Untitled (bed) is a nine-minute single shot of an ordinary occurrence, that of a child performing household chores—folding laundry and making the bed. While such a nonevent would hardly warrant a footnote in most ethnographies, in the greater schema of analysis and argumentation, this ethnographically inflected, looping video intently focuses on a child’s dutiful performance of an everyday task. By yoking itself to its subject in a visual dance, the video calls our attention to the physicality of the ethnographer/videographer, whose relationship to the subject, a Nepali boy, is unclear. The darkened domestic space envelops to initiate an experience that, at times, verges on claustrophobia, and from which details emerge more distinct and poignant—posters and newspapers on the walls, holes in the mosquito net, and the uneven earthen floor. The “exotic” is conjugated with the mundane in the duration of the shot, which exhausts expectations for further character or narrative development.
An abbreviated version of this shot forms a scene in a feature-length nonfiction video, As Long as There’s Breath (2009), which depicts a Nepali family’s struggles for cohesion despite everyday travails and the absence of a beloved son. Extended and isolated from other scenes, Untitled (bed) upsets and interrogates a desire for further context or exposition. The subtitles provide the basic narrative thread, as well as an explanation for the boy’s activities, but little else is provided to elucidate an otherwise banal act. Instead, the camera lingers over the textures of fabric and the gestures of the boy, whose increasingly hurried work appears both exhaustive and exhausting. Undomesticated and standing alone, this single shot video challenges the viewer to seek meaning through an engagement with the senses, to then reflect and make sense of embodied knowledge.
The video was shot in Lekhnath, Nepal in 2008 and produced in the Sensory Ethnography Laboratory and Film Study Center at Harvard University. Original format DVCPRO–HD. Sound mix by Ernst Karel.
Stephanie Spray is a doctoral candidate in social anthropology at Harvard University, where she works in the Sensory Ethnography Laboratory and the Film Study Center producing nonfiction video. She received her B.A. in the study of world religions at Smith College (2001) and a master’s degree at Harvard Divinity School (2004). She has been engaged in various fieldwork-based projects in Nepal since 1999. In 2001, she was the recipient of a Fulbright-IIE grant, which she used to begin an ethnomusicological project with the Gaine, a caste of itinerant musicians. Two such musicians were the subjects of an ethnographic digital video, Kale and Kale (2007), now distributed by Documentary Educational Resources. She has also made two videos in Nepal focusing on the experiences of Gaine women, Monsoon-Reflections (2008) and As Long As There’s Breath (2009). She is currently engaged in the post-production of two new projects based in Nepal: a hybrid sound piece entitled Blue Sky, White River, and another feature-length video with a family in Lekhnath, Nepal.