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 on films produced outside the English-speaking world.

The purpose of this website is to provide details of the 200+ films examined in the course of the project and to analyse the historical, ethnographic and technical contexts of their production.

The website also indicates how these films may be viewed. Often, this involves no more than clicking on links provided within the website itself.

The Silent Time Machine project – and hence the website – could potentially have covered all films of ethnographic interest made between the ‘birth of cinema’ in the 1890s, and the 1960s, when a major change in the form of ethnographic film came about, strongly linked to the development of portable synchronous sound recording technology.

Since this was clearly impossible within the given time limits, the project was focused exclusively on films about non-European societies and was initially confined to archival materials held in France, the US and Brazil.  Later, it was expanded to include some reference to materials held in archives elsewhere or available on the web and/or as DVDs.

Although the website is primarily aimed at those with an academic interest in ethnographic film history, a sustained effort has been made to reduce specialised technical and theoretical language to a minimum in order to make it more accessible to a broader field of readers, including, most importantly, the descendants of the people who appear in the films.

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 is available here.

Other publications associated with the project are listed here

How to use the website

The various materials presented on this site can be accessed via the ‘pages’ listed along the navigation bar across the top of the site or, on mobile phones, via the ‘Menu’ feature just below the banner image above.

By clicking on one of these, a page is revealed, from which further posts, i.e. sub-pages, can be accessed via hyperlinks.

Readers might find it helpful to begin with the Conceptual page since this outlines the general principles and definitions on which the site is based. They could then use the Search box (upper right on a computer, bottom of the page on a mobile phone), to look for any particular film, film-maker, region or topic of interest to them.

However, they may prefer to browse through the regionally-based catalogue accessible via the Films page. Within each region, films are organised alphabetically by title, with an additional categorisation by period in the case of films about Africa. Three regional listings (Africa, South Asia and Amazonia) begin with a ‘Discussion’ offering an overview of early ethnographic film-making in that particular region.

Another alternative would be to access films via the Film-makers page, where biographical sketches of some 80 leading early ethnographic film-makers are offered.

The other pages are more informational. The Technical page provides access to details of the technology available to early film-makers since this played a large part in determining the form of the films that they produced. This page also provides definitions of technical terms used recurrently on the site.

The Archives page lists the leading archives where early ethnographic films are stored while the Texts page, as well as listing publications specifically associated with the Silent Time Machine project, also offers a series of regionally organised bibliographies listing all the texts referred to in the analyses of particular films.

Many of these texts are available via a link and can be read immediately or downloaded.

Project Author

The Project Author, Paul Henley (right), at the Library of Congress, Washington, May 2015, with the Argentinian anthropologist, Edgar Krebs, preparing to view Jungle of Chang (1951), directed by Paul Fejos.

Until his retirement in July 2020, the author of The Silent Time Machine project, Paul Henley, was 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 use of the archives holding early ethnographic films. 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, Catriona Child, Edgar Teodoro da Cunha, 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, Werner Rutz, 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.