This website arises from The Silent Time Machine: recovering early ethnographic film, a research project carried out by Professor Paul Henley, University of Manchester, between January 2014 and February 2018. It was supported by the Leverhulme Trust through a Major Research Fellowship award (MRF-2012-121) and by the University of Manchester.
Please note that it is still a ‘work in progress’ and that a definitive version will not be available until the end of 2020. Until then, all posts should be regarded as provisional and subject to correction and/or development.
Aims of project and website
The general aim of The Silent Time Machine research project was to reconsider the history of early ethnographic film as it is generally understood in the English-speaking world, in part by re-evaluating the works that are already part of the established ‘canon’ and in part by identifying little or unknown works, with particular emphasis being given to films produced outside the English-speaking world.
As even a superficial review of all the available material across the globe would consume several lifetimes, attention was initially focused on the materials available in a limited number of film archives, particularly in France, the US and Brazil, with some reference also to materials held in archives elsewhere or available on the web and/or in the form of DVDs.
The specific purpose of this website is to share a summary account of what it was possible to achieve in the course of the four-year duration of The Silent Time Machine, with particular attention being given to the provision of information as to where and how early ethnographic films may be viewed. Many can now be viewed simply by clicking on the links provided on this website.
Preliminary results of the project are also available in
Beyond observation : a history of authorship in ethnographic film published by Manchester University Press (2020)
The first two chapters deal with films of ethnographic interest made before 1940.
A free download of this book available here.
Other publications associated with the project are listed here
Although this website is aimed, in the first instance, at those with an academic interest in ethnographic film history, an effort has been made to keep the use of specialised technical or theoretical language to a minimum in the hope that this will make it accessible to a broader field of readers, including, most importantly, the descendants of those people who appear in the films.
The time-frame of The Silent Time Machine research project ran from the 1890s, when moving image cameras were first used for ethnographic purposes, until the 1960s, when the development of portable synchronous sound technology transformed the genre of ethnographic film, allowing for much more sophisticated and complex works.
This coincides with a period of radical social and political change, arguably unequalled in human history, either before or since. Cinema was but one of several new technologies developed around the beginning of this period that greatly facilitated communication and physical movement across the globe: others included the telephone, radio, the motor-car and the aeroplane. As a result of the diffusion of these social, political and technological changes around the world in the first half of the twentieth century, many formerly isolated communities found themselves progressively integrated into world economic and political systems.
The social consequences of this integration were often profound, with many communities undergoing a qualitatively greater degree of change within this period than they had seen in millenia. These consequences were also often highly negative: many communities were dispersed or decimated, in some cases, even entirely destroyed. Many traditional customs, beliefs and practices were abandoned.
Recovering early ethnographic film
Ethnographic filmmakers were highly conscious of the processes of radical social and cultural change taking place in the period of study, and sought through their films to preserve a record of threatened traditional forms of life. They worked with inadequate technology and often limited skill; even so, the films that they left behind bear witness to a remarkable period in human history.
Much of this work has been lost or destroyed, and much of what remains lies hidden in archives scattered across the world. However, the advent of digital technology offers the opportunity to recover this work and make it available to audiences of all kinds.
The author of The Silent Time Machine project, Paul Henley, is Professor of Visual Anthropology at the University of Manchester, United Kingdom. After training as a social anthropologist at the University of Cambridge and conducting doctoral fieldwork in Venezuelan Amazonia in the 1970s, he later attended the UK’s National Film and Television School, at Beaconsfield, near London, graduating as a documentary director-cameraman in 1987.
He was then the founding director of the Granada Centre for Visual Anthropology at the University of Manchester, 1987-2014, before standing down from that position in order to take up the Leverhulme Trust Major Research Fellowship that enabled him to carry out the Silent Time Machine project. As well as producing numerous academic publications on both Amazonian and visual anthropology topics, he has also made documentary films both for academic and television audiences.
Acknowledgements and thanks
The Project Author would like to acknowledge and thank the many different people who facilitated his access and use of the archives holding examples of early ethnographic film. They include particularly –
in London : Susanne Hammacher, the Film Officer of the Royal Anthropological Institute for most of the period of The Silent Time Machine project, and Kathleen Dickson of the British Film Institute National Archive
in Paris : Béatrice de Pastre and her colleagues at the Archives françaises du film of the Centre National du Cinéma (CNC), and Valérie Perlès and her colleagues at the Musée Albert-Kahn
in Amsterdam : Rommy Albers of the Eye Film Museum
in Hanover : Paul Feindt of the German National Library of Science and Technology (TIB)
in Vienna : Katarina Matiasek of the Department of Anthropology, University of Vienna, Manfred Kaufmann of the Weltmuseum, Christian Liebl of the Phonogrammarchiv of the Austrian Academy of Sciences, and Susanne Rocca and her colleagues at the Austrian Filmarchiv
in New York : Peter Whiteley and his colleagues at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), and Mark Mahoney of the Wenner-Gren Foundation
in Philadelphia: Kate Pourshariati and Alex Pezzati of the University of Philadelphia Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (Penn Museum)
in Washington : Jake Homiak, Mark White and Pam Wintle of the National Anthropological Film Center (NAFC) (until recently the Human Studies Film Archive, HFSA) at the Smithsonian Museum Support Centre in Suitland, Maryland, and Rosemary Hanes of the Moving Image Section of the Library of Congress
in Brazil : Rodrigo Piquet Saboia de Mello and his colleagues at the Museu do Índio in Rio de Janeiro, and at the Universidade de São Paulo (USP), Paula Morgado of the Laboratório de Imagem e Som em Antropologia (LISA), and Sandra de la Torre Larceda Campos of the Museu de Arqueologia e Etnologia (MAE)
in Australia : Jason Gibson, then of the Humanities Division, Museum Victoria, Melbourne
Many other colleagues and friends have advised or otherwise helped in the preparation of this website or the project more generally. Among many others, the Project Author would like to thank particularly Eddy Appels, Marcus Banks, Margit Berner, Sylvia Caiuby Novaes, Teresa Castro, Edgar da Cunha, Catriona Child, Faisal Devji, Michael Eaton, Beate Engelbrecht, Barberine Feinberg, Françoise Foucault, Gyorgy Gereby, Harriet and Peter Getzels, Aaron Glass, Alison Griffiths, Joëlle Hauzeur, Eric H. Hobson, Paul Hockings, Stephen Hugh-Jones, Rolf Husmann, Irmelin Joelsson, Éric Jolly, Pierre Jordan, Itsushi Kawase, Edgar Krebs, David MacDougall, Alan MacFarlane, Alan Marcus, Patricia Monte-Mor, José Inácio Parente, Laurent Pellé, Marc-Henri Piault, Oksana Sarkisova, Michaela Schaeuble, Reimar Schefold and James Woodburn.
Regarding the administration of the project, the Project Author is greatly indebted to Nicola Thorp, Cassandra Hughes and Reena Mistry of the Leverhulme Trust, and to Alica Alaksova, Elizabeth Langton, Gillian Whitworth and Val Lenferna at the University of Manchester.
Specifically in relation to the preparation of this website, the Project Author is equally indebted to Rohan Jackson and Eli Bugler of Nomadit.