After 5 Decades, Boston Filmmakers’ Mark On Documentaries Still Resonates

N!ai in John Marshall's “N!ai, The Story of a !Kung Woman" (Courtesy DER)
N!ai in John Marshall's “N!ai, The Story of a !Kung Woman" (Courtesy DER)

On a trip in the 1950s, Boston-based filmmaker John Marshall met the Ju/’hoansi people from southern Africa and did something completely new in documentary film. He became friends with them — not just casual friends, but lifelong friends. The rapport permeates the dozens of strikingly intimate films Marshall made about the Ju/’hoansi throughout more than 50 years.

In one of Marshall’s Ju’Hoansi films, “N!ai, The Story of a !Kung Woman,” N!ai tells the camera, or Marshall, that while married she “slept with other men. I cheated. People were furious.” Marshall met N!ai when she was a girl and his films follow her, and other members of her family, through the tumult of war, apartheid, and seismic generational change for more than five decades.

Marshall’s immersive approach to understanding human behavior is why he’s considered one of the grandfathers of ethnographic cinema, a distinct thread within nonfiction film-making that merges anthropology with documentary film.

The field blossomed in Boston in the 1960s and '70s, largely through Marshall and his colleague Timothy Asch, who had both worked with Harvard Film Study Center’s Robert Gardner, another grandfather of the field.

The trio represent the essential threads of ethnographic cinema, says Alice Apley, the executive director of Documentary Educational Resources (DER), founded by Marshall and Asch in 1968. Apley says Marshall made “longstanding, deep relationships with his subjects,” while Asch “created a model for working with anthropologists.” Gardner “brought this whole other poetic aesthetic,” visible in his classic, “Dead Birds,” about tribal practices in New Guinea.

As DER celebrates its 50-year anniversary this fall, some who were involved from the start recall just how much DER's founders changed the landscape of documentary film-making.

Filmmaker John Marshall documented the Ju/’hoansis for more than 50 years. (Courtesy DER)
Filmmaker John Marshall documented the Ju/’hoansis for more than 50 years. (Courtesy DER)

DER’s President Sue Cabezas calls DER’s early years “an exciting time.” Filmmakers from all over the world saw Boston as a destination for interdisciplinary experimentation. She says that Marshall and Asch had pragmatic as well as academic goals. They devised short, single scene “sequence” films along with study guides (there are 15 of the Ju/’hoansi), to bring into classrooms. They quickly saw a need to make similar connections on behalf of other filmmakers and started reaching out to people they knew, like Sarah Elder.

In the early ‘70s, Elder apprenticed with Asch at DER, where she says she invented her own career. “I went in as a feminist, resentful I was making coffee for everybody,” she says. She soon realized she had access to profound conversations about how to document other cultures in the world. Mixing trailers, building soundtracks, and transcribing interviews later informed her own filmmaking. Eventually DER started distributing the series she made with with Leonard Kamerling about Alaskan indigenous people.

Elder says she learned a great deal from Asch but they didn’t always agree. Once they were peers, and friends, their debates over how to subtitle, how to frame a shot, or the politics of indigenous peoples, would sometimes last a decade. “We both started liking close wide shots,” she says, explaining that shooting film from about four feet away most closely mimic the way humans meaningfully interact.

John Marshall filmed began filming individuals from about four feet away, closely mimic the way humans meaningfully interact. (Courtesy DER)
John Marshall filmed began filming individuals from about four feet away, closely mimic the way humans meaningfully interact. (Courtesy DER)

Elder says that their relationship lasted long enough that technology, the awareness of primarily white filmmakers documenting indigenous peoples, as well as the place of power of the filmmaker all dramatically changed. By the time Asch made his last Venezuelan film (his Yanomamö series made with anthropologist Napoleon Chagon about native Venezuelans is unparalleled), Elder says, “Tim was pretty certain that he should put down the camera and let [the subjects] make their own films.”

This transformation can be seen not just in DER’s founders’ films but also in the more than 850 films the organization has distributed or archived, says Apley. She remembers seeing “A Kalahari Family,” a culmination of the Ju/’hoansi series, at the MFA, Boston in 2003 and marveling at hearing Marshall’s voice for the first time. Prior to that, Marshall had typically used an observational approach that can obscure the filmmaker’s hand in decision making. Apley says that when she made the short documentary, “Remembering John Marshall” (2006), she “wanted it to be about his absence and presence in film.”

Now, documentarians often discuss the degree of power a filmmaker has over her or his subject as well as the transparency of that relationship. Apley says that for certain films, “you want to know and have it acknowledged who the filmmakers are and how they got there.” For her, the best films “are ones in which the filmmaker goes and spends time in a community before they bring out their camera.” Fifty years documenting one small group of people is a high standard, she acknowledges about Marshall with a laugh, then realizes it may be unprecedented.

While many years have passed since both founders died, DER continues to look for films that uphold their legacies. Apley sees their influence especially in recipients of the annual John Marshall Award, which are not necessarily films that DER distributes. Anna Roussillon’s “I Am the People” (2014) is about a rural Egyptian man grappling with political upheaval during the Arab Spring, “very far from the young revolutionaries in Tarir Square,” says Apley. “The filmmaker spent a long time with the subject’s family before taking out a camera.”

A title screen for “N!ai, The Story of a !Kung Woman" (Courtesy DER)
A title screen for “N!ai, The Story of a !Kung Woman" (Courtesy DER)

That was also the case for Tala Hadid’s “House in the Fields” (2017), which follows two teen sisters from a remote Moroccan community over six years. “You learn a lot about their ambivalence around getting married,” she says, and that impacts how the viewer experiences a later wedding scene. “It’s not objective filmmaking, you’re really with them,” remarks Apley.

DER presented the 2018 John Marshall Award to “Hale County This Morning, This Evening” (2018), an experimental community portrait of African Americans in the American South by photographer RaMell Ross. “It very much shows everyday life, the joy, the hardships, the aspirations. It’s beautiful,” says Apley.

Elder says that DER’s mission to document changing culture and create a human archive is as important as any national museum. While she appreciates that her 1988 film about traditional Yup’ik Eskimo dance, “The Drums Of Winter,” is part of the United States National Film Registry, she worries about all the other films — and the stories they tell — that need to be preserved. “DER had this incredible, extraordinary vision to see there’s value in documenting all peoples of the world,” she says.

Sarah Elder’sThe Drums Of Winter” will screen at the Margaret Mead Film Festival in New York City as just one more than a dozen events planned by DER to celebrate its 50th anniversary. Cambridge events include a screening series at Harvard Film Archive as well as panel discussion about “N!ai, The Story of a !Kung Woman.”


Erin Trahan Film Writer
Erin Trahan writes about film for WBUR.



More from WBUR

Listen Live