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Bodily Connections Between Yielding and Knowing in Anthropological Filmmaking and Internal Martial Arts

Daniela Vávrová


Yielding and knowing may be familiar terms. But how do they connect to anthropological filmmaking and Chinese martial arts? This is a new way of looking at knowledge in the making. The author defines the relationship between the two arts and their experiential and physical ways of learning and understanding the world. Each art has its own aesthetic and ethical qualities. They are creative processes and embody an attitude towards life.

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My special thanks go to the Anthrovision reviewers, David MacDougall, Michael Wood, Master Andrej Doušak, Samantha Forbes, Katrina Keith, Borut Telban, the Ambonwari people, and Nexus Combined Martial Arts.

A still image and a quote from Skin has Eyes and Ears

A still image and a quote from Skin has Eyes and Ears

“The body stands before the world and the world upright before it, and between them there is a relation that is one of embrace. And between these two vertical beings, there is not a frontier, but a contact surface” (Merleau-Ponty 1968: 271).

Film by Vávrová 2014

1Yielding, as a particular technique of internal martial arts, is also a new way of looking at anthropological filmmaking and emerging knowledge. In the following, I describe the connection between anthropological filmmaking and Chinese internal martial arts and their empirical and physical ways of learning and understanding the world. The connection between the art of fighting and the art of filmmaking that I highlight lies in their practice of active yielding. Both arts have their own stylistic, aesthetic, and relational qualities. As creative processes, they manifest an attitude toward life.

  • 1 I use Pinyin – Chinese Romanised syllabic transliteration system (e.g., Taijiquan is also known as (...)

2Martial arts are usually associated with different combat styles of Eastern Asia. The term ‘martial arts’ originates from the Latin meaning ‘arts of Mars’, the Roman God of war. The Chinese martial arts are called Wushu. These arts are then divided into internal or soft, and external or hard styles. Gongfu also known as Kungfu refers to any skill achieved by long-term practice, patience, and hard work. Shaolin Gongfu, for example, is known for its external qualities. Taijiquan is known for its inner power and health benefits. Wudang styles of martial arts are grounded in Daoist philosophy. They are known as soft or internal martial arts using Qi to transform and redirect the force (Zhou 2020). Qigong, internal Qi practice, is the fundamental part of Chinese martial arts and Chinese medicine. Qi stands for the vital energy.1

3Taijiquan is an internal style of martial Qigong. The flow of energy/Qi is generated externally and internally. Hand forms are important in demonstrating the cultivated power/Qi. Hands are the furthest point to which Qi moves (Yang 1996: 27-71). This energy/Qi is also crucial in healing practices. Therefore, Taijiquan is a healing practice as well as being martial. Fa Jin explosions in the practice are pure demonstration of Qi. The origins of Wushu (Chinese martial arts) go back over four thousand years. Wushu was employed as a military tactic and so was the yielding strategy.

4Consider the famous defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte in 1812, when he unsuccessfully invaded Russia. The Russian troops did not engage in the battle, but receded inland. Bonaparte exhausted his army while walking inland in the cold winter, without sufficient food and knowledge of the Russian interior. The death toll was more than a half of his troops. The defeat in that battle resulted in Napoleon’s first exile to the island of Elba (Caryl-Sue and Crooks 2013). In the biography Stilwell and the American Experience in China 1911-1945 by Tuchman (2017 [1970]), one can read about General Stilwell’s conflicts with the Chinese commander, Chiang Kai-shek, during the Second World War about how he fought against the Japanese. Chiang’s policy was to constantly withdraw and preserve his resources. Chiang also refrained from fighting the Japanese to protect himself from his Chinese rivals. But there was a more general tendency in Chinese military thinking as there was in Russian army that this yielding was finally a way to reduce the enemy’s strength and eventually to win. General Stilwell, by contrast, wanted to work to improve Chiang’s rather feeble army and attack the Japanese. To my knowledge, there are few printed manuals of Chinese and Japanese war and combat culture (i.e., The Art of War by Sun Tzu 2005). They encompass not only the explanation of the universe – how to become a leader, how to live a happy and ethical life – but also how to win a battle, whether it is with oneself or with others (see, for example the famous book of changes, I Ching also known as Yijing, by Huang 2010 [1998]).

