Using Film to Lead the Next Generation of Anthropology



The stories of people forced to move out of their home countries often focus on their gains and losses, of leaving behind belongings, careers and even family members for the promise of a new start in a new land.

Overlooked in many of these stories is an infinitely valuable item abandoned by many of these families—culture. Mexicans become Mexican Americans, those from Japan become Japanese Americans, and so on. But that doesn’t mean cultural ties to their previous land have to be abandoned, and those in the Central Valley striving to keep the arts and ways of their native lands alive in the Central Valley are having their stories captured on film by Stanislaus State professor Steve Arounsack.

Dr. Arounsack, who earned his bachelor’s degree at Stan State and returned as a lecturer in 2005, is gaining acclaim not only for his film work, but for sparking curiosity in students who take his courses and produce their own films in the university’s Keck Visual Anthropology Lab. 

“Some of our students have moved on to master’s programs in visual anthropology and that’s something that we’re quite proud of since we’re a smaller program,” Dr. Arounsack said. 

As he spoke in the lab, he gestured to the many colorful posters on the walls, each representing a film produced by one of his students.

“Despite being small, we’re right up there with some of the top programs, having arguably one of the most advanced undergraduate visual anthropology labs in the state,” he said. “And that’s something we pride ourselves in—not just having the equipment that can get us the quality we aspire to have, but in the experiences we can foster and how we build bridges with the community. These are tools. It’s not just about electronics in a room.”

Arounsack’s own film work in cultural anthropology is gaining nationwide attention for himself and for Stan State. In May, his documentary “Next Gen Asian American Art” was shown more than 500 times on PBS member stations across the country, and the equipment in the Keck Lab made it the first film sponsored by Sacramento PBS station KVIE completely shot in 4k. 

The documentary explores how Asian Americans in the Central Valley use art to reveal and maintain their legacy as immigrants and to reshape tired narratives. It received a documentary fund award from the Center for Asian American Media.

Right now, visual anthropology is a single course at Stan State—not a program and not yet a concentration. Arounsack obviously would love to see the courses grow into a program, and in the meantime will be doing what he can to expose the region’s students to the discipline, which in turn exposes the rich mosaic of the Central Valley region to the world.

“I just can’t think of doing anything else other than using what I have and what I know to show kids a different path,” he said. “I know what it’s like to grow up in the valley, where some of the kids view the mountain ranges as restrictive. People don’t leave and it’s hard to leave.” 

“That first trip I took back to Laos got me hooked to seeing what the world is really like. It’s important for me to be here to try to do something to prevent the brain drain. I’m back. I’m here. And I’m proud to be part of a culture of building.”