Sensory Ethnography Lab (SEL)

The most exciting documentary films being made today come not from a brand-name auteur or even some up-and-coming, Sundance-anointed visionary. Rather, they come from a place called the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab, which sounds more like somewhere an ophthalmologist might send you than a source of great filmmaking.


Could the SEL be a model for a new kind of filmmaking? More and more budding filmmakers are taking affordable GoPro cameras and seeing what kind of images they can capture with them — attaching them to bikes, placing them on consumer drones, jumping out of airplanes with them, etc. “For a lot of people, these films are their first experience with experimental cinema, but they’re so impressed by it all,” says Krivoshey. “And I think that will have an enormous effect. Who knows what other films these people will see, and in some cases make, after seeing these films?”

But the unfiltered feel of SEL films is not achieved easily: It’s a product of academic rigor and a dedication to fieldwork and observation. The Lab was founded at Harvard in 2006 by Castaing-Taylor, an anthropologist by training. It’s an interdisciplinary program that admits around ten students a year, with a course called Sensory Ethnography. There are a couple of editing rooms that belong to the SEL, as well as equipment filmmakers can check out to take to distant corners of the world.  

Bilge Ebiri profiles a program that has produced some of the best, most groundbreaking documentaries ever.

I find many documentaries largely squander their medium, using a lot of footage of talking heads.  Sometimes archival footage isn't available, but relying on talking heads to provide the running narrative is not much of an improvement on reading the story, and often it's worse. While it's great to hear people's voices, see their face and body on the big screen, over reliance is a dull affair. I saw so many such formally monochromatic documentaries at Sundance before I just decided to steer clear of the category and wait to hear what was good before committing two hours of my time to one.

Leviathan, SEL's documentary about a North Atlantic fishing boat, was so far from a conventional documentary it left me in a trance. No voiceover, barely any dialogue, just long, unbroken shots from cameras tucked into a variety of nooks and crannies inside and outside one fishing trawler. Some of the images are so memorable I can still summon them from memory nearly two years after first viewing: one shot of fish from the most recent catch sliding back and forth on the deck of the boat as it sways to and fro in the ocean, many of the fish still gasping for air (or water, as it is); another shot of blood, discarded appendages and innards, and ocean water—the other accumulated detritus of the catch—spewing out of the side of the boat, as if the trawler itself were some Biblical leviathan, defecating into the ocean. If it weren't so expensive to have flat screen TVs running 24/7 all over my apartment, Leviathan is one of the things I'd have playing on them on a loop, a constant reminder of how alien life on this earth can be.

A lot of the footage wasn't high definition the way people are accustomed to these days (look at all the negative Amazon reviews complaining about picture quality), but they are gorgeous and awe-inspiring. And the prospect of long, uncut shots with no dialogue or voiceover is not for everyone. Frankly, it's not for most people. You've been forewarned.

However, if you, too, are tired of the same, overproduced documentary style, the one that prevails not just at film festivals but in movie theaters and on television, I highly recommend the work of the SEL. If you have a Netflix account, you can stream SEL's latest work Manakamana, a series of unbroken shots from a fixed camera perched in a cable car carrying pilgrims and tourists up to a Hindu temple atop a mountain. No one can accuse the SEL's documentary descriptions of selling too hard, but that is of a piece with their cinematic approach.

Unlike most conventional documentaries, in which every production choice feels like a shove towards the filmmakers' judgment, SEL's films both bring you into aching proximity with their subjects (the long, continuous shot is perhaps one of the greatest challenges for the modern short attention-span brain, but I think of it as a form of visual meditation and immersion) and yet render them mysterious and alien (the lack of any voiceover, title cards, or explanatory narrative means your'e dropped into a world and expected to figure everything out, Myst-style). In doing so, SEL transports the audience closer to the nature of truth, in all its slippery contradictions and Moebius-like contours, than any other documentaries being made today.