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Monday, January 14, 2013

Bringing the Kalahari to Mexico City

Postcard for Cine en Culturas retrospective of
John Marshall's work, held Nov 10-14, 2012 in Mexico City.
From November 10-14, 2012, audiences in Mexico City were treated to an extensive retrospective of the ethnographic and documentary films of John Marshall. Marshall is best known for his life-long involvement with the Ju/'hoansi, a group of !Kung Bushmen who live in the Kalahari Desert in northeastern Namibia. This retrospective covered both major films and lesser-known works about the Ju/'hoansi, and also explored Marshall's work in the United States, including a documentary series on police work in Pittsburgh, PA.

The retrospective was hosted by Cine en Culturas, an annual program produced by Ethnoscopio as part of the DocsDF documentary film festival. The program was put together with the collaboration of the Human Studies Film Archives (archival home of Marshall's Ju/'hoan Bushman collection) and Documentary Educational Resources (distributor of Marshall's films).

Trailer for the John Marshall retrospective edited by Cine en Culturas.

The incredible team behind Cine en Culturas brought Marshall's work to a Spanish-speaking audience for the first time. Their efforts resulted in Spanish-subtitled versions of all the films shown, including the six-hour series, A Kalahari Family, as well as a fine catalog with a mix of new and previously published essays on Marshall's work, all carefully translated into Spanish. The catalog presents important reflection and scholarship on Marshall's films that was previously only available in English, including an article by our own Jake Homiak, Director of Anthropology Collections and Archives Program at the National Museum of Natural History.

Ticket holders line up at the Cineteca Nacional in Mexico City
for a screening of John Marshall's N!ai, The Story of a !Kung Woman.
© Francisco Palma Lagunas
I was lucky enough to attend the retrospective as an invited guest and speaker. What a gift it was to spend a week immersed in Marshall's films and engaged in discussions about his work and his legacy. Mexico City filmgoers provided the best gift of all - sold-out screenings almost every night of the retrospective, held primarily at the beautiful, newly-renovated Cineteca Nacional. A Kalahari Family (2002) was screened in its entirety throughout one afternoon and evening in a smaller, more intimate theater in the city's energetic downtown. Not only did this six-hour marathon sell out, but many audience members stayed long after for a passionate discussion about the series' implications and lessons for the present.

John Marshall is well-regarded as a major figure in ethnographic film. His work has been the subject of PhD theses and academic articles, and scores of undergraduate students have seen his seminal film, The Hunters (