Deborah A. Thomas and John L. Jackson, Jr. | Experimental Ethnographies | 30 November | 16:00-19:00 | Wijnhaven 3.48, The Hague

Join ReCNTR for a double program with films by Deborah A. Thomas and John L. Jackson, Jr, this year’s Gerbrands Laureates who will be in attendance to share three films and discuss their ideas of experimental ethnography.

NOTE: Access to Wijnhaven has become restricted as part of the securitization of the university due to civil protests. If you do not have a LU-card, you will need to check-in at the front desk where a ReCNTR representative will greet you. We apologize for the inconvenience.

Program 1: Deborah A. Thomas

Four Days in West Kingston (2018, 8m) + Four Days in May: Kingston 2010 (2018, 40m) are collaborations between anthropologist and filmmaker Deborah A. Thomas, musician and composer Junior “Gabu” Wedderburn, and psychologist Deanne M. Bell. Their experimental documentaries explore the archives generated by state violence by focusing on the 2010 State of Emergency in West Kingston, Jamaica – popularly known as the “Tivoli Incursion.” In May of that year, the military and police force entered Tivoli Gardens and surrounding communities by force in order to apprehend Christopher “Dudus” Coke, who had been ordered for extradition to the United States to stand trial for gun and drug-related charges. This resulted in the deaths of at least 75 civilians. The film features community residents talking about what they experienced during the “incursion,” and naming and memorializing loved ones they lost. Through the use of archival film and photographs, footage from the U.S. drone that was overhead during the operation, and contemporary hyper-realist film photography of the “garrison” of Tivoli Gardens, the films encourage viewers to think about how people negotiate the entanglements among nationalist governments, imperialist practices, and local articulations with illicit international trades but raising a number of questions: What does it mean to be human in the wake of the plantation? How do people confront the pressures of colonialism and slavery, nationalism and state formation? What forms of community and expectation are produced in and through violence? In what ways can we meaningfully bear witness to these processes?

Discussant: Cristiana Strava

Program 2: John L. Jackson, Jr.

Making Sweet Tea (2021, 89m) chronicles the journey of southern-born, black gay researcher and performer E. Patrick Johnson as he travels home to North Carolina to come to terms with his past, and to Georgia, New Orleans, and Washington, D.C. to reconnect with several black gay men he interviewed for his book, Sweet Tea. Johnson transformed that book into several staged plays over the course of a decade, and the film combines footage from his past performances of the men with documentary moments from their lives a decade after the book’s publication. The film also focuses on Johnson’s life in the south while showing how the men have changed since – and been changed by – their depictions in his book and plays. The film covers the subtle complexities of Johnson’s relationships with these men, with his family, and with his hometown in North Carolina. The film also restages Johnson’s performances of the men’s narrative in their homes, in their churches, and on their jobs, sometimes with them directing him or even participating in the scene. Blurring the line between art and life, the film offers a rare glimpse into the lives of people rarely given a platform to speak and demonstrates how research, artistry, and life converge.

Discussant: Mattijs van de Port

Deborah A. Thomas is the R. Jean Brownlee Professor of Anthropology, and the Director of the Center for Experimental Ethnography at the University of Pennsylvania. She is also a Research Associate with the Visual Identities in Art and Design Research Centre at the University of Johannesburg. She is the author of Political Life in the Wake of the Plantation, Exceptional Violence, and Modern Blackness. Thomas co-directed the documentary films Bad Friday and Four Days in May, and she is the co-curator of a multi-media installation titled Bearing Witness: Four Days in West Kingston. Prior to her life in the academy, she was a professional dancer with the New York-based Urban Bush Women. 

John L. Jackson, Jr. is a filmmaker and urban anthropologist who works at the intersection of visual culture, critical race theory, media studies, and the ethnography of diasporic religions. John L. Jackson, Jr., is the Penn Provost and served as the fifth dean of the Annenberg School from 2019 until June 2023. He is also the Richard Perry University Professor at the University of Pennsylvania and was previously Dean of the School of Social Policy & Practice and Special Adviser to the Provost on Diversity at Penn. Jackson earned his B.A. in Communication (Radio/TV/Film) from Howard University, completed his Ph.D. in Anthropology from Columbia University, and served as a junior fellow at the Harvard University Society of Fellows before becoming Assistant Professor of Cultural Anthropology at Duke University. 

Cristiana Strava is a social anthropologist, trained at Harvard (BA) and SOAS, University of London (MARes, PhD), with a broad interest in urban spaces and the forces that shape our lives in and around them. She has conducted fieldwork in North, Western and East Africa on topics ranging from informal housing, gendered forms of waged and unwaged labor, marginalization, and the politics of planning and development regimes. Prior to her PhD studies, she worked with the UNDP and the German Technical Cooperation Agency on issues related to sustainable development and adaptation to climate change.

Mattijs van de Port holds professorships at both the University of Amsterdam and Vrije University Amsterdam. He has done research in Serbia on Gypsy musicians and since 2001 in Brazil where he explores global encounters on the threshold of candomblé temples in Bahia. He is the author of three monographs and several films, including Saborear Frutas Brasileiras (2013) and the Bahian trilogy The Possibility of Spirits (2016) and Knots and Holes (2018), and The Body Won’t Close (2021), the third in the Bahian trilogy. His work has won the Samodiva Award for “Best Film of the International Film Festival of Ethnographic Films 2017” in Sofia, Bulgaria, the Basil Wright Film Prize at the RAI Filmfestival 2021 in Bristol (UK), and the Excellence in Visual Anthropology Award at the Ethnocineca International Film Festival in Vienna (Austria).


30 November | 16:00-19:00

Wijnhaven room 3.48, Leiden University in The Hague

Image credit: Theodore Harris, 2011

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