5Yielding in adherence is Dao’s practice (Lao-Tzu 1993, Tao Te Ching: 40). Daoism, also known as Taoism, is associated with the practice of Chinese internal martial arts, Wudang school and Taijiquan in particular. Dao is a path. Dao is a non-linear direction. Dao is a way (of life). In ancient China, Dao was by no means exclusively used only by Daoists. Dao was a guiding concept for all the philosophical schools. The Way of Dao is based on familiar concepts of Fullness and Emptiness which influenced Western philosophers and their articulation of Being and Nothingness (Moeller 2004: 23-25). Dao is a mindful way of living by combining bodily practice and unity with the surrounding environment.

  • 2 Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) and the Women’s Strawweight Champion of 2020 was Chinese Zhang (...)

6There is a link, however, between war practices and the positives of such practices to self-development and everyday life. Understanding the importance of mental and spiritual calmness, strength, agility and development is a foundation to success in the physical realm, and a rich cultivated cultural practice in the psychological realm. Today, the martial aspects of Taijiquan are rarely seen in practice and the art is now primarily known for its healing effects. It is a globally embraced technique for improving one’s wellbeing, balance, blood circulation, and deep breathing. Like many other martial arts, when gaining popularity, it loses its deeper meaning in order to become accessible to and adopted by larger audiences. For example, the sport of mixed martial arts (MMA) is founded within traditional martial arts practices. However, while Taijiquan techniques are still applied in MMA combat sport, they are adjusted accordingly, and they are skills that are used by only a few individuals.2 From a political perspective, David A. Palmer (2006, 2007) talks about modern Qigong as body science of utopian China and an instrument of state power. The secret transmission of healing and martial Qigong in mainland China has been translated into therapeutic publications and it is taught by medical workers. The effects of practicing the art are nowadays explained in the clinical and biomedical terms. The Falungong conflict, for example, writes Palmer “can be understood in terms of classical Chinese notions of the body and of the state” (2006: 171). Falungong is a political cult scrutinised by journalists similarly to Scientology. The main concepts of Yin and Yang, and Qi are known worldwide these days.

Yielding Strategy

7As an internal art, Taijiquan involves an active yielding practice. Yielding (tsou) is one of the primary strategies towards successful defending. In an internal Qi practice, yielding means to give way, not to give up or to give in. Yielding is one of the four stages in adhering technique in Taijiquan. In adhering, the practitioner yields to connect with the opponent when separated from each other mentally and physically. The “practitioners yield to an oncoming force, and while appearing to be weak, they draw that force into themselves, move around it like water going around a rock, and then counterattack at the most unexpected moment” (Frantzis 2007 [1998]: 77). The principle is to echo the opponent’s force, to bend it and redirect it. The legendary scene of the final battle in the popular movie Kungfu Panda 2 (Nelson 2011​QHpuPXKOwUI) illustrates these quoted words and the yielding strategy. Yielding is a focused move. “When the opponent attacks, adhere to the attacking arm and yield completely without resisting or losing contact” (Yang 1996: 150). After the peacock fires the first fire-bullet, the Dragon Warrior (Panda) takes a step back and waits. He receives the strike and bounces it off to the side. The peacock fires the second fire-ball, then the third and fourth. He keeps firing. Panda stands firmly and maintains focus, bouncing all the fire-balls off. The burning bullets fly around and are extinguished in the water. Then, the peacock fires one more bullet which will be returned to him. Panda not only neutralises the incoming force, but by focused control and envisioning direction, he leads and returns the fire-ball back to the peacock, ultimately defeating him with his own weapon.

Still images from Kungfu Panda 2 (Nelson 2011)

Still images from Kungfu Panda 2 (Nelson 2011)

Computer screen shots by Vávrová 2021

  • 3 In the following video Master Andrej Doušak demonstrates Taijiquan movements, directions, and stepp (...)

8There are three ways to yield in Taijiquan according to Dr. Yang: these are turning, moving away from the attack, and bending the body (1996: 152).3 Yielding is not simply moving from A to B. It is to coil and rebound. In the same manner, the cameraperson in anthropological filmmaking has to decide what choices to make in the moment and usually on the move, knowing that there is only one chance to capture the moment. It is achieved by constant decision making: where to look, how to frame the scene, where to step, and how best to move. Silvio Carta (2015) writes that “[o]bservational filmmaking involves the production of unexpected discoveries dependent on circumstance… shooting observationally reflects moment-to-moment judgement in the arena of risk opened by particular situations. This element of risk assigns importance to improvisation and spontaneity, forcing the filmmaker to stay focused on what is going on in front of the camera… it requires immediate decision-making” (p. 4-5). Sometimes it is about listening and sitting quietly in the background.


