I don't know many people who would sit in the front row of a movie about Swedish ethnography and laugh their heads off. But I went to see Kitchen Stories this weekend with the Dane, and we loved every minute of it. If I ever teach an ethnography course myself, I'll have to make this film required viewing1.
This film--a surreal, gentle comedy; a relaxed buddy movie that follows many of the standard formulas--works surprisingly well. I'm pretty sure you don't have to be an ethnographer to appreciate it, although anyone with a particular interest in naturalistic studies might get a particular kick.
While I don't thnk the movie can be particularly "spoiled", I'll tuck the rest of this review under the extended section, just in case you want to see the film as naively as possible. (I will forewarn you that it's in Swedish and Norwegian, with English subtitles.)
1 I just taught a day of an Organizational Information Systems class, talking about analyzing interview data. This movie would have been more fun--and would have provided fodder for the students to discuss.
In the beginning of the movie, we learn (truthfully) that 1950's Swedish home researchers have already successfully redesigned the housewife's kitchen to be more efficient. Now, one researcher proudly announces, in the course of one year, she will no longer have to walk to the Congo in her kitchen. Thanks to their improvements, Northern Italy will suffice. Apparently, this was established through many hours of careful observation of housewives as they worked, watching their every move--from sink to table, from towel to counter--and tracking their steps.
The researcher running the project is now trying to analyze, quantitatively, the habits of single men. As such, he is sending his researchers into the field: they will sit, silently, in bachelor kitchens, atop eight-foot-high chairs. They will watch the single men, and the men will ignore them. They will live in portable trailers right outside the apartments. This is how these Swedish researchers will spend a Norwegian winter.
Now, I know a few people who have done truly heroic ethnographic work. If I understand their descriptions correctly, Cleidson De Souza sat in a cubicle with coders and developers, watching them for hours, and tracking what resources they used, and in what contexts. David Gibson spent months watching meetings, tracking every time that one person stopped speaking and another person started. And Keith Hampton sat about in a basement in Canadian suburbs for months, interviewing families about computer use and learning who was talking to whom.
These people have nothing on this project. A housewife might spend a lot of time running about her apartment; she has children to take care of and a family to feed. And so she's likely to start ignoring the researcher after a few hours, and they'll both get to work.
The same is not true of a single man in the Nowegian winter. There's not a lot to do if you're a farmer out in the country in winter. You drink coffee with a friend, and you smoke, and you wait for the thaw2.
Folke is the researcher assigned to watch Isak, one such graying farmer. Isak doesn't trust Folke: while he has volunteered for the experiment, he's not too happy with this invader in his kitchen. And so he hides himself in various ways, cooking in his bedroom, for example.
It goes nearly without saying that the two men will find a connection as the movie progresses; that the barrier of Isak's distrust and of Folke's professionalism will somehow be breached.
There are a set of, I think, imprortant lessons for the budding ethnographer:
There are also a couple of interesting reminders of cultural differences. Sweden was neutral during WWII; Norway was invaded and occupied. The Norse were less than happy about that; they blamed the Swedish for sitting by impassively. And so a Swede neutrally observing a Norwegian inside his home might rub the latter the wrong way.
While I don't expect that this situation recurs in any environments I might see, there are some parallels. Ethnographers often live in a different world than their subjects; misunderstandings are common--and a usual part of the process.3
Two thumbs up.
2 Garrison Keillor likes to talk about Norwegian Bachelor Farmers, sitting around at the Sidetrack Tap at Lake Woebegone, smoking and just occasionally talking. The silent stoicisim of Scandanvians is a major theme to this movie.
3 One of my friends, a biologist working on low-level genetic processes, was observed for a few months by an anthropologist apparently looking at how laboratories handle the notions of "sex" and "gender." While the anthropologist gave them occasional reports, the lab's consensus response was something like huh?. They didn't see, or believe, that the notion of sex was relevant to what they were doing at all.
I'm not in a position to take sides in the debate.February 29, 2004 02:10 AM | TrackBack | in Movies