National Anthropological Archives and Human Studies Film Archives


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History of the Human Studies Film Archives

Scope and Background

The Human Studies Film Archives was founded in 1975 as the National Anthropological Film Center through the coordinated efforts of a small but passionately committed group of anthropologists and filmmakers. This group — which included Margaret Mead, Sol Worth, Walter Goldschmidt, John Adair, Timothy Asch, Jay Ruby, Karl Heider, and John Marshall — had worked for over a decade to promote the use of film in anthropological research and teaching. The NAFC initially enjoyed six years under the umbrella of the Smithsonian's Museum of Man during which it was mandated to serve as a national repository for the preservation of anthropological film, assemble a 'world ethnographic film sample', and implement research methodologies using anthropological film records. In 1981, after a promising six-year start which launched a vigorous acquisitions and preservation program as well as the production of over over a half-million feet of anthropological research film (see Sorenson and Neuberger 1979), the Center became part of the Smithsonian's Department of Anthropology within the National Museum of Natural History. At this time it was renamed the Human Studies Film Archives.

In the twenty years since the inception of its predecessor unit, the HSFA has amassed an eclectic collection of approximately eight million feet of original ethnographic film and video. This includes materials in virtually all formats — 35, 16, 9.5, and 8mm film, black-and-white and color, silent and sound; 2-inch, 1-inch, 3/4-inch, 1/2-inch and Hi-8 video in open reel-to-reel, U-matic, PAL, and NTSC formats. Over the past five years the collection has grown at a rate of two- to three-hundred thousand feet per year with the majority of the organization's fiscal and personnel resources being funneled into the preservation and archiving of the footage.

Through its association with a cohort of prominent figures in anthropology and anthropological filmmaking, the HSFA quickly became the repository for a number of major film projects which are arguably among the crown jewels of visual anthropology. These include the entire corpus of John Marshall's !Kung (San) films, Timothy Asch and Napoleon Chagnon's Yamomani film project, David and Judith MacDougall's Turkana Trilogy, and portions of the AUFS Faces of Changes Series. In addition to these landmarks in ethnographic filmmaking, the Archives also contains many notable historical collections. These films and footage include: Joseph Dixon's footage of the Crow Indians (Montana 1908); Franz Boas' footage on Kwakuitl (Fort Ruppert, British Columbia 1929); Paul Wirz' footage on Lake Sentani Papuans (West Irian, Dutch New Guinea c. 1920); Matthew Stirling's By Aeroplane to Pygmyland (West Irian 1927); Melville J. Herskovits' footage shot in Dahomey, the Gold Coast, and Haiti (1931 and 1934); Robert Zingg's footage on the Huichol and Tarahumara (northern Mexico 1933); Scudder Mekeel's footage shot on the Lakota Sioux (Rosebud Reservation 1930); Morton Kahn's film on the Djuka Maroons of Dutch Guyana (Suriname 1928) and Silvio Santos' footage on the tribes of the Upper Amazon (1919). The HSFA has also collected and preserved portions of such seminal film series as the Pathe Science Series, Kodak Cinegraphs, and the works of travelogue and exploration filmmakers such as Burton Holmes, Aloha Baker, Lewis Cotlow, and Thayer Soule. With the substantial effort required for organizing and preserving such visual materials, the related goals of description and cataloguing (not to mention the development of research methods) have been realized only intermittently at the HSFA. Despite severe staff shortages, however, the HSFA has consistently managed to support the annotation of its research collections. As a protocol developed under the NAFC, this policy ensures the ethnographic contextualization of collections along the lines of research films as originally proposed by E. Richard Sorenson (1975b), and Timothy Asch (1972, 1979) [see also, Sorenson 1967 and Sorenson & Jablonko 1975; Asch & Asch 1988]. Since the inception of the program the HSFA staff has worked with filmmakers and field anthropologists to produce film/video annotations either in the immediate aftermath of filmmaking projects or, as is increasingly the case, at some years' remove from filmmaking. These projects include the films of Matthew Stirling made in the Netherlands New Guinea during the first known exploration of the Mamberamo River region and Van Reese and Nassau Mountains; the Pashtoon Nomad Project created by Asen Balikci and Timothy and Patsy Asch; the films of Colin Turnbull and Joseph Towles on the Mbuti Pygmies (Belgian Congo 1954 and Zaire 1971-72) and the Ik (northwestern Uganda 1972), and the Melemchi (Nepal 1988) film project of John and Naomi Bishop. These annotations, it should be noted, form one layer of information to be found among other forms of supplementary materials associated with most individual collections.

