A significant number of early ethnographic films were included in the catalogue of the now-defunct Institut für den Wissenschaftlichen Film (IWF, latterly known as IWF Wissen und Medien), based in Göttingen. The IWF collection covered a broad range of different academic fields, including ‘Ethnology’. A large proportion of the films in the Ethnology category concerned European folk customs, but it also included many films about traditional customary practices that had been shot outside Europe.
Some of these films were produced by the IWF itself, whilst others were acquired from third parties. Some of the latter took the form of specialised sub-collections, such as the Chinese Historical Film Series, which brought together a series of films made by Chinese film-makers in the 1950s and 1960s.
When the IWF closed down in 2015, its collection of films was transferred into the care of the German National Library of Science and Technology (TIB) in Hanover. Here, subject to rights clearances, it is being gradually made available on-line through the TIB AV-portal. In the interim, it is possible to order many of these films in the form of DVDs or go to Hanover in person and watch the films there. For further details see here.
The background to the IWF collection and the Encyclopaedia Cinematographica
The organisation that would eventually be named the IWF in 1956 was set up in the period immediately following the Second World War. Its film collection was initially based on the films gathered together by the Reichsanstalt für Film und Bild in Wissenschaft und Unterricht (RWU), a similar pre-war institution that had acted as a national repository of films made for educational or academic research purposes in Germany since the beginning of the century. A number of the early ethnographic films that are currently available through the TIB portal in fact come from the RWU collection. See here for further details.
In addition to curating the RWU films, the IWF soon began to produce new films as part of its so-called Encyclopaedia Cinematographica (EC), which was initiated in 1952. At first, this was confined to Germany, but later, associated collections were established in a number of other countries, notably in Austria, but also in the Netherlands, the US and Japan.
Films that were ‘published’ by the EC had to conform to a strict set of methodological rules designed to ensure that they were as scientifically objective as possible. The general aim was to produce data, not cinematic narratives. As applied to the making of ethnographic films, the EC methodology encouraged the production of short ‘monothematic’ films that followed processes, cultural as well as technical.
In the hope of ensuring objectivity, the rules required that there should be no interference in the process filmed, nor any changes of chronology at the editing stage. If synchronous sound was not possible for technical reasons (which was usually the case in remote locations until the late 1960s), the films should be silent: soundtracks based on non-synchronous ‘wild’ sounds or library effects were not permissible. Nor should there be any voice-over commentary. Instead, all necessary explanation and contextualisation should be provided in the form of an accompanying written text.
The ultimate goal was to build up an account of a given society by the multiple aggregation of such short process films. They could also be used individually to make comparisons between societies: thus pottery-making in one Amazonian indigenous group could be compared to pottery-making in another, or even to pottery-making in Africa or Europe.
The overall effect of these principles was to encourage a preponderant focus on topics that lent themselves well to the particular underlying methodology: that is, technical processes, subsistence activities, the performance of particular dances (but not a whole ceremonial event). Aspects of social life that were less obviously processual, for example, the emotional tone of interpersonal relationships, were simply not covered.
In the early days, before any film could be ‘published’ in the EC, it had to be personally approved by the then director of the IWF, Gotthard Wolf. He was reputed to interpret the methodology very strictly and would request changes if he felt that a particular film did not conform sufficiently to the principles underlying the collection.
But after Wolf retired in 1975, the interpretation of the rules became more flexible so that by the late 1980s, the IWF was producing ethnographic films that in methodological terms were largely indistinguishable from those then being produced by other ethnographic film-makers in Europe and North America. (For an accessible discussion of the history of the IWF, see Husmann 2007)
One of the most prolific contributors of ethnographic films to the EC was the Brazilian film-maker Harald Schultz (1909-1966). The TIB holds 67 short films by Schultz made between 1944 and 1965. However, none of these are yet available through the TIB portal.