Please note that this website is still a ‘work in progress’ and that a definitive version will not be available until the end of 2021. Until then all posts should be regarded as provisional and subject to correction.
The Time Machine
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 coincided 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.
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.
By entirely random coincidence, the Lumière brothers gave the first cinema screening in the same year, 1895, that H.G. Wells published his novella The Time Machine, in which the main character travels into the future. The moving image camera, as used by early ethnographic film-makers, was also a sort of time machine, though one that was very different to that envisaged by H.G. Wells.
For although the moving image camera permitted the recording of events unfolding in real time with unprecedented accuracy, paradoxically, at the same time, it also offered the illusion of stopping time, by preserving the present moment for posterity.
Much of the work produced by early ethnographic film-makers has been lost or destroyed, and much of what remains lies hidden in archives scattered across the world. However, the advent of digital technology now offers the opportunity to recover this work and make it available to audiences of all kinds.
Silence and Synchronicity
The silence associated with the early use of this ‘time machine’ technology was always something of a conceit. It would be more accurate, if less poetic , to say that early films were ‘asynchronous’ rather that ‘silent’.
For despite the name, ‘silent’ films were often not silent, at least not when they were being projected to an audience. During screenings, they would typically be accompanied by music and other sound effects. Ethnographic films in particular would often be screened to accompany a lecture, with the lecturer speaking during, as well as before and after, the screening.
Sometimes these projections would even be accompanied by sounds recorded on location. As early as 1900, the British ethnographic filmmaker, Alfred Haddon, gave a public screening of the film that he had shot on the island of Mer, lying in the straits between Australia and New Guinea, during which he simultaneously played a sound recording made in the field on awax-cylinder phonograph.
By the 1920s, some films of ethnographic interest already carried their own sound-tracks, usually consisting of voice-over commentary or extra-diegetic music, but even, in some cases, of music and other sounds recorded on phonographs in field. An early example of the latter would be La Croisière noire, released in 1926 and directed by Léon Poirier, which documented the progress of a French colonial expedition across North and Central Africa in 1924-25.
However, the soundtracks of these films were mixed and superimposed at the editing stage, and if they included speech, this was not ‘in synch’ with the action on the screen because it was still not possible to get cameras and audio recording devices run at exactly the same speed. Although feature films made in Hollywood studios began increasingly to include a certain amount of synchronous speech from 1927 onwards, the equipment involved was both expensive and very bulky, and therefore problematic to use outside a controlled studio situation.
It was not until the early 1930s that films of ethnographic interest, shot on location in the field, would feature an element of synchronicity. Possibly the first example was Matto Grosso, a commercial travelogue released in 1932, which was based on a US expedition to Brazil the previous year supported in part by the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.
Later in the decade, in 1937-38, Paul Fejos shot a number of short ethnographic films involving some elements of synchronous sound on the island of Sipora, part the Mentawai archipelago off the coast of Sumatra, of which the most effective is The Chief’s Son is Dead. In 1940-41, he made even more extensive use of synchronous sound in Yagua, a film about the Peruvian Amazonian indigenous group of the same name which was released in 1944.
However, the equipment required to achieve synchronous sound in these films was still very unwieldy. It remained impossible for film-makers to casually follow their subjects around as they went about their everyday lives. Instead the equipment had to be set up in a particular place and the subjects encouraged to perform their life in front of it.
In fact, it would not be until 1960 that a synchronous system was developed that was sufficiently lightweight for film-makers to follow their subjects around in a largely uninhibited manner. Different versions of this technology were developed on the two sides of the Atlantic: the European version was actively promoted by the French anthropologist, Jean Rouch, in the course of making Chronicle of a Summer, an ethnographic portrait of the city of Paris, in conjunction with the sociologist-philosopher, Edgar Morin.
The duration of the synchronicity of this system was initially very brief: it would not be until the end of 1960s that portable sound recording systems allowed filmmakers to to keep their subjects’ speech ‘in synch’ for more than three minutes. But once these initial restrictions were overcome, the effect on both the editorial and aesthetic aspects of ethnographic film-making were profound.
Instead of being talked about, the subjects could now talk freely among themselves and also with the film-maker. Instead of being structured by a voice-over commentary, an ethnographic film could be built around the interplay between the subjects, whose characters and ideas could be communicated in a more complex way. The subjects of ethnographic films need no longer be ideal-types ‘representing’ their cultures: they could now be individuals with idiosyncratic opinions that could even be at odds with their community’s cultural norms.
Although ethnographic films had rarely been absolutely silent, now silence was absolutely banished as the genre was radically transformed. It was on these grounds that this watershed moment in the history of ethnographic film was chosen as an appropriate endpoint for the Silent Time Machine investigation of early ethnographic film.