Thomas with His Family at the Beach


About the author(s) : Daniela Vávrová, Thomas Andrej Vavra-Downie

Video link:​771049419

10Using the example of the three-minute long take Thomas with His Family at the Beach (Vávrová and Vavra-Downie 2018), one can observe the yielding in a tracking shot. This recording technique could be considered as an example of yielding strategy in the filming. The cameraperson engages with the subject while maintaining autonomy in his/her own controlled behaviour. The camera wants to be led by the subject. “Placidly free from anxiety one acts in harmony with the opponent’s strength. One does not move ahead but responds to the fitting influence” writes Bruce Lee about the yielding in his Letters of the Dragon (1998: 38). With this principle, what Lee describes equally pertains to anthropological filmmaking. In the three-minute long take, I respond by walking with my son Thomas. I follow him. Sometimes I move on and sometimes wait for him to take the lead. We are in a conversation and on the move discovering the details on the beach. The yielding is active looking and moving with and along the filmed subject. Taijiquan literal classic reads (Lo et al. 1979: 32):

11When the opponent is hard

12and I am soft,

13we call it tsou (yielding)

14When I follow the opponent

15and he becomes backed up,

16we call it nien (adherence).

17If the opponent’s movement is quick,

18then quickly respond;

19if his movement is slow,

20then follow slowly.

21Although the changes are numerous,

22the principle

23that pervades them

24is only


  • 4 See here: Click on the first video.

26Another example of active yielding could be having a conversation with the filmed subject (Vávrová 2014: 34:54-37:00)4. Here, the cameraperson lets the subject speak, and contributes in return when required or relevant. It is like conducting a semi-structured interview. The filmmaker/interviewer is led by the subject’s answers. “The combination of rapport and compassion with the subjects touches the spectator at the level of feelings, but it also engenders a deeper form of experience… [the] empathetic involvement, relying on multiple perceptual modes, is both cognitive and emotional… [it] plays a part in dissolving traditional dichotomies between body and mind, emotional and intellectual” (Carta 2015: 10). Techniques such as long takes (MacDougall 1992-1993), extended sequences and deep focus photography are examples of relating to the filmed subjects. The cameraperson internalises the shared surroundings through socialization and identification while looking through the camera.

  • 5 In the following video Master Andrej Doušak demonstrates several Fa Jin explosions: (...)

27The second significant aspect of the art of Taijiquan is the cultivation and expression of Qi: the inner invisible power that people cannot ordinarily access (Frantzis 2007 [1998]: 11). The cultivation and expression of Qi can also be experienced in the anthropological filmmaking process, when the cameraperson is attuned to the life of filmed subjects during the long-term relationship and immersion in the field. The filmmaker relates by active filming. That means that one records most of the time. One is in an interactive relationship with the filmed material, decisively adjusting, on the spot, and in dialogue with the filmed subjects. The Qi is cultivated and regenerated in the act of filming and developing the story (in/of everyday life). The actual footage is the material transformation of Qi. This cultivated energy is not simply streamed for public view as a raw material, rather, it is edited into a coherent unit, into a film that is presentable in much shorter time than it took to record it. This is similar to the fast and impulsive strikes in Taijiquan that are called Fa Jin (emitting force/Qi, discharging power/Qi). Here, the physical expression of Qi is called Jin. There are several types of Jin (Doušak 2020 personal communication).5 Chinese martial arts masters do not usually teach Jin to beginners. It is only when the students have mastered their martial skills, and they can be trusted for their moral integrity and judgement, they will transit to another level of their skills.

Taijiquan and Filmmaking

28Taijiquan, like anthropological filmmaking, is an empirical art (MacDougall 2011, 2019). The filmmaking itself is a research process, a process of knowledge-making. In contrast to anthropological writing, which is a process of reflecting upon the time spent in the field, anthropological filmmaking is a fieldwork process, and in that sense, it is empirical. It is a lived experience resulting in a film. It is an embodied way of knowledge-making. The filmed material is the fabric of the final outcome, which cannot be re-recorded later on (MacDougall 2011: 101). It is knowledge expressed as a process in which experience is inseparable from knowing (Grimshaw and Ravetz 2009: 151). Films are embodied experiences of the filmmakers as they are of the viewers. The embodied way of learning and the sensuous moment of knowing, as anthropologist Michael Taussig wrote in regard to mimesis, “includes yielding and mirroring of the knower in the unknown, of thought in its object” (1993: 45). The camera’s filming style defines and transcends the framing that surrounds the images. This means that the filmmaker and his/her camera are immersed in the lives of the filmed subjects. Together with the viewer’s experience of being materially present in the film, they create ‘cinema of consciousness’ invested with values (MacDougall 2019: 75).