Anthropology, Visual Inquiry, and the Film Archives: A Brief Overview

It is often said that ethnographic film is rarely taken seriously by anthropologists. However, a brief review of the two primary journals in the subfield of visual anthropology — Visual Anthropology and Visual Anthropology Review — suggests that this attitude is rapidly changing. What remains the same is the fact that archival film records continue to be sadly underutilized by anthropologists and other scholars. This includes the relative neglect of visual records as primer materials for graduate students contemplating research on a particular culture or in specific field sites, as sources of ethnographic data on cultural activities like ritual, performance, and speech behavior (which may be better analyzed through repeated observation of recorded behavior), or the use of film records as the basis for other kinds of interpretive or comparative studies on topics such as social change. Indeed, most anthropologists are reluctant to work with film records produced by others. In this regard, field footage — although often touted as a relatively 'objective' record of cultural activities — appears to be associated with the same proprietary values which ethnographers traditionally attach to their fieldnotes (see Sanjek 1988).

Aside from the fact that anthropology, as Margaret Mead once noted (1975), remains largely a "discipline of words," the underutilization of film records must also be related to a number of shifts in thinking within anthropology during the 1970s. These include changes in the epistemology of the discipline, the changing nature of the object of anthropological study, and the diverse makeup of the original interpretive community which coalesced to form the subdiscipline of visual anthropology. Before the late 1960s it was probably fair to say that visual anthropology was associated primarily with what can be termed "images on the edge of the text." By this I mean the making of film (and photographic) records in association with fieldwork and the subsequent use of these materials primarily to illustrate verbal accounts of a given culture. In this tradition visual records tended to be uncritically accepted as ethnographic 'evidence': objective records of behavior and events recorded in the field. This view — inherited from Boas and developed by Bateson and Mead — reflected anthropology's positivist strains and its intermittent search for more accurate means of data-gathering. It can also be argued that the Boasian project of salvage anthropology — which Boas himself linked with the recording aids of photography and film (Ruby 1980) — was revived, after a fashion, with respect to anthropological filmmaking in the 1970s. It was during this time that anthropologists became acutely aware of the threat which rapid social change posed to the discipline's traditional objects of study — remote small-scale societies.(1) Advocates for the use of film in association with anthropological research pressed for the urgency of documenting 'disappearing worlds' that appeared to teter on the edge of extinction. Margaret Mead was foremost among these advocates as a vocal promoter of the National Anthropological Film Center in this mission. Perhaps a statement in Mead's keynote address at the formal opening of the NAFC best summarized her vision for the role of the camera in gathering anthropological data. In recalling her enthusiasm as a gradute student in anthropology she stated that every morning she would wake up saying to herself, "The last man on Raratonga probably died this morning and we have now lost something irretrievable." Then, driving the point home to her audience she added, "So I'm still saying that the last man on Raratonga died this morning and we never made a film of him!" (audiotaped address, Hirshhorn Museum, Smithsonian Institution, May 1, 1975/AUFS Afghanistan Collection)

