the Raj Gond, one on the fisherman of the Coromandel coast and another on the industrial workers in the steel mines. My last film was with the Sadhus, the holy men of India. I did a Channel 4 Series on the Kumbh Mela Festival. It’s a major pilgrimage and the largest gathering of human beings in the world. 50 million people jumping into the river Ganges together.  

PM- That sounds amazing! How do you use anthropology to inform your filmmaking?

MY- Well the fascinating thing with anthropology is that it has become an intensely, intellectually, head oriented, theoretical subject. Whereas filmmaking is fantastically down to earth, where you have a duty to both your subjects and your audience. You have to be an interlocutor between two cultures, and you have to be talking, what I would call entertaining common sense. Which is not the direction that I think modern anthropology has taken. Now it’s only talking to itself, instead of addressing a wider audience. 

My motto as an ethnographic filmmaker, has always been about empowering the indigenous voice. If you make a film amongst an indigenous people and take it back to them, the service you do in giving them pride in their own history and culture and their indigeneity is fantastic.

PM- Any books that inspired you to become an anthropologist?

MY- The main anthropology book that I adore and was an inspiration is called ‘Return To Laughter’ by Eleanor Smith Bowen. It’s about an anthropologist that went to live with a West African tribe and is about her relief after finishing her fieldwork and coming back to London and understanding the sense of humour of her own culture, that the indigenous sense of fun that she hadn’t understood while doing fieldwork.

PM- That’s a really nice and reflective way of looking at anthropology. Any key books that you would always take on your travels?

MY- Maybe the old English classics. Or a really thick book like War and Peace which I took when I went to tribal India. I got through it a few times. When you’re living with other people, you can become unbelievably isolated and removed from your own culture. It’s a most marvellous thing to return home through a book. When you’re abroad and are reminded of the culture of your indigenous society. Otherwise you go mad quite frankly. Probably why many anthropologists have ended up in mental hospitals because you literally suffer from cultural schizophrenia!

PM- Do you have any books, articles or journals that are a must read for you? And why? 

MY- At the moment the must-read is everything that Haimendorf, my professor and mentor, wrote about the Raj Gonds. All his books on India I inherited from him, and I’m going back to his writings from 40 years earlier than me. I followed in Haimendorf’s footsteps and became like the ‘son’ of the man who was the Nizam’s tribal advisor. He helped install the new policy of inalienable land title deeds. So land can’t be transferred out of a tribal person into a non-tribal person’s name. Land alienation was one of the reasons for the Raj Gond’s Naxalite Professor Haimendorf had actually instituted measures to protect them from land alienation. Louis Dumont’s books on tribal kinship systems in India are also a must read for me and all of Charles Allen’s books on India are great. 

PM- Do you have any book recommendations for documentary or ethnographic filmmaking? 

MY- Yes. ‘The Corporeal Image’ by David MacDougal. He’s a good friend of mine and makes great films. 

PM- Any of your own films that you are truly proud of or that were a real learning experience? 

MY- I think the film on Hijras (Eunuchs – India’s Third Gender), fascinated me and was a huge success. They are the most fascinating group of human beings. I had the most astounding access through various people who’d been involved with Hijras. The Hijras have always been the most fascinating for me as an anthropologist, and there’s an enormous amount of transgender people in India. Hijras can’t inherit land because they’re not seen as men in the patrilineal inheritance system. They can’t marry because they’re not seen as women. They are neither one nor the other in functional terms. They are people who have to live by their wits and their intelligence. They become fantastic imbibers of the old tradition and mythology. As an anthropologist looking to understand another culture, I always found them the most informative intelligent people and have they have always been my lead informants whenever I have been in India. They loved an outsider coming in and being analytical about their culture. They are very analytical intellectual people. In a sense, it wasn’t a big learning experience because I actually knew a lot about them. It was deeply satisfying to go make a film with them and become really involved with them. 

PM- What’s your favourite style of filmmaking? Do you prefer observational or documentary or ethnographic?