  • 6 Hitchcock’s movie Rope (1948) is a crime thriller which appears to be made in one long take. It is (...)

29Anthropological filmmaking is notable for its approach based on long-term research and close engagement with the filmed subjects. It is also known for respecting the moment and to capture the natural unfolding of reality (Crawford 2008: 46-51; Grimshaw and Ravetz 2009: 135).6 Similarly, when training in Taijiquan, a student might appear to be in a long take. This is for the purpose of training, strengthening muscles, developing balance and cultivating energy. In Taijiquan, postures are performed in several ways including self-therapeutically, animal style, or with explosions, just like anthropological filmmaking can be performed in several different ways, such as documentation, interaction or interpretation (MacDougall 2011, 2019). Jean Rouch, filmmaker and anthropologist, often described performing a kind of ballet when being immersed in surroundings with his camera (Rouch in Feld 2003: 100-101; Rothman 2017: 198). Taijiquan is not a dance or ballet, but a way of generating flow and power in the body for therapy or potentially with explosiveness for self-defence. “When issuing energy one must sink, relax, be calm and concentrated in one direction” (Wile 1983: 107). In Taijiquan, there is a sensual connection between listening to an opponent and the counteraction that can be compared with the sensory connection between the filmmaker, audience and the filmed subject. Anthropological filmmaking, like Taijiquan, is about immersing oneself in social processes and relationships.

30The third significant point in describing the connection between anthropological filmmaking and Chinese internal martial arts is experiencing a state of altered consciousness. In Taijiquan and other Qi practices, this mental state is reached when practicing breathing, specific moves, cultivating and storing energy, and also during partnered sparring interactions. In anthropological filmmaking, a similar elevated state of mind is reached through cinematographic creativity. Jean Rouch described his experience of ciné-trance as an elevated state of mind while recording and being involved in a collective ritual act (Rouch in Feld 2003: 38-39, 183; Rothman 2017: 203-205). Practicing Taijiquan becomes an everyday ritual. The body-mind stimulation proves to be enriching. The same could be said of filmmaking. “For me, the only way to film is to walk with the camera, taking it where it is most effective and improvising another type of ballet with it, trying to make it as alive as the people it is filming” (Rouch in Feld 2003: 38-39). The embodied way of filming mirrors the philosophy of martial arts as being embodied, “in particular ways. All martial arts and approaches to fighting are the manifestation of a kind of theory, or philosophy, or ideology, or fantasy. The moves, the training, the sparring, they all imply either a conscious or an unconscious ‘theory’ or ‘philosophy’ of all sorts of things” (Bowman 2019: 112-113).

  • 7 One of the important practices when learning Taijiquan is Tujshou, known as Pushing Hands. In this (...)

31It is through constant movement, adaptability, and the exchange of Yin and Yang that a Qi practitioner is in continual transformation. Like the Dragon Warrior after mastering the inner peace, the power of Qi takes him to the spirit realm (Kungfu Panda 3 Nelson and Carloni 2016​30VlDItRAVk). This time, the Panda warrior had to use his own weapon on himself to be able to bring the spirit-man back to his realm and successfully defend the secret pandas’ village. After entering the spirit realm, Panda transforms into the Dragon Warrior. Kai, the spirit-man, asks: “Who are you?” Panda replies: “I’ve been asking the same question. Am I the son of a panda, the son of a goose, a student, a teacher? Turns out, I am all of them.” He uses yielding to control Kai’s power. Then, he bounces his own Qi saying: “You want my Qi so bad? Then, take it!” After cheering up: “Yes, the power is mine”, the greedy spirit-man bursts into pieces, crying loud: “No, it’s too much. It’s too much.” Taijiquan is the manifestation of balance between Yin and Yang. Each movement yields and advances in a pathway that fluidly redirects force. The movements are firmly rooted. The posture is relaxed and breathing is deep and patient. Yin and Yang are in balance but only because of constant flow, never overpowering each other, respecting each other, and continually restoring the balance. Anthropological filmmaking and internal martial arts both demonstrate embodied way of acquiring knowledge and bodily responding to the surrounding environment. To learn a Taijiquan form is to embody it by mirroring the moves through the whole body and muscle memory. The same occurs to ethnographer with the camera who is absorbed by the immediate surroundings and immersed in social realities. One becomes attuned to the place. One becomes an engaged participant observer who shapes, and is shaped by, the place and the practice.7

  • 8 The term ‘martial arts’ was used in European literature as early as 1550s. The terms ‘martial arts’ (...)