There are certainly reasonable intellectual and ethical arguments to be made for creating and preserving film records on peoples experiencing rapid social change. However, what often seemed to be lost on those who justified anthropological filmmaking solely to preserve a 'record of culture' for posterity is the fact that the camera cannot capture or duplicate 'reality.' Even under the most extensive protocols for producing research film records the camera remains a selection device with limited optical perspectives. Moreover, with respect to edited 'visual ethnographies' (as anthropological films are now often called), filmmakers were never simply recording "endangered authenticities" (Clifford 1988) — they were drawing upon a set of well-established metaphors and tropes to construct representations of these non-Western cultures. It is now, of course, a commonplace that anthropological science constructs its object of study. The practice of ethnographic filmmaking — with its established canon of a division between a modern 'Us' and a traditional 'Them' — is a prime example of this truism. In short, ethnographic film — like all other genres of film- -is a form of communication using images to construct a particular version of reality. This was well understood by several founders of the NAFC and other pioneers in the field of visual anthropology such as Sol Worth. Worth and others took it as their charge to explore this perspective in all of its ramifications. Worth understood that anthropological film had its own codes of signification and that these were, in all probability, further shaped by the particular cultural perspectives of a filmmaker. From the late 1960s onward, Worth and his colleagues argued that photographic and film images could not be uncritically accepted as objective evidence because they reflect subjective human decisions and are governed by a cultural logic which uses images in language- like ways. Worth's seminal work with John Adair on the Navajo Filmmakers Project sought to explore precisely this aspect of imaging by assessing how motion picture film conceived, shot, and organized by people of a different culture would reveal something of their own values and cognition. Through this process, Worth and his colleagues became interested in film as a phenomenon of culture rather than merely as a medium to encode evidence about culture (Worth 1981; Gross 1980:8-9). This approach, much in evidence in the journal Studies in Visual Communication which Worth founded, can be seen as something of a precursor to contemporary concerns about the construction of ethnographic texts — both visual and written.

During the formative years of the NAFC/HSFA as these competing intellectual perspectives shaped debate within visual anthropology, the idea of 'researchable' anthropological film records never quite caught on as an important activity within the discipline. With the exception of scholars working in the specialities of dance ethnography and choreometics (a field of cultural expression and movement analysis pioneered by Alan Lomax), interest in research using films as records about culture receded. This marginalization continued as anthropologists came increasingly to rethink the positivist and empiricist foundations of their discipline. More and more what appeared to be 'researchable' about a film (or about record footage) appeared to have more to do with its politics of representation than the 'hard' data encoded in its countless frames.

Archival Film and Anthropological Representations: A Look Toward the Future

In light of recent challenges to ethnographic authority and the current debates over criteria of authenticity that now surrounds anthropological filmmaking, it is surprising that record footage in the HSFA is consulted so infrequently. Clearly, the full film records of various large and well-known film projects provide a unique source of documentation from which to assess debates about how filmmakers construct their subjects/objects of study. This is especially true with respect to the essentializing discourses and distancing rhetorics by which ethnographic filmmakers have framed categories such as the "the primitive" or "tribal peoples" or, for that matter, seemingly more objective ascriptions such as "hunters- and-gatherers" which we often assume are grounded in the brute facts of the material world. At least in some cases an archives can provide empirical evidence (e.g., through the screening a full-film archival record) of the selected quality of representations which go into the make-up of such edited realities on film. As is the case with the !Kung, Yanomami, Turkana, and other collections, the archival records affords researchers an opportunity to examine the entire corpus of footage from which films are cut and constructed. In many cases, close examination of such collections makes it possible for students to deconstruct the aesthetic and representational logic by which particular perspectives on a culture or group are foregrounded while others obscured (see, for example, Tomaselli and Homiak 1994; Bishop 1993). While time- consuming, such research would seem to be worth the effort especially when dealing with films (or film series) which occupy an established pedagogical role in anthropological curriculums.