MY- When I first started off, I was terribly shy, frightened and young. I always kept myself in the background. I have discovered the more films I’ve made, that actually the most important aspect of the film, is your process of discovery as a filmmaker. Perhaps one of the strongest narrative structures you will give a film is that process of discovery and coming to an understanding. When you’re making a film, you are coming to terms with something and that should be one of the guiding narratives and part of the storytelling elements of anthropological filmmaking. What you’ve learnt, what you discovered will keep people watching if they’re engaged with it. The very last film I made, that was never made for broadcast was on Hindu holy man, the Sadhus, and the whole film was me, trying to understand the nature of Sadhu. I was understanding as I filmed, and I’m talking about it as I film and then finally the narration was structured around my attempts to understand this extreme lifestyle they have. 

PM – So you have to give a bit of yourself?

MY- It is exploitative and dishonest to hide behind the camera. Not that I ever came in front of the camera, but how can I put my presence? My presence as the filmmaker is evident throughout the film. That is being much more honest, and much less exploitative than simply observing something out there and hiding yourself from your audience. So, I’ve had a slow conversion from being observational to being participatory. 

PM- Have you got any books / research coming up?

MY- Yes, a photographic book that’s being published in India for the tribes I worked with.  

PM- Have you changed your bookshelf before this interview? And why?  

MY- We’ve just moved into this house, they have all been completely rearranged as we moved in here. I have two bookshelves. In my study is where I have all my own personal India books and original films. There’s a shelf of film books, India books, philosophy books. And within that they’re totally disorganised but I know where everything is as it’s organised chaos.

PM- This is a controversial question. Which is your least favourite book and why? 

MY- A lot of modern theoretical writing, it’s so jargon laden that I can’t get beyond page 20. I find most extremely modern anthropology unreadable. I find it can have its head up its own arse! I just can’t make head nor tail of it. But then there were some of the early really weird theoretical books by Levi Strauss on structuralism. It took me three goes before I began to understand what it was saying. Then it was incredibly valuable and I became very theoretically oriented for a brief period in my life with structuralism. That phase has passed now. Now what I think is most valuable is rock-solid boring old ethnography. I.e. not theoretical anthropology. And the book I’m doing at the moment for the tribe back in India is rock solid anthropology, ethnography. Well, it’s more folklore studies rather than anthropology.  

PM- do you have any books that you find yourself revisiting or always coming back to? 

MY- Louis Dumont book on India I’ve returned to endlessly. I think he’s absolutely superb. 

PM- Where are your books i.e. the ones that you’ve contributed to? Do they sit on the bookshelf in pride or..?

MY- No, I have a little section of things that I’ve written myself. But I gave up anthropology because I realised I hated writing books. It’s the loneliness of the long distance runner. I much prefer working in teams and that is why I became an ethnographic filmmaker. 

PM- What are your fondest non anthropological books and why?

MY- I like documentary style books, like I like documentary style filmmaking. My wife loves drama movies, acted films. I go next door and do something else when she’s got them on. I really like reality and in books.

PM- Do you have any non-book stuff on your shelf?

MY- Yes, I have treasured objects that have a wealth of memory attached to them. I guess you call them souvenirs. 

PM- What of you is reflected on your bookshelf? 

MY- Oh, well all my intellectual passions and interests. 

PM- What do you think is different between your bookshelf and another anthropologists bookshelves? 

MY- I’m trying to think of another anthropologist bookshelf… I think my friend Michael Stewarts’ bookshelves will look remarkably like my bookshelves. I think his bookshelves are going to be like mine, totally unordered but he knows where everything is. I suspect what is different about mine is all my collection of photographic books. I’m a very slow bad reader so I like images and photographs. A photograph is worth 1000 words and for me it’s more easily digestible and that why I’ve got a lot of photographic books.

PM- What’s the most underrated book you’ve come across?

MY- One book in particular. It’s called the Log of the Ark and it’s a children’s book. About all the animals that didn’t make it onto the ark.  As a child I read that book 10 times. There are some marvellous imaginative non-existent animals like the wompattydump. The flood is rising and he has to escape, so he gets another animal to push them up to the top of the hill and he rolls down… Wompttlydump, Wompttydump, Wompattydump. It’s always been a guiding light in my life. Ever since a child.

This interview was conducted by Phoebe Mckenzie

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