32Like the martial arts in general, the practice of filmmaking, including anthropological filmmaking, evolved in many different ways. In his latest book, The Looking Machine, filmmaker and writer David MacDougall writes about an act of dislocation as a filmmaking method (2019: 7-14). He talks about the second intention tactic in the sport of fencing: to reposition oneself to gain a better position for an attack. In the context of filmmaking, MacDougall explains, the cameras “impose special ways of engaging with the world and these often force filmmakers to step outside themselves and adopt intermediate positions, not knowing the outcome. These changes in behaviour produce changes in perception, and sometimes new kinds of knowledge” (2019: 7). Taijiquan and other martial arts express such changes in perception in the sparring situations.8 There are lots of second intention tactics happening in the sparring ring. What matters, however, is the right, unpredictable move at the right time. Unpredictability applies in anthropological filmmaking as well. There are countless ways to reset for the next move. When engaging in submission sparring at a combat sport competition, it is full of rules and athlete’s codex. The same pertains to filmmaking techniques. The film has its structural and aesthetic rules. However, in both cases, there are moments of serendipity that make the change meaningful. According to how they are made, films challenge our physical, cultural, and moral visions. The subject’s recognition is not just relational but the force of an intrusion and in order to be social we all must yield to this invasion of our self-consciousness by the Other modes of objectifying us (Wood 2020 personal communication). An agonistic relation is not only a struggle for effect, but also a competition. The ancient Olympic games in Greece were called ‘agones’, to strive and struggle for glory. Filmmaking is one technology that enables the intrusive moment of objectifying, but linked to an objective capture, in a way that differs from simply looking, which leaves no permanent record. A recent portrait of an Australian cartoonist Michael Leunig (The Leunig Fragments 2019 Burgess Beate Engelbrecht2022-11-14T09:19:00BE​show/​leunig-fragments) is a good example of effects the camera has. In a one-minute edited sequence, Leunig goes to take afternoon nap and cannot fall asleep because of the camera's presence. The ‘looking machine’ changes positions from left to right, from wide angle to a closer angle. Leunig’s voice over tells us that the presence of the camera feels scrutinising, exposing him. Going to sleep is a solitary thing to do, he explains. When observed by the camera, Leunig is an object unknown to himself, but inwardly he is a subject of the world he knows. He compares it to the feeling of an artist, that is a double consciousness of wanting to stay hidden, unknown to others, while there are moments when the artist needs to communicate and wants to be discovered and recognised by others as a subject in the world. The relationship between the filmmaker and the filmed subject in The Leunig Fragments is intense. The filmmaker seems to be dislocated on several occasions, needing to redefine the further steps. In fencing, the second intention redefines the subject, when the athlete steps into a new and more advantageous position. In filmmaking, yielding redefines the subject when the filmmaker repositions him/herself with the camera. Active yielding is a step into a new position that is relational and revelatory, not violent, but engaging with the surroundings.

Fieldwork Films

33Gandhi’s Children (MacDougall 2008) made in a Delhi’s orphanage starts with the awakening of the orphanage, the nearby surroundings, and the boys in their dormitory rooms. This is followed by the daily morning routine like washing, making beds, cleaning the rooms, doing exercises and having breakfast. The filmmaker shows us a certain discipline to which the boys are expected to get attuned. One of the early scenes, after entering “Gandhi House”, we see the boys in their communal bathrooms. We see the toilets, showers, and broken sinks. The boys talk about using the toilets and cleaning them. The older boys teach the novices and younger ones to be hygienic and clean up after themselves.

Still images from Gandhi’s Children (MacDougall 2008)

Still images from Gandhi’s Children (MacDougall 2008)

Computer screen shots by Vávrová 2019

34Some people say that Gandhi’s Children is an excessive portrait of the place. The scenes bridge the privacy of boys in the institution that is supposed to protect them. I argued that the bathroom scenes present and emphasise existential issues we usually do not show in public, unless it is acted and deliberately scripted, or it is a news reel. The viewers hardly see boys’ faces at all. It is not the intention to point out individuals. They all are in the same situation, living inside the orphanage premises. The scenes show the poor conditions of the bathrooms, like the broken sink or overflowing water. Boys have to wait their turn. Toilets have no doors. Privacy is taken away and anyone can observe the boys from the hallway. This New Delhi orphanage building is in bad condition. The filmmaker shows these nuances and the turbulence within the institution. The actual social and aesthetic realities are portrayed in an unobtrusive way, using a responsive mode of filming, and they reveal the situation the boys find themselves in. They are responsible for themselves. In the orphanage, they are protected from exploitative adults who often use the children for cheap labour.

