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Film Archaeology

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How did a definition of autism evolve from early twentieth-century medical film and how does this compare to entertainment film?

How did early film help to establish neurology and psychiatry as scientific subjects and what were the implications of this?

Film archaeology is influenced by Michel Foucault’s archaeological method of returning to the so-called origin of a subject to understand how it became possible at that point in time to ‘think that’. We use this method to explore the intertwined emergence of cinema and autism in the early twentieth century and trace their pivotal moments of transformation throughout the twentieth and twenty-first century.


We explore the role of film at the turn of the twentieth century in establishing neurology and psychiatry as scientific subjects. Film’s perceived objectivity in documenting bodies, and particularly body movements, in a clinical setting helped to professionalise the interpretation and diagnosis of psychological conditions. We explore the silent films of early neurological practitioners, the mid-century work of psychiatrists focused on child development, and the rise of documentary and autoethnographic film with the neurodiversity movement. We trace correspondences between the fascination with body language in films made in clinical contexts with a similar fascination with body language in mainstream cinema.



Janet Harbord: 'The Autistic Gesture: Film as neurological training' in NECSUS, 2019:

Bonnie Evans: The Metamorphosis of Autism: A History of Child Development in Britain Manchester University Press, 2017


The symposium Film Observation and the Mind took place on the 19th March 2021 and brought together historians of science and film studies scholars to think discuss the critical approach to the history of scientific and educational film in the ‘neuro’ and ‘psy’ disciplines. The forum considered a number of questions:


  • How were the techniques of early cinema used to create new ways to approach individual case studies?

  • How did film inform statistical analyses?

  • What role did film play in the distinction between atypical and typical states of mind and how were claims of atypicality justified?

  • How did child observational films influence theories of developmental psychology and typical and atypical child development?

  • Conversely, how were films used to challenge and question scientific narratives via approaches influenced by anti-psychiatry and neurodiversity movements

Footage from five of the presentations can be viewed below:

Dr Bonnie Evans
'Cinema, The Body and The Mind in its Inception'

Dr Mathais Winter
'Psychoanalysis, Pedagogy and the Cinema'

Dr Felix Rietmann
'Narrating Infant Experiences'

Prof Janet Harbord
'Filming in Clinical Settings'

Dr Des O' Rawe
'Critiques of Reason: Documentary Film and Alternative Psychotherapies'

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