A second line of inquiry revolves more generally around the politics of representation that encompasses the production and use of moving image records in these archives. From this perspective, the 'reading' of any particular film document — amateur or professional — requires that we understand how films are embedded in institutional structures and systems of social relations which shape ways of looking (e.g., the so-called Western gaze). This requires that scholars research the shifting historical and ideological contexts in which filmic practices have been set at different periods of this century. Some historical materials in this collection pose their own research challenges with respect to understanding their use and social history while others provide accompanying documentation by creators such as travelers, missionaries, colonial agents, or fieldworkers that provide important evidence about the broader meaning(s) of specific films. A number of scholars have approached portions of the HSFA collection with these concerns in mind. In her work at the Film Archives, historian and documentary film scholar Patricia Zimmermann has focused on the link between the rise of tourism at sites on the periphery of the world system and the advent of amateur film technology. From these coincident developments, Zimmermann has analyzed how early travelogues reflect an intersection of discourses on race, gender, and cultural specificity — aspects of desire and knowledge repressed within middle-class American life during much of this century — and how these discourses are given personal license through the practice of amateur filmmaking (1990, 1992). In different ways, Fatimah Rony (1994) and Amy Staples (1992) have explored other aspects of this hegemonic discourse in colonial documentaries and exploration films. With the recognition that professional anthropological writing owes much to the genre of travel writing (Pratt 1976), it is surprising that so little effort has been spent exploring the possibility of a similar relationship between ethnographic films and visual narratives produced by amateurs and travelers with the camera

Of course, more traditional approaches to data encoded on film also offer potentially strong research and educational possibilities for the use of film archives materials — especially with the advent of electronic image databases. In a article on the relationship between ethnographic filming and anthropological theory, Paul Hockings (1988) has noted the development of anthropological film archives in Europe and elsewhere as a significant one. With respect to this current technology, he notes optimistically that moving images in these archives will increasingly lend themselves to the presentation of comparative cultural materials via videodisc (or interactive CD-ROM programs) which, once developed, have enormous educational potential. (It should be noted that the HSFA — in a collaborative project with the Center for Visual Anthropology at the University of Southern California — has made its first step in this direction with a interactive CD-ROM project which will make use of portions of the Asch-Chagnon Yanomami footage.) At the same time, however, Hockings is also somewhat critical of these organizations for expending their resources primarily to amass large amounts of footage "for later research" while making little effort to develop a methodology that might inform such research. The records in such repositories, he argues, might thus turn out to be of interest to historians but of little moment to anthropologists (1988:209).

This point is well taken. It can also be argued, however, that it is precisely the historical nature of much footage in these archives which now makes many of their collections relevant to ethnographic research. I have in mind the fact that many indigenous and ethnic peoples have developed a keen interest in "telling their own stories" and articulating their own sense of history and identity. For scholars with established research settings, archival film provides a potentially powerful and evocative medium through which they can explore such interests with native collaborators. Lines of inquiry might explore the ways in which people construct and use notions of an historical past, the ways they articulate notions of place and culture, how they have experienced and adapted to particular social changes, how they have reinvented rituals and performances (as well as possible generational or gender-specific aspects of local knowledge in association with such expressive activities), or how rituals have evolved new criteria for or reworked traditional sources of cultural authenticty. All these lines of inquiry tap into a mode of visualism upon which anthropology has yet to draw. Nor are these resources dependent upon the interest of traditional scholars. The recent production of the video Warrior Chiefs in a New Age (1991) by Crow filmmaker Dean Bearclaw (much drawn from the 1908 footage of Joseph Dixon) represents one example of how an HSFA collection has been reconfigured and interpreted from a native perspective. We also need to know more about how historical images 'speak' to native individuals.