Still images from Gandhi’s Children (MacDougall 2008)

Still images from Gandhi’s Children (MacDougall 2008)

Computer screen shots by Vávrová 2019

35In a fact, there are many scenes in Gandhi’s Children which are unsettling and those scenes clearly reflect the realities of growing up in the streets of Delhi without having the nurturing and loving care which every child deserves. To feel unsettled, when watching a film, however, is a natural response because “[f]ilms and filmmaking are valuable not so much for conducting theoretical arguments as for transporting the viewer into unfamiliar circumstances and creating more radical perspectives” (MacDougall 2006: 141). What exactly is radical about changing position? This was described above as a certain type of dislocation by MacDougall, from which I believe a new move is rethought and imagined. Unsettling and unfamiliar feeling makes us change position, look at things from different angles, step aside and rebound. In the above-mentioned film, The Leunig Fragments, the general public embraces the cartoony character who is as charming and delightful as he is whimsical and sometimes disturbing. It is in communication between the spectator and the filmmaker, the athlete and the opponent, that an exchange happens. The German filmmaker and writer, Alexander Kluge described images as a medium existing in people’s mind before they are articulated, reasoned, “[t]he films in our brain are not logical. They are full of illusions, temperament and music. This world of associations has its own logic” (Kluge in Koutsourakis 2011: 223). MacDougall elaborates that “[i]n many respects filming, unlike writing, precedes thinking. It registers the process of looking with a certain interest, a certain will” (2006: 7). In Kluge’s film Abschied von Gestern (‘Goodbye to Yesterday’ known in English as Yesterday Girl, 1966) one of the intertitles reads: “What separates us from yesterday is not a rift, but a change in position”. This change in position could be compared to MacDougall’s second intention in fencing. It is a changing perspective on human relationships and places these relationships enlivened.

36When watching Gandhi’s Children, the viewers find themselves entangled in the web of institutions, social norms, and they reflect upon their own childhood experiences. For me, the camera in the film is more revelatory than unsettling. In a fact, the camera changes from revelatory to searching, from intense to calm modes of perception. It looks silently, then it engages and responds. We may compare this with the act of sparring and the game of fighting. Initial defensiveness is followed by watching and learning, then moving and being explosive, and then changing/adapting again. Certain scenes are overwhelming and may strike the viewer as a well thought and actioned punch. There are different ways people perceive films overall in connection to their own worldview and ethical as well as their political reality. For example, the environmental disaster of New Delhi, one of the biggest world cities, is reflected in the many images of air pollution, dirty water flowing into the city channels, garbage piles. The viewers see rats swimming in the water, dogs and other animals scavenging around the orphanage. Many scenes from the film stay in the memory as sensuous details, connections, expressed in empathic moments (Grimshaw and Ravetz 2009). This is not abstracted as particular fact, but it is lived, enmeshed in everyday social aesthetics and the lives of the boys in the orphanage. The filmmaker, by showing the internal connections and intersubjectivities, renders a new understanding of the institution that should protect children and adolescent young people who find themselves in this very difficult socio-economic situation. Films like Gandhi’s Children create new approaches and new understandings of human relationships and social processes.

37The relational aspects of filmmaking, the intangible set of relations which develops between the filmed and filming subjects and their surroundings, have been scrutinised and labelled as overtly anthropocentric and discursive. The Sensory Ethnography Lab (SEL) at Harvard is one of the audio-visual hubs specializing in making films beyond the anthropocentric approach. Leviathan (Castaing-Taylor and Paravel 2012) is one of few SEL productions in which the camera-views are deliberately dehumanised. The film viewer becomes a digital-eye lingering on the mast of the fishing boat. It does not matter if it rains, or the boat is wildly moving, or the wind splashes the water on it. The digital-eye lingers without any feelings or any expression of suffering or joy. Whose sensory experience is it portraying? The fishermen on the boat are part of a larger structure of the seascape. They do not talk. They simply are. Film historian Scott MacDonald writes that the leviathan in Leviathan is the film itself; the viewer’s sensory trauma of a decade (2013: 335). The film’s emphasis on non-human terrains, technical stylistics, and surrounding sounds poses a great challenge in ethnographic and anthropological portrayals. SEL’s productions “foreground efforts to decolonize the screen in diverse, inventive, and unexpected ways” (Ginsburg 2018: 48). Yet, the camera mode overpowers everything. The viewers are unable to yield from the massive ship and the mass of water. Whose experience are we seeing?

