Book Review: Shadows & Illuminations: A Multi-Touch Film Guide

In Shadows and Illuminations: A Multi-Touch Film Guide, anthropologist and documentary filmmaker Robert Lemelson and culture, arts and disabilities studies scholar Annie Tucker culminate decades-long clinical ethnographic research in Indonesia to provide an innovative landmark educational centerpiece—a multimedia eBook study guide and documentary film now available on iTunes. The film and guide are aimed at intro-level undergraduate students in cultural, psychological, medical and visual anthropology, as well as cross-cultural psychiatry and global mental health.

The documentary story follows the personal tragedy and political strife of a Balinese rice farmer named Kereta who is haunted by the spirit world. It narrates Kereta’s suffering of non-normative mental events and behavior, including auditory, visual and somatic hallucinations, and the related interpretations outside the confines of Western psychiatric diagnostics of a serious mental disorder. The documentary traces the illness course through multiple forms of diagnosis, care and treatment, as well as the lens of Kereta’s personal experience and impact on culture, family, and community.

The film guide explores a key question in the study of psychological anthropology: “When people have psychological experiences divergent from those around them, how should these be interpreted and understood?” The multimedia eBook film guide systematically explores this question through a rich visual anthropological and modern ethnography experience—bringing the field of anthropology alive to students and simultaneously introducing concrete methods, theorists, data collection processes, and possible conclusions.

 The iTune book includes the 35-minute documentary, 90 pages of text richly embedded with short videos of interviews and in-depth features; high resolution images throughout the longitudinal work with Kereta, his family and community; links to external web-based descriptions of key terms and concepts; expansive written features on theoretical and methodological topics; study cards for key terms, figures, historical areas, Balinese words and so forth; as well as sections on further reading and research and study questions. Students can highlight text and bookmark pages as well as take a small quiz to test their comprehension of the material. Students also have access to a series of six shorter films collectively called Afflictions—the first documentary series on mental health also produced and directed by Robert Lemelson: Memory of My FaceThe Bird DancerFamily VictimRitual BurdensShadows and Illuminations, and Kites & Monsters.

The eBook prompts participants to engage related theorists and historical researchers—groundbreaking anthropologists such as Clifford Geertz, Margaret Mead, Gregory Bateson—who started their careers and the foundations of anthropological research in Bali. Other theorists are also presented through focal insets on key concepts. For example, the focal inset “Subjectivity & Objectivity” describes each term with key examples and exemplary works. The student is prompted to consider how Kereta’s subjectivity is engaged in understanding his illness and treatment and to what extent. It links to capstone works on subjectivity such as João Biehl, Byron Good, and Veena Das. Similar conceptual and theoretical portals link to content about Explanatory Models, Phenomenology, Person Centered Ethnography, Clinical Ethnography, and Idioms of Distress. This provides an integrated tool for introducing subfields and methodologies within the field. Influential individuals, such as German psychiatrist Emil Kraepelin, “father of modern psychiatry” who conducted comparative cultural psychiatric research in Indonesia, are introduced. Direct language from the DSM-IV for Schizophrenia and PTSD is presented allowing students to evaluate for themselves the criteria by which such conditions are being diagnosed in Western psychiatry. Video and images show the historical context and the political violence of 1965, presenting its integrally relationship to Kereta’s condition specifically and the greater society’s social and personal suffering generally.

Embedded videos allow for students to hear Kereta describe his experience in his own words. Similarly, traditional healers and the Western psychiatrist describe their work with Kereta—the differential diagnoses, treatments, and evaluations of efficacy. The healing ceremonies and Kereta’s reflections on the experiences as well as the psychotropic medications allow students to consider the various evaluations of healing and efficacy. This resource allows the student to virtually enter the field, seeing and engaging first hand with the complexity of issues.

Methods are depicted throughout the eBook with topic-specific expansion sections. For example, the expansion section “Timeline of a Visual Clinical Ethnography” gives the student a sense of how the documentary and research developed over the 13 years of its making. “Evoking and Expressing Emotion Across Cultural Differences” shows the tension of Lemelson as both researcher and filmmaker in showing Kereta’s emotional response to the difficulties and tragedies of his life. A distinct Balinese cultural representation of self in which displays of sad or troubled emotions are de-emphasized makes showing emotion on film challenging. “Ethical Interviewing About Past Trauma” is an expansion section that skillfully teaches methodological considerations when engaging research participants with trauma. In a course where students are asked to conduct interviews and create research projects, these eBook video vignettes are valuable windows to first-person accounts of how researchers engage such issues. In the expansion section “Friendship and Trust in the Field,” Lemelson describes the challenges and joys associated with close relationships with research participants, helping students to see the humanness of the research experience.

This film-eBook composite re-envisions learning resources in the classroom and depicting research findings from the field. It is also poised to be a cornerstone resource for education in anthropology by highlighting key areas such as construction of mind and self; emotion, cognition and motivation; human development and child-rearing practices; embodiment, perception, and belief; illness and healing, including in the context of psychiatric disorder; a phenomenological approach to individual subjectivity and intersubjectivity; and the very construction of meaning-making through psychological, sensory, cognitive and social processes of interpretation. This eBook would contribute significantly to any course on mental health, culture and medical and psychological anthropology, and provides an exemplary piece for future researchers to emulate. The eBook will certainly set a new education standard for visual, psychological and medical anthropology, specifically, and pedagogical resources in the anthropological field at large.

More information about the eBook, including where it can be purchased, is available on the Afflictions website.

Tawni Tidwell and Kathy Trang are contributing editors for the Society for Psychological Anthropology’s AN column.