The fact that a number of films in this collection are believed to be the first such moving images produced on particular cultures (see Jordan 1992), as well as the fact that this collection often holds more than one film record of a given culture, argues for the potency of this approach. Such documents may provide important keys to understanding how particularly cultures have changed over time or the kinds of variations in cultural forms that may exist in an ethnic population. Historical films typically represent images that are no longer "capturable" by contemporary filmmakers. Transferred to video and used in a playback mode with currently available lightweight video technology, these records can become an interactive aide in fieldwork used reflexively to explore a number of substantive and theoretical concerns (see Krebs 1975). At present, the HSFA is engaged in three projects along these lines. One involves footage shot by the Jesuit filmmaker Father Bernard Hubbard during the 1930s and 1940 of the Ugiuvangmiut, the former Inupiat inhabitants of King Island (Bering Sea) who have since been displaced. A recent National Science Foundation grant will make it possible to use footage of traditional Ugiuvangmiut dance as part of a native oral history project to elicit concepts of performance and identity. A similar project has been funded through the Smithsonian's Collection-Based Research Fund based on using footage shot by Joseph Moore in 1957 on an African-Jamaican ritual tradition known as kumina. Using compact video-playback equipment in the field, two anthropologists will work with contemporary kumina practitioners — some of whom are represented in Moore's original footage — to explore concepts of performance, innovation, variation, and change in this tradition over the past four decades. A similar project has been conceived for use of footage shot by Robert Zingg on the Huichol Indians of northwest Mexico.

Here we can return to a point made by Hockings. While subjects can be engaged by the written accounts of anthropologists and other observers, these represent the recollections or impressions of an observer. Film records of actual events bring together movement (and often color and sound) in two-dimensional moving images which- -unlike photographs — frequently have the special quality of lasting for the duration of an event or action. Such records have the potential of engaging subjects in direct and concrete ways. As ethnographic authority is seen increasingly as contested and situated, it is surprising that there are so few examples of archival footage being re-used or re-voiced in novel ways by members of those cultures represented in these visual documents. In this regard it is clear that we have a responsibility of making such records more readily available not only to individuals depicted in these films, but to anthropologists and other scholars. Historians and film scholars, for example, seeking to understand the relationship between colonial situations and professional social science, may find particular value in historical films — especially because of the ways in which film was once used establish scientific authority, to legitimize the colonizing mission, or to trumpet the narrative of evolutionary progress. Finally, we should think about these visual archival records with respect to the centenary of both cinema and ethnographic film — a landmark which coincides roughly with the end of the twentieth century. The recent increased use of the National Anthropological Archives and the Human Studies Film Archives by documentary filmmakers and television producers makes it clear that there is a boom of interest in using visual ethnographic materials to tell a variety of stories about this century. The focus for much of this interest turns broadly on the theme of Euro-American expansionism and its attendant ramifications for native peoples. And at least one postmodern subtext of this theme concerns how explorers, filmmakers, and anthropologists privileged the representation of local cultures precisely at the time when these sites were being drawn into and interconnected as part of a world system. The recent production A World On Display: The St. Louis World's Fair of 1904 (1994) by Eric Breitbart is representative in many ways of this latter theme. A product of labors in both of the NAA and HSFA (and other archives), Breitbart's video examines the discourses of nationalism, power, progress, evolutionism, and spectacle which were part of world fairs at the turn of the century, revealing how they opened-up heretofore unimagined worlds to visitors through, among other things, their display of indigenous peoples. Pathways Productions (a production group owned by Kevin Costner), has similarly drawn images from both the NAA and HSFA to explore and revision popular understandings about the American West and Native Americans. This multi-part made-for-television series will no doubt include native voices in the stories it tells about the continent's indigenous peoples both in terms of pride in heritage and their resistance to displacement and marginalization. Television, however, should not be the only, or for that matter, the primary vehicle to mediate our understanding of these historical images. Scholars in anthropology, museology, history, folklore, and other fields should thus begin to think about the timeliness of projects which will reflect their own disciplinary interests and critical sensitivities.

There can be little question that film is the dominant narrative form of our time. From actualites in the first decade of this century to more recent popular ethnographic documentaries, film has served to shape and to naturalize the ways in which we see the imaginal and juxposed versions of a postmodern reality. It is my hope that readers will peruse this guide with an eye to how these collections can promote their own research interests. I trust that this new edition will give our colleagues in anthropology — as well as in other disciplines — occasion to consider new and challenging research which makes use of visual media. I encourage readers to imagine novel ways to interrogate our film records, to consider how they might use these and other resources to investigate their own or another culture's systems of looking, or to imagine what narratives they might explore or create through these media.