Defining Ethnographic Film
How, precisely, to define the genre of ethnographic film has been the subject of much debate in the academic literature. The working definition underlying The Silent Time Machine is based on the following principles:
- ‘ethnographic filmmaking’ should be understood as a particular means of doing ‘ethnography’
- ‘ethnography’ refers to a particular form of fieldwork/location practice as well as to the analysis of the results of that practice and their representation in filmic or textual forms
- the concept of ‘ethnography’, both as a practice and a form of representation, has varied over time
- ‘ethnographicness’, the quality of being ethnographic, is a relative matter, i.e. a film can be strongly or weakly ethnographic, or lie somewhere in between
- it is not necessary for a film to be conceived by its maker as ‘ethnographic’ in order to possess a certain degree of ‘ethnographicness’
The changing meaning of ‘ethnography’
The term ‘ethnography’ is generally taken by anthropologists to refer to the systematic study of the customs, material practices, social relations and beliefs constituting the way of life of particular communities on the basis of first-hand observations made during the course of personal immersion in the lives of those communities.
The general aim of ‘ethnography’ is not to make any judgements of a moral or an aesthetic kind, nor to make practical suggestions for social or cultural change, but rather to describe how these communities work on a day-to-day basis, and how the customs, social relations and beliefs associated with these ways of life are understood and experienced by the members of the communities who practise them.
In the early years of anthropology as an academic discipline, at least in the English-language traditions, ‘ethnography’ often consisted of ‘survey’ work, i.e. moving from one community to another, staying for relatively brief periods and working through interpreters to take measurements, make observations and assemble collections, notably of artefacts, but also collections of images, moving or still, all of which could analyzed at length upon return to the metropolitan base.
This early notion of ethnography was displaced by the practice developed by Bronislaw Malinowski, a Polish anthropologist attached to the London School of Economics, who developed his distinctive method while stranded for a period of two years in New Guinea during the First World War. Later dubbed ‘participant observation’, this involved extended first hand immersion in the community of study and use of the subjects’ own language to gather information, though the subject of study – customs, relations and beliefs as understood and experienced by the subjects – remained largely the same.
Malinowski was an anthropologist who worked in a culturally exotic location and in popular usages, ‘ethnography’ continues to be used as a short-hand for the study of ‘other cultures’. But in academic contexts, this was already an inadequate definition as far back as the 1930s, when members of the Chicago School of Ethnography started to do research on the streets of their own city.
Ethnographic methods are still used today to study small isolated communities living very traditional lives. But they are also applied to the study of laboratories of scientists working on the human genome project. Although still strongly associated with anthropology, ethnographic methods are also now employed in a broad range of other academic disciplines and even used outside academic life by market researchers, advertising agencies and polling organisations.
‘Ethnographic film’ and The Silent Time Machine
By this more contemporary definition of ‘ethnography’, an ‘ethnographic film’ could be about any community in the world. In relation to the early years of cinema, one could argue, for example, that the large number of short films made in France by the Lumière company between 1895 and 1905 offer a remarkably rich ethnographic account of the customs and practices of French society at the turn of the twentieth century.
One could similarly describe the films produced by the GPO Film Unit in the UK in the 1930s as providing invaluable ethnographic insights into the life experience of British working class communities. (See, for example, Spare Time, a very ‘ethnographic’ film released by Humphrey Jennings in 1939 here ).
However, to adopt this more modern, culture-free, definition of ‘ethnography’ would be to enlarge the field of study to even more unmanageable proportions that it is already.The Silent Time Machine therefore remains confined to films about ‘other cultures’, even while the anachronistic nature of this way of delimiting the field of study is freely acknowledged.
For most of the period considered by The Silent Time Machine, there were very few films that were very strongly ethnographic by intention, design and practice. On the other hand, there were many films that showed at least some degree of ‘ethnographicness’ in that they showed some evidence of ethnographic awareness and understanding based on the personal immersion of the film-maker in the world of the subjects.
Categories of early ethnographic film
For the purposes of this website, various different categories of early film featuring some degree of ethnographicness will be identified, though in practice the boundaries between these categories of film were often blurred:
view – this is an English translation of the French term, vue, which was the term used to describe the first Lumière films, and indeed films generally in the earliest days of cinema. These films were typically very short, usually less than a minute, which was the maximum duration of the standard single 50ft or 17m roll of 35mm film. They almost invariably consisted of a single wide-angle shot from a static position on a tripod. In effect, they were like the magic lantern slides that they replaced, except that the images were moving.
The Lumière company had stopped producing films by 1905, but cameramen working for the Archives de la planète project continued to shoot ‘views’ without any narrative ambition and an unchanging framing, right up until the collapse of the project in 1931. However, as the technology improved, the ‘views’ became longer.
documentation film – this term is used here to describe the early films made by anthropologists. In general form, they were not unlike ‘views’ in that typically, they would be shot from a single static position, on a tripod, and with no variation of framing. This reflected the widely held view, prominent until well after Second World War that the principal role of the moving image camera in anthropological research should be to provide an entirely objective record of cultural phenomena.
