[ Interview by Anita Kerr ]
[ Photographs by Tiffany Cone ]

Life as a cultural anthropologist and documentary filmmaker

© Tiffany ConeMeet Tiffany Cone.

Cultural anthropologist and documentary filmmaker.

Research interests include: sufism; anthropology of religion; philosophical anthropology; embodiment; processes of self-cultivation; visual anthropology and filmmaking; cinema and art.

What made you choose this career path?

When I think about how I chose this career path – being an anthropologist and filmmaker – I am taken back to a very particular time and place. In 1994, when I was 11, I lived in Jakarta, Indonesia for a year while my father did fieldwork there. I finished my school-work via correspondence as fast as I could, and then became very immersed in learning the local language, writing stories and getting to know the local people. It was a magical time, and in hindsight only grows even
more so.

When I returned to New Zealand and got back into my school uniform and sat down at the back of a classroom, I will always remember thinking – knowing – that I’d never feel quite the same again. The experience changed me profoundly and I knew that travel, movement, adventure, other worlds, were going to shape my life.

When I went to university for my undergraduate degree in 2001, I studied a wide range of humanities and arts subjects, including film and art history. In the end, however, anthropology struck me as the most open-minded and expansive, and I could see that through it I could connect to my experiences in Indonesia as a youngster. It also allowed me to draw on insights from so many other interesting disciplines, such as media and communications, psychology, political science, philosophy, and art history, and I was able to travel and learn new languages at the same time.

Can you summarise what a cultural anthropologist means in a nutshell?

Essentially, a cultural anthropologist studies human societies and all of their complexities, patterns and contradictions. We are comparative in our approach, and promote long periods of fieldwork on the ground with communities and individuals.

What do you love the most about your field of research?

My field of research has up until now been in the area of the anthropology of religion. I have long been fascinated by different world religious and philosophical traditions, and how human beings find meaning. This has been my primary motivator in undertaking my PhD in anthropology.

© Tiffany Cone

What would you consider your most amazing moment whilst investigating foreign cultures?

Too many to count! The moments that stand out for me are the times when you feel a true connection with someone or someplace – however brief or random. For example – standing in the dark on the back of a ship as it drifted along the Yangtze River; travelling through the achingly beautiful landscape of Tibet with my father; sitting beside the Ganges River in Varanasi, India, watching the morning rituals; having dinner in a bar called Cloud 9, on the 87th story of the Shanghai Jinmao Tower, as the night lights of Shanghai city twinkled below; sharing a hot meal and a cup of tea with a family in remote China; making a new friend in Tibet and keeping in touch with her even now – almost 13 years later – the list goes on!

Where was the last trip you went on? What was the purpose of your visit?

The last real overseas trip outside of Australasia was in 2012 when I was in China finishing the fieldwork for my PhD. I was based at Lanzhou University in Northwest China where I conducted my research for one year.

You wrote a PhD called “Charismatic Embodiment and the Role of a Sufi Order in a Chinese Muslim Community”. In summary, what does ‘charismatic embodiment’ mean? How would you explain your PhD to a layperson?

Essentially, my PhD thesis was about the cultivation of spiritual power in a religious community. How was spiritual power created, embodied and perceived? In Sufism, this spiritual power is known as ‘baraka’, and in the social sciences it’s often been called ‘charisma’. Hence the phrase – charismatic embodiment. To answer this question, I was exploring the practice of Sufism in a small community in Northwest China.

What would you advise other aspiring anthropologists?

Anthropology to me is a mindset, a particular approach to seeing the world. The discipline can encompass anything and everything and can lead to such interesting questions. If you like holistic, broad thinking about human nature and society, then you will love anthropology! At the same time, this holistic stance really lends itself to being coupled with other disciplines – such as art, music, neuroscience, medicine, or film-making. If you are starting out with anthropology as an undergraduate, I’d recommend you combine it with something else more specialised as well.

“The moments that stand out for me are the times when  you feel a true connection with someone or someplace – however brief or random.”

What would you say is the main goal of your filmmaking?

The main goal of my filmmaking is to educate and inspire. I feel that film is a powerful medium to share and communicate complex social histories and contemporary issues. Film complements anthropology really well in that you are exploring the social world but presenting it in a much more accessible and probably more popular medium. I also feel that film has the potential to be a wonderfully therapeutic art form – in that it enables individual stories to be told and shared relatively easily these days.

What was the subject or your last film?

The last film I made was an educational documentary called Living Chinese Philosophy. It was about the main ideas of Confucianism and Daoism in China and how they play out in daily life. Prior to that project, I made a film about tropical beekeeping for NZ Aid. My uncle was a beekeeper in Fiji for quite a number of years and had established a successful business there. We decided it would be quite useful to make a film about the beekeeping process that the local community could use in the future.

“Anthropology to me is a mindset, a particular approach to seeing the world.”

Where to from here?

I have just been accepted for a Teaching Fellowship with an NGO called Filmmakers without Borders. I will be working at the Asian University for Women in Bangladesh for one year from August 2015. This is a wonderful opportunity to utilise creativity for the empowerment of others.

As part of this fellowship, I will be teaching filmmaking and also working on a series of films. One feature film I’d like to make would be an observational piece about a Sufi or Buddhist temple site. Another film I’d like to make would be with the students, exploring ideas of ‘home’ and mobility.

In the future, I’d love to continue to teach anthropology at a university and to make films. Depending how this fellowship goes, I’m also considering taking up some clinical training in art therapy, somewhere down the line in years to come. Let’s see!

See more about Tiffanys’ work at vimeo.com/tiffcone