A still image from Leviathan (Castaing-Taylor and Paravel 2012)

A still image from Leviathan (Castaing-Taylor and Paravel 2012)

Castaing-Taylor and Paravel 2012

38Dehumanised camera-views make the viewers more aware of their surroundings, but they lack the active yielding approach and the phenomenological undertaking. They are not relational or dialogic. The GoPro views are flat, without an attitude. The camera captures an action but it has no direct contact with the experience of that action. There is no response to the act of seeing. The person holding and controlling a camera is embodied catalyst provoking responses and conversations with the subjects (Carta 2015; Vávrová 2014). From the phenomenological view, “the camera enjoys special privilege because it marks its perceptive competence in the existential performance of materially embodied perception…it makes its presence to the world (and to us) sensible through its materialized activity of looking and moving in relation to what it perceives” through the camera-person (Sobchack 1992: 209). The film Leviathan is a sonic visceral environmental opus. There is a little engagement with the filmed subjects. They are there, engulfed by everything else that surrounds them. The experience of viewing Leviathan is an experience of being on the ship, under it, beside it, above it, and even being a material particle of it. Experiencing all these views together makes the viewer overwhelmed, dislocated, and nauseous. Leviathan adopts a cosmic, decolonised perspective which serves its purpose to showcase the many perspectives lifeworld offers as the ground for all shared experience. I found it very hard to focus and balance the moves while watching the film. The experience was similar to alone standing combat. A combat with cosmic force where I have no chance to survive.

Active Yielding

39Films are embodied experiences of the filmmakers just as they are of those who watch them. The relationship between spectator and film is mimetic (Marks 2000: 148-149; Sobchack 1992). Mimesis is at the heart of cinematic art and much has been written about embodied spectatorship (Benjamin 1978; Buck-Morss 1994; Mulvey 1975; MacDougall 2006; Sobchack 1992). Film theorist Vivian Sobchack (1992) argues that the cinema is an extension of the viewer’s embodied existence. Watching a film in the cinema is not only audio-visual but also a visceral experience; a mutual creation between the spectator, film, the filmmaker, and their recognition of self and others (Barker 2009; Vávrová 2010). Laura Marks has extended the understanding of spectatorship by talking about ‘haptic visuality’ and spectatorship as an act of sensory translation of cultural knowledge; a cinema that reconfigures more than shatters (Marks 2000, 2004). The relationship between self and the Other, she underlines, “may be yielding-knowing, more than (but as well as) shattering” (Marks 2000: 151). Both Plato and Aristotle defined mimesis as the perfection and imitation of nature. This has been perceived as re-presentation rather than simply copying. Learning by mimesis, learning from nature is the basic embodied way of understanding the surroundings. In Taijiquan, mimesis is essential for understanding the many animal moves and their applications in fighting techniques. According to Taussig (1993), mimesis is not the dominance over the nature as we can see in many various ways when talking about the Anthropocene era. In contrast, Taussig explains, mimesis becomes an alternative science with active yielding as losing oneself in the environment but in a positive way (Taussig 1993: 46).

40The same applies to Daoism. One becomes attuned to the nature and their surroundings. One does not dominate it, but learns from it. Dao is a mindful way of living by combining bodily practice and unity with the surrounding environment. The touchstones of Taijiquan and anthropological immersion and responsive camera style mirror the bodily practice: “The root of all is to give up yourself and follow others… If you can follow another, you can acquire the marvellous ability to neutralize energy. If you follow others, you cannot go off independently. Only when you are able to follow others can you be independent. This principle is extremely real and extremely subtle” (Wile 1983: 131). It is a way of becoming, a way of doing things, a way of understanding the inner and outer that I have tried to present in this article. Tamara Kohn (2003) writes about Aikido and Aikidoists. Like with Taijiquan, Aikido too is about regaining of balance, recognising of excess and peel it off, turning the force to the attacker. “What is revealed and particularly meaningful form this examples an overwhelming consciousness of the body’s power for change through practice” (Kohn 2003: 152).

