Caiuby Novaes, Sylvia (2006a)

Etnografia e Imagem: Textos apresentados como exigência para o concurso de Livre-Docência, na Área de Antropologia e Imagem. São Paulo: Departamento de Antropologia, FFLCH-USP.

A pdf is available here

Kambrambo – New Guinea (Lower Sepik) : Boys’ Initiation Rites {Kambrambo – Neu Guinea (Unterer Sepik) : Riten bei der Knabeninitiation} (1963) – dir. Felix Speiser

Crocodile models for the Kambrambo initiation ceremony. On the left front, two genuine crocodile skulls with inserted wooden pegs as eyes; on the right, some men in devout silence. Photograph probably taken by Felix Speiser in 1930 and reproduced in the study guide published by Carl August Schmitz in 1964, p.4

5½ mins., b&w, silent – titles and intertitles in German.

Production: Encyclopaedia Cinematographica

Source: IWF collection at the TIB, details here


This film was edited by Carl August Schmitz (1920-1966), a Melanesianist anthropologist based at the University of Basel, and Werner Rutz of the Institut für den Wissenschaftlichen Film (IWF), Göttingen. The original material was shot in November 1930 under the direction of the leading Swiss anthropologist, Felix Speiser. According to some accounts, it was filmed by a zoology student, Heini Hediger (1908-1992), whereas according to others, it was Speiser himself who did the shooting.

A study guide written by Schmitz and published by the IWF in 1964 is available here.

At some point after the Second World War, this material also appears to have been incorporated into Mystères du Pacific, a longer film of 24 mins., aimed at more general audiences and produced by the Swiss producer, Max Linder. This carries a voice-over commentary by the Genevan anthropologist Marc-Rodolphe Sauter (1914-1983) and is reported to have been screened to the Société de géographie of Geneva.

Film Content:

Note: it was not possible to view this film for the Silent Time Machine project. The description below is based on the IWF/TIB catalogue entry.

This film shows the last phase of a boys’ initiation ceremony in the village of Kambrambo, on the lower Sepik River, in Papua New Guinea.

After an establishing shot of men and women in ceremonial dress on the verandah of the men’s house, the Sepik river in the background, the film opens with a sequence of men playing elaborately decorated sacred flutes as they dance around a long line of initiands. 

It then shows the two ‘crocodile’ models, constructed on a bamboo frame and covered with painted palm leaves. The neck of each ‘crocodile’ features a skull, which is reminiscent of Sepik canoe shields.

The crocodiles are then shown being carried on the shoulders of a number of senior men. One of the initiands, gripped with fear, tries to escape, but the senior men grab him and force him into the wide-open mouth of the crocodile and then lift it up. Eventually, the initiand climbs out of the crocodile and sits astride it. 

The next scene involves the ritual blood-letting of the intiands by rubbing their bodies with thorny vines. The intiands are considered dead at this point and cannot walk themselves, so they have to be carried on the shoulders of their godparents. A close-up shows the parallel scars that typically appear on the back on an initand as result of this blood-letting. A young initiate is then lifted up by several men and his skin scratched with the lower jaw of a crocodile.

The concluding part of the film shows the destruction of the symbolic crocodiles. The painted palm leaf coverings are taken into the men’s house and the bamboo frames are burned. The final sequence shows the swinging of a bull-roarer, the beating of a water drum and once again, dancing with the sacred flutes.

TextsCosandey 2002-03.


On Indian Trails by the Pilcomayo River {På Indianstigar vid Pilcomayofloden} (1950) – dir. Wilhelm Hansson and Mauritz Jesperson.

Pilagá warriors supposedly on the look-out for an enemy indigenous group. On Indian Trails (1950) – dir. Wilhelm Hansson and Mauritz Jesperson.

51 mins, b&w, silent (music in some parts), titles and intertitles in Swedish.

Production: Swedish Chaco Travellers Association

Source: Museum of World Culture, Gothenburg. A version with Spanish titles and intertitles produced in 2016 is available here.


This film was shot in the course of a privately funded Swedish expedition in 1920 to the Formosa ‘national territory’ of northeastern Argentina. This province lies within the general region known as the Gran Chaco which extends across the frontiers into Bolivia and Paraguay.

The main part of the film documents the encounter between the expedition and the Pilagá, one of the main indigenous groups of the Argentinian Chaco. It also includes scenes of the life of the local criollos, i.e. non-indigenous cattle-herding settlers then moving into the region.

