An Ethnographic Fable: Yasmine Kassari’s L’Enfant endormi

in Hybrid Genres / L'Hybridité des genres
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This essay argues that Yasmine Kassari’s 2004 fiction film L’Enfant endormi flouts cinematographic conventions, indicates the limits of scientific paradigms, and challenges the ethnographic gaze immanent to South-to-North fiction film production and distribution. By constructing the film’s plot around the traditional belief and practice of conjuring a child to “sleep” in utero, Kassari draws on both documentary and fiction to create a hybridized story that I term an “ethnographic fable.” The film’s ethnographic effects include its images of repetitive tasks, objects and rituals; its gendered sense of intimate access to the protagonists; and the creation of the illusion that time, like the sleeping child, is standing still, recalling the “denial of coevalness” between the gaze of ethnography and its object (Johannes Fabian). Yet because Kassari deploys multiple narrative and stylistic devices to complicate these ethnographic effects, L’Enfant endormi resists categorization. Instead of conforming to the bounds of fiction or of ethnography, Kassari has created a kind of “film fable” (Jacques Rancière): a critical representation that mimics visual ethnography while challenging its illusions.

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