[1] One might add that the practices of observational filmmaking, which reached maturity during this same decade, drew a measure of legitimation from developments in symbolic anthropology. This was especially the case with respect to Geertzian perspectives which advanced the view that culture was not merely mentalist — "in people's heads" — but was embodied in public symbols which shaped the way social actors constructed, felt, and experienced their worlds. From this perspective, culture acquired a certain 'objectivity' which readily lent itself to visualization — a perspective which in its own turn has been subject to much critical review (see Fabian 1981; Tyler 1977).

Suggested Readings

Asch, Timothy
1972 Making ethnographic film for teaching and research. PIEF Newsletter 3(2):6-10.

1979 The first stages of comparative ethnographic filming. SAVICOM Newsletter Spring/Fall, 7(3):5-8.

and Patsy Asch
1988 Film in anthropological research. In Paul Hockings and Yasuhiro Omori, eds. Cinematographic Theory and New Dimensions in Ethnographic Film. Senri Ethnological Series 24. National Museum of Ethnology, Oska, Japan.

Bishop, John M.
1993 Hot footage/cold storage: the Marshall Ju/'hoan Bushman archive. In Jay Ruby, ed., The Cinema of John Marshall. Harwood Academic Publishers.

Gajdusek, D. Carlton & E. Richard Sorenson
1968 Research use of ethnographic films. Paper presented at the American Anthropological Meetings, Seattle.

Gross, Larry 1980
Sol Worth and the study of visual communication. Studies in Visual Communication 6(3):2-19.

Hockings, Paul
1988 Ethnographic filming and the development of anthropological theory. In Paul Hockings and Yasuhiro Omori, eds. Cinematographic Theory and New Dimensions in Ethnographic Film. Senri Ethnological Series 24. National Museum of Ethnology, Oska, Japan.

Jordan, Pierre
1992 Premier Contact-Premier Regard: Les 100 premiers films tournes en Afrique, Oceanie, and Amerique. Centre de la Vielle Charite, Marseille, France.

Krebs, Stephanie
1975 The film elicitation technique. In Paul Hockings, ed. Principles of Visual Anthropology. The Hague: Mouton Publishers.

Rony, Fatimah Tobing
1994 Those who squat and those who sit: the iconography of race in the 1895 films of Felix-Luis Regnault. Camera Obscure: Journal of Feminism and Film Theory 28:263-89.

Ruby, Jay
1980 Franz Boas and early camera study of behavior. The Kinesis Report 3(1):6-12.

Sorenson, E. Richard
1967 A research film program in the study of changing man. Current Anthropology 8(5):443-469.

and Allison Jablonko
1975 Research filming of naturally occurring phenomena: basic strategies. In Paul Hockings, ed. Principles of Visual Anthropology. The Hague: Mouton.

and Gay Neuberger
1979 The National Anthropological Film Center: A Report on Its Beginnings and Programs. Washington, D.C.: NAFC.

Staples, Amy
1992 Safari ethnography: the explorer as 'anthropologist.' Paper presented at the American Anthropological Association Meetings, San Francisco.

Tomaselli, Keyan & John Homiak
1994 Powering popular conceptions: The !Kung and structured absences in the Marshall Family expedition films of the 1950s. In Thomas Dowson, ed. Images of People, Power, and Politics.

Worth, Sol
1981 Studying Visual Communication. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Zimmermann, Patrica
1990 Our trip to Africa: home movies as the eyes of the empire. AfterImage March 4-7.

1992 To arrive is to desire: Program notes for "Our Trip to the Third World: Amateur Travel Films" (HSFA Traveling Exhibit). Pacific Film Archives. April 1992.

1995 Reel Families: A Social History of the Discourse of Amateur Film. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.


Jake Homiak
Director, Human Studies Film Archives


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