The film was shot by actor and film-maker Wilhelm Hansson (1885-1948). A photograph of the expeditionaries on their way home suggests that Hanson was using a Burke and James ‘Universal’ camera, an aluminium-cased model then only recently developed for particularly rugged environments. Both the technical and aesthetic standard of Hansson’s shooting is generally good, though as the technology of the time required, many scenes were very evidently staged.

Hanson was assisted on location by Mauritz Jesperson (1888-1969), who served as the expedition guide. Jesperson, who was also Swedish, had arrived in the Argentina in 1913 and would continue live in the Chaco for many years, establishing a cotton plantation there and assisting in the development of colonies based on cattle-herding.  At the same time, he wrote a number of books about his experiences in the region, including his encounters with its indigenous inhabitants.

First versions of the film were produced in 1922 and 1924 under the titles With Stockholmers amongst Redskins (Med Stockholmare bland rödskinn ) and Amongst Indians and Gauchos (Bland indiander och gauchos). These are described on the Swedish Film Database here as being variously 45 and 60 mins in duration.

Some scenes from the  original material were also used in newsreels, or were edited into short films to be shown before the main feature film in cinemas in Sweden, Germany, Italy and France between 1921 and 1943. Despite this widespread distribution, Hansson was disappointed with the economic returns from the film.

In 1947, Hansson began to work on a new version but he died the following year, leaving Jesperson to take over the editing. This version was sponsored by a private organisation, the Swedish Chaco Travellers Association and was intended, not for cinema release, but for circulation around specialist audiences. It was finally released in 1950 under the title, On Indian Trails by the Pilcomayo River (På Indianstigar vid Pilcomayofloden).

The film is silent, though in some parts the original may have featured flute music recorded in the 1902 in the Tarija valley in Bolivia. These recordings, entitled ‘Inca March’ (Inkamarchen) were made during an expedition led by Erland Nordenskiöld (1877-1932), a foundational figure in the Swedish tradition of Americanist ethnography associated with Gothenburg Museum.

A version with Spanish titles and intertitles was produced in 2016 by Carolina Soler. This was based on an original script by Mauritz Jesperson discovered in Gothenburg Museum by Anne Gustavsson, who also assisted with the editing of the Spanish version.

Film Content

In development

According to one of the film intertitles, the principal goal of the expedition was to visit the Pilagá indigenous people. However, in various associated documents, an interest is also expressed in studying the potential establishment of criollo colonies in the areas visited by the expedition.

The first third of the film is dedicated to the introduction of the expedition members, their progress through the tall grasses of the Chaco and their visit to a community of criollo cattle herding settler families.

Finally, after about twenty minutes, the expedition arrives at a Pilagá village on the edge of the forest, close to the Pilcomayo river. After some preliminary pans across the village houses and an introduction to the people, the film proceeds to cover the standard topics of ethnographic films at that time, i.e. crafts (pottery, weaving by women) and subsistence activities (hunting and fishing by men, gathering of roots and grasses by women).

The film then turns to more recreational subjects. Children are shown playing with their pets, including a baby ostrich, while men are shown engaged in a dice game.

Most of the intertitles are straightforwardly descriptive, but some are crassly jocose in the manner typical of the travelogue genre. For example, an image of a young woman with an ample bosom is accompanied by an intertitle that refers to the “eternal female” enhancing her beauty with a necklace of shells and waving her fire fan with a “seductive air”.

After a scene of a family on the move across the savanna with the man carrying only his weapons and the woman everything else, including a child, there is a rather voyeuristic sequence of women gathering water, who hurry past the camera to hide their nudity.

The last quarter of the film is mostly dedicated to ceremonial activities, broadly defined. It begins with women preparing aloja, a fermented drink based on the chañar fruit. Some young men are then seen gathering for a ‘cocktail’ at the house of the chief, Negaladik.

This is followed by some dancing sequences and competitive spear-throwing. There is also a brief sequence, obviously staged, of a shaman effecting a cure.

A ‘war dance’ then supposedly anticipates a conflict with a neighbouring indigenous group. Negaladik gives an inspiring speech and an impressive group of 60-80 warriors set off across the savanna in all their finery, feather head-dresses quivering in the wind.

The expedition, meanwhile, returns to ‘civilization’. An intertitle laments the fact that ten years later, the indigenous way of life shown in the film was brought to an end by the invasion of the Pilagá’s lands by ‘the white man’ – presumably represented in this case by the criollo cattle herders seen earlier in the film.

The film then ends with a nostalgic recapitulation of some of the most striking shots shown in earlier scenes.

Text: Gustavsson and Giordano 2013.

Many thanks to Anne Gustavsson for her revision of this entry and for providing the link to the Spanish version of the film.