Paul Fejos (also known by his original Hungarian name, Fejös Pál) began his career as a fictional feature film director. Starting in Hungary in 1920, he pursued this career with highly fluctuating fortunes, first in Hollywood, from 1927 to 1931, and then back in Europe, first in France, then Austria and again Hungary , and finally, in Denmark and later Sweden. Although Fejos made a number of films in the course of this career that were hailed as masterpieces, he also had his fair share of both critical and commercial flops.
Fejos first took up ethnographic film-making in 1935 when, after a run of particularly unsuccessful feature films, he was supported by his then-employer, the Danish production company, Nordisk Film, along with Svensk Filmindustri, a Swedish production company, to go on a film-making trip to southern Madagascar. Here he spent two months among the Bara and Antanosy groups before moving on to spend a further month in the Seychelles. He was accompanied by Rudolf Frederiksen (1897-1970), an experienced cameraman with whom he had worked on a number of feature films.
Fejos and Frederiksen shot the material for a series of short films, each approximately ten minutes in duration. Seven of these films have survived and were released in 1936. They deal with the usual subjects of ethnographic films of the period: dancing and religious ceremonies, subsistence activities and body decoration (more particularly, hairstyles). The best-known, and the only one to be distributed in English, is The Bilo, which documents a chief’s funeral ceremony.
There is evidence that a further three films were screened publicly shortly after Fejos returned from Madagascar but they are now lost. In the archives of the Danish Film Institute, there are also scripts for a further sixteen films, but it seems that these were never screened. There is also evidence that Fejos intended to produce a compilation film under the general title, Madagascar, but again it would seem that this project never came to fruition.
The fact that so few films appear to have been completed was probably due to the assessment made by the distribution department of Nordisk that the material that Fejos had brought back had very little commercial potential. Despite this disappointing outcome, Fejos managed to persuade Svensk Filmindustri, the secondary partner in the Madagascar project, to fund another expedition in 1937-38, this time to Southeast Asia and the Far East. Again he took Rudolf Frederiksen with him to act as cameraman.
On this expedition, Fejos and Frederiksen shot material for a further series of ten-minute films, of which the most ethnographically interesting are three ethnofictions shot on Sipora, an island in the Mentawai archipelago, off the coast of Sumatra. These are remarkable for the fact that they feature synchronous sound field recordings in the indigenous language. The most effective is arguably Hövdingens son är död [The Chief’s Son is Dead].
As part of the same expedition, Fejos also went to Chiang Mai inThailand, and here shot a feature-length ethnofiction about the tribulations of a young couple (described as belonging to the ‘Li’ group) as they struggle to make a living as rice-farmers in the face of drought and the depredations of a large tiger. This was first released as En Handfull Ris/ A Handful of Rice in 1940, but was then re-released in various different versions, with similarly variable titles over the coming years. An English-language version for the US market, under title Jungle of Chang, was finally released in 1951.
While working with Svensk Filmindustri, Fejos came into contact with the Swedish entrepreneur, Axel Wenner-Gren. The latter funded Fejos to go on an expedition to Peru in the years 1940-41, initially to do field research in the Andes. This consisted of surveying and photographing pre-Hispanic Inca settlements : in a monograph describing this research, Fejos claims to have discovered eighteen previously unknown sites. He then spent nine months living with the Yagua, an indigenous group whose territory lies close to the Putumayo river in the north of the Peru, near to the Colombian border. Here Fejos made another feature-length ethnofiction, Yagua, released in 1944. This film is structured around a rather feeble melodramatic story that echoes the story of A Handful of Rice in that here too the community is threatened by a tiger, though this time a rather small one. However, this film is nevertheless interesting in that it features indigenous actors engaged in apparently genuine dialogues, all immaculately recorded synchronously in the field.
This was the last film that Fejos would shoot. When he returned to the US in 1941, Axel Wenner-Gren asked him to become the Director of Research of the Viking Fund, a charitable foundation that Wenner-Gren had set up in the US to support research activities in a range of different fields (and also seemingly to dispel US government suspicions due to his one-time friendship with Hermann Goering). Fejos persuaded Wenner-Gren that the foundation should focus exclusively on anthropological research as this would be of great importance in promoting international understanding. Fejos then remained in his position as Director of Research at the Viking Fund and its successor body, the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, until the end of his life.