41Both, Leviathan and Gandhi’s Children are fieldwork films. Both films represent an experience with the world through the filmmakers’ bodily practice and their cameras. However, the human relationship to the sea leaves different memories and expresses different force/Qi to Gandhi’s Children and their importance of values in human relationships. As if the former was an external martial art and the latter an internal martial art. Their modes and techniques might be different but they are still a material transformation of a set of skills, of a Gongfu. In that sense, the films’ impact is martial in their unique unfamiliar style, but also enlivening when understanding the transformative connections between the filmed subjects, audiences, and the filmmakers. It is the bodily connection, knowledge in making and attitude towards life, that made me think of similarities between the Chinese internal martial art such as Taijiquan and anthropological filmmaking which use the active yielding as a way of expressing and understanding the world and oneself within it. Active yielding defines a new way of looking, a new position in filmmaking that is specific, relational, and revelatory.

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Books and articles

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1 I use Pinyin – Chinese Romanised syllabic transliteration system (e.g., Taijiquan is also known as Tai Chi Chuan). The Pinyin term for yielding I am writing about is Rang. Apart from Taijiquan, other Neijia (Chinese internal martial arts) of the Daoist Wudang school which I follow are Baguazhang and Xingyiquan. My practice and interest in the martial arts, as well as my engagement with the photographic image, spreads greatly in time from 1996 until the present day. I keep filming and photographing my own practice and the masters I meet on my learning journey.

2 Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) and the Women’s Strawweight Champion of 2020 was Chinese Zhang, Weili. She combines traditional Chinese martial arts such as Taijiquan and Chinese Wrestling in her mixed martial arts sporting style.

3 In the following video Master Andrej Doušak demonstrates Taijiquan movements, directions, and stepping against the opponent using a stick: (Shi-Do Ljubljana 2017).

4 See here: Click on the first video.

5 In the following video Master Andrej Doušak demonstrates several Fa Jin explosions: (Shi-Do Ljubljana 2017).

6 Hitchcock’s movie Rope (1948) is a crime thriller which appears to be made in one long take. It is one of greatest technical achievements of the era. The entire movie has only 10 takes. Whenever the scene was ending, and back then the reel of the film had to be changed, the camera-person counterattacked the cut by closing the shot on blank surfaces. The next scene would begin with the same shot – the blank surface – as the previous scene has ended thus imitating continuity (Grimble 2016). For more recent production made in one long take see People’s Park (2012) made by Cohn and Sniadecki at the Sensory Ethnography Lab (SEL) at Harvard. This film directly challenges the cinematic art of looking and recording in public spaces (more on SEL see MacDonald 2013).

7 One of the important practices when learning Taijiquan is Tujshou, known as Pushing Hands. In this exercise in couples, it is the best to test one’s active listening to the opponent and active yielding as discussed here.

8 The term ‘martial arts’ was used in European literature as early as 1550s. The terms ‘martial arts’ and ‘fencing’ could be seen as synonymous considering that fencing was originally ‘exercise of arms’ which means more than using a sword (Clements 2006: 2).

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List of illustrations

Title A still image and a quote from Skin has Eyes and Ears
Caption “The body stands before the world and the world upright before it, and between them there is a relation that is one of embrace. And between these two vertical beings, there is not a frontier, but a contact surface” (Merleau-Ponty 1968: 271).
Credits Film by Vávrová 2014
File image/png, 546k
Title Still images from Kungfu Panda 2 (Nelson 2011)
Credits Computer screen shots by Vávrová 2021
File image/jpeg, 71k
Title Still images from Gandhi’s Children (MacDougall 2008)
Credits Computer screen shots by Vávrová 2019
File image/png, 551k
Title Still images from Gandhi’s Children (MacDougall 2008)
Credits Computer screen shots by Vávrová 2019
File image/jpeg, 156k
Title A still image from Leviathan (Castaing-Taylor and Paravel 2012)
Credits Castaing-Taylor and Paravel 2012
File image/jpeg, 429k
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Electronic reference

Daniela Vávrová, Bodily Connections Between Yielding and Knowing in Anthropological Filmmaking and Internal Martial ArtsAnthrovision [Online], 9.1 | 2021, Online since 30 November 2022, connection on 09 December 2023. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Daniela Vávrová

James Cook University, Anthropological Laboratory for Tropical Audiovisual Research (ALTAR)

Daniela is currently Adjunct Research Fellow, a founder of ALTAR group at the Cairns Institute, James Cook University, and curator in the Cairns Museum, Far North Queensland. Along with her interest in different cultures, she explores the relationship between anthropology and visual communication, between written accounts, photography and anthropological filmmaking. Since 2005 her field site has been situated in Papua New Guinea exploring how people shape and are shaped by their social and cultural environment through their sensory experiences. She also holds a black belt in Nexus Combined Martial Arts.

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The text and other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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