Applying Anthropology to Fiction Film (AAA 2018 abstract)


A colleague invited me to join a panel on applying the anthropological imagination at the 2018 AAAs in November. Since I transitioned from academia to film in 2013, I haven't been back to anthropology's big yearly meeting. I'm excited for the chance to geek out and share the film with other anthropologists. I thought I'd share some of my paper abstract. It's the anthropoligical take on the project's origins, backstory, and ethics. (Here's the more conversational thought experiment.)

Talk Title: Applying the Anthropology to Fiction Film: Imagining the Discovery, Culture, and Biology of “Homo narwhalensis sapiens” 

My first two films were documentaries. Recruiting participants, capturing stories,  communicating scientific concepts, and writing grants felt a lot like academic anthropology. Writing/producing my first fiction film added the opportunity to apply the anthropological imagination.

“Narwhal-American” is a love story and science mystery about a couple who turn to a geneticist for help getting pregnant, only to discover that everyone in the husband’s enclave community belongs to a different species of humans. 

It started as a thought experiment fit for an Introduction to Anthropology classroom. What if multiple species of the genus Homo existed today? How would we find this biological needle in the haystack? Infertility stats, perhaps? What if such a group drifted apart millennia ago on an isolated Caribbean Island? How would their culture and language adapt as Spanish colonists arrived? How would a group of immigrants to the U.S. balance pressures to assimilate with reproductive isolation? Would they see an outside researcher as friend or foe? Would using gene modification to bridge the biological gap between species be a cultural blessing or a curse?

During my talk, I’ll share clips from the film and provide an overview of the role that anthropology played in imagining the “Narwhal”people and story. I’ll also touch on ethical issues such as choosing the Narwhal’s race/ethnicity, using a subverted form of Spanish as their language, recruiting non-actor extras, using active genetics research, portraying geneticists, and filming on the streets of Manhattan and Queens.