Typical of this category of film would be the short films of Kwakạwakạ’wakw (Kwakiutl) dancing made by Franz Boas in 1930, and in a more developed form, a number of Margaret Mead’s films on Bali in the late 1930s, made in collaboration with Gregory Bateson. This kind of film was very different to those in the category of ‘documentary’ (see below)
reportage film – this is the term used here to describe the early films produced by the French newsreel agencies, Gaumont, Pathé and others. These films consisted, in effect, of a series of ‘views’ linked together by intertitle cards and aimed at providing a summary portrait of a place or an event. However, these films were different from ‘views’ in that they could involve a combination of close-ups, mid-shots and long-shots. Sometimes they would even be hand-tinted in colour. They could also be loosely structured into a clear beginning-middle-end narrative form.
In the early days of cinema, cameramen working for Gaumont and Pathé ranged across many different regions in the world producing some remarkable short films of the cultural phenomena that they encountered. A particularly effective example concerns a religious procession in Delhi released in 1909.
expedition film – this term will be used here to describe films made in the course of expeditions carried out for some purpose other than film-making itself, for example, geographical exploration, scientific investigation or even just for hunting.
These films typically have a strongly linear narrative structure based on the progress of the expedition itself. Sequences of ethnographic interest are usually found interpolated between shots of the natural environment, local wildlife and the logistical travails of the expedition. La Croisière noire (1926), referred to above, would be the type example here.
travelogue – the difference between the ‘travelogue’ and the ‘expedition film’, as these terms are used on this website, is that whereas in the case of an expedition film, the film was made as a by-product of a journey that had another purpose, in the case of travelogue, the purpose of the journey was the making of the film.
Another difference is that travelogues tend to have some sort of celebrity presenter. This feature can be traced to the origins of the form in the film material produced to support a public lecture. Initially, the material would be screened as the lecturer spoke about it in person in the theatre. But by the 1920s, the lecturer had become incorporated into the ‘travelogue’ film itself, be it as an on-screen presence or merely in the form of a voice–over commentary.
While expedition films were usually made for educational or propaganda purposes, and therefore tended to be serious in tone, the principal purpose of travelogues was to provide entertainment and they therefore tended to treat their subjects in a light-hearted, jocose manner. The type case here would be the films made by Martin and Osa Johnson in Africa and Melanesia. Even though these films are disfigured by crass, even racist jokes, they may still contain passages of ethnographic interest.
informational film – this term may be applied to a range of different films whose purpose was to provide information in a didactic or propagandistic manner. The journey as a structuring device was less prominent in this category of film.
The Gaumont company produced many films with educational objectives of this kind, often advised by leading geographers and other academic specialists. Charities, missionary organizations and public bodies also produced informational films that aimed to show their supporters the kinds of social and cultural environments in which they were carrying out their work.
documentary – in the 1920s, the term ‘documentary’ meant something very different to its current meaning. At that time, it referred to a film in which real events had been ‘storified’, a process described famously by John Grierson, head of the British GPO film unit, as ‘the creative treatment of actuality’.
The early works of Robert Flaherty (Nanook of the North, Moana) are usually cited as the original type cases. However, these films involved a great deal of fictionalisation, so much so that if made today, they would be called ‘drama-documentaries’ or ‘ethnofictions’ (see below).
On this website, the term ‘documentary’ will be used in its more modern sense, i.e. to refer to a film that purports to offer a representation of the real world, even if the original footage has been manipulated and re-ordered for narrative purposes.
ethnodrama – this is a term coined for the purposes of this website in order to refer to films that are set in a largely authentic ethnographic setting, typically involving an indigenous cast playing a version of their lives, but which are structured by an obviously external story, often of a highly melodramatic nature.
The type case here would be the early Edward S. Curtis classic, In the Land of the Head Hunters (1914), but it would also include such diverse works as the films made for purposes of religious edification by the Dutch SVD missionary Father Simon Buis on the Indonesian island of Flores in the 1920s, and Siliva the Zulu, a film made in South Africa by an Italian film-maker, Attilio Gatti, also in the 1920s.
ethnofiction – this term is used here to refer to films which, like ‘ethnodramas’, are set in a culturally authentic setting and involve an indigenous cast acting out a fictional version of their own lives. But whereas in the case of an ‘ethnodrama’, the narrative of the film is based on an externally imposed fictional story, the narrative structure of an ‘ethnofiction’ is based rather on what are the supposedly normal real-life routines and activities of the subjects.
This term was first used in relation to certain films by Jean Rouch produced in the 1950s, but on this website, it is extrapolated backwards in time and applied to Nanook of the North and similar films of the 1920s and 1930s .