Call Me Back: Ethno Science Fiction as an Ethnographic Film Method

December 17, 2020



Dr. Johannes Sjöberg


Dr. Carlo Cubero

In this special event, Dr. Johannes Sjöberg will be premiering his new ethno science fiction film ‘Call Me Back’ (2020), followed by a talk on exploring uncertain environmental futures through creative and collaborative practice. We will explore how projective improvisation in ethnographic film could contribute to the way we relate to scientific predictions of the future.

Talk Description:

Swedish reports show an increase of so-called ‘climate change anxiety’ (Lagerblad 2010), which affects the  mental health of people and often centres on the responsibility they feel in relation to their own children and future generations. In his related chapter entitled ‘Ethno Science Fiction: Projective Improvisations of Future Scenarios and Environmental Threat in the Everyday Life of British Youth’ (in Anthropologies and Futures: Researching Emerging and Uncertain Worlds, ed. Salazar, Pink, Irving & Sjöberg), Johannes asks English youth living in regions affected by drastic environmental change to improvise their own science fictions, especially with regard to climate change, in order to research and represent young people’s perceptions and understandings of the future. 

Our upcoming talk will feature the premiere of Dr. Sjöberg’s ethno science fiction film ‘Call Me Back’ (2020). In 2014, Johannes asked James Hudson-Wright to start a dialogue with himself in a phone booth outside his house in Shipley. During 2014-2018, Johannes recorded James discussing his life and the impact of climate change with his present persona and imagined future selves from the years 2036 and 2056. These scenes were intercut with his gradually changing environment including the flooding of his home on Boxing Day 2015. The talk will be followed by a discussion led by Dr. Carlo Cubero, where EFC members will explore how projective improvisation in ethnographic film could contribute to the way we relate to scientific predictions of the future. We will contextualize Sjöberg’s work within new directions in the field of visual anthropology, where scholars are carefully balancing different ethical frameworks and interventionist methodologies from applied theatre, anthropology, and beyond. 


Johannes Sjöberg was appointed Lecturer in Screen Studies in Drama at the University of Manchester in 2008. He specializes in screen practice as research, and his interests revolve around the boundaries between artistic and academic approaches to research and representation. After BA and MA studies in Social and Visual Anthropology at Stockholm and Manchester University, he was awarded a PhD in Drama for his practice-based research on the ethnofictions of Jean Rouch and projective improvisation in ethnographic film-making, applied on identity, performance and discrimination among transgendered Brazilians. He is currently convening the PhD programme in Anthropology, Media and Performance at the University of Manchester. He has recently conducted research on ethno science fiction as an ethnographic film method asking how British youth relate to scientific predictions of the future through their imagination, especially in relation to climate change. This research has been conducted under the umbrella of the Forward Play research project resulting in films and publications on anthropological study of futures, and play as epistemology and method in ethnographic research and filmmaking.

Carlo Cubero is Associate Professor of Social and Cultural Anthropology at Tallinn University. One strand of his research focuses on developing audiovisual methods for anthropological research. He recently published a chapter entitled “Ethnographic Film Festivals” (2020) in The Routledge International Handbook of Ethnographic Film and Video. He has produced and directed various documentaries and sound-works. He has also curated ethnographic film programmes and ethnographic sound programmes at academic conferences and public events in Europe and the Caribbean. Another strand of Carlo’s research is concerned with the complexities of Caribbean island life. His film ‘Mangrove Music’ (2006) and his book "Caribbean Island Movements: Culebra's Trans-insularities" (Rowman and Littlefield 2017) introduces the concept of "transinsularism" as a means to engage productively with the contradictions of Caribbean island identities. The monograph is based on a long term relationship with the island of Culebra, located in the north-eastern Caribbean.

Additional Credits:

- Podcast production: Rajat Nayyar, Rana El Kadi

- Podcast sound design: Debashis Sinha

- Visual design: Kaustubh Khare, Rahul Tiwari

- Insight synthesis: Rajat Nayyar, Jared Epp, Rana El Kadi

- Live Twitter engagement: Lachlan Summers

All our talks are recorded and published on our website. Kindly register to become an EFC member if you would like to attend and participate in the live talks.

Insights from the Talk

Ethno-science fiction, temporality and futures

How does ethno-science fiction challenge our notion of temporality? Ethno-science fiction is a co-creative genre of ethnographic film where interlocutors express their imagined future through improvisation, applied theatre and other artistic practices. This genre disrupts the ethnocentric, linear progression of time. It shows that our understanding of the future reveals the contradictions of the present rather than a grasp of the past. We always tend to project ourselves into the future. However, talking back and forth between the present and the future self within ethno science fiction provides us with a certain agency where we are not a subject of time. This genre also allows us to try out different future scenarios, navigating the possible and impossible, especially as we face the rising threats of climate change.

Collaboration vs negotiation

How can we complicate the notion of collaboration and more transparently discuss the ways in which we work alongside our communities? Collaboration has become a catch-all, utopian term that is used uncritically to describe our relationships with our interlocutors. Making ethnographic films is sometimes considered an intrusion by communities, and the power differential between filmmaker and interlocutor usually means that it takes time to develop a close relationship. As such, we should perhaps speak of negotiation instead of collaboration. While working with our interlocutors, we must reveal our often clashing narratives and make these processes transparent. It is these frictions that are usually the most generative.

Projective improvisation, activism and healing

How might participating in ethno-science fiction films create a space for activism, healing and speculating futures? In ethno-science fiction, uncertainty is put in dialogue with imagination. It is a liberatory space where you can projectively improvise and play out different versions of your everyday life. Ethno-science fiction brings personal imagination in dialogue with the predictions of scientists. It involves speculating different possible scenarios that help build future strategies. By creating alternative fictional worlds, science fiction can provide a critical distance between ourselves and the mundane world through the concept of “cognitive estrangement” (Friedman). This can be a kind of activism, in terms of an action towards positive change and healing. However, in this kind of filmmaking, a certain level of trust and willingness to play must exist between the collaborators, to ensure that the film does not end up being a totalitarian act by the filmmaker.

Media ecologies and ethno-science fiction

How might ethno-science fiction reinforce and replicate dominant imaginaries and media ecologies? As seen in Sjoberg’s film “Call Me Back,” our collaborations often project scenarios that seem to replicate popular culture narratives of desire for fame, recognition, and commercial success. Although ethno-science fiction can provide a generative, healing space for speculating futures, it tends to act as a “sponge;” it absorbs and reflects all kinds of media and imaginary ecologies that we consume on a daily basis, such as telenovelas, surrealist films, realist films, documentaries, etc. Therefore, projective improvisations sometimes fail to produce alternative forms of imagination. By creating such future-oriented films, we risk releasing stories that reinforce narratives produced by the larger media ecology. We must be cognizant of the way that narratives, dominant or otherwise, emerge through our imaginative and performative work with our interlocutors.