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Mark Neupert

Leiden through the eyes of an American anthropologist

The lyrical documentary about Leiden by American anthropologist Mark Neupert has become a hit. Leiden anthropologist Janine Prins taught Neupert the finer points of the subject in the course on Visual Methods offered by Anthropology. What does she think of Neupert's observation? ‘He's gone completely native.'

Wave of publicity

The rush of attention came as a complete surprise to Prins. From the national press (de Volkskrant, ‘Leideners are a special tribe') to national television (De Wereld Draait Door: the media is keen to report how come the American anthropologist was so enthusiastic in observing that Leideners mainly make use of the public space taking walks, cycling and sailing. It is a city with centuries of history, designed for people and not for cars, Neupert stresses in Cobblestone Stories. A year of Modern Living in Leiden. On Saturday 8 April he gave a commentry on his documentary, in the National Museum of Ethnography.

Mark Neupert

Study material for American students

Why is Prins surprised at the publicity? The documentary was originally not intended for a broad public, but as study material for American students, she explains. Neupert is a lecturer at the Oregon Institute of Technology and he wanted his students of Urban Planning to see how Europeans today live in old cities that date from the Middle Ages. 

Cobblestone Stories. A year of Modern Living in Leiden/ Mark Neupert

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Atypical documentary

In the 2009/2010 academic year, the American academic took a sabbatical and came to Leiden to study Visual Ethnography. Leiden University is the only university in the Netherlands with an accredited master's in this field of anthropology. Cobblestone Stories is not the textbook example of documentaries arising from this specialism,  acording to Prins. Neupert is clearly present as commentator because he wants to explain something to his students. And this while film makers from the Leiden anthropology School, who film fieldwork in such countries as Indonesia and Ghana, mainly film as silent observers.  

Loving portrait

Prins, a guest lecturer in the programme, taught Neupert how to film as naturally as possible - among people and at eye height. She left the viewpoint completely to Neupert, bud did help him with the editing. 'It is completely his impressions that have resulted in a loving portrait of Leiden and its inhabitants.' 

The Leidse Plein Coffee Shop (Pieterskerkgracht) is close to a playground. The American anthropologist also made the narrow, car-free streets famous that are out of vbounds to cars. een auto's komen. Foto: Mark Neupert

What's so unusual?

What Dutch viewers find surprising is that Americans are amazed that Leideners do almost everything by bike. What's so remarkable about multi-layer bicycle stands with hundreds of bikes? That Leideners celebrate events like the Relief of Leiden so exuberantly?And that a coffee shop can sit amicably next to a children's playground? 'The documentary says something about the maker and what he's used to,' Prins agrees. 'But recording and filming things that are so everyday is the best compliment an anthropologist can get.  It shows he has really observed how we live. You can see clearly in the documentary that he has adapted; he even takes his children to school on foot. An anthropologist would  say: he's gone completely native.'


Romanticised image

Isn't Neupert's view of Leiden a bit too romanticised? Prins: ‘I wouldn't really say that. But he is indeed lyrical about how people live in ancient European cities. He focuses a lot on the highlights, such as the celebrations.’ Prins is particularly surprised by how much publicity this 'didactic production' has aroused in the Dutch media. 'They're saying things like: a real American is interested enough to focus attention on us. The whole thing is being framed as an exotic rarity. The media and in some cases even academics still have a very outdated view of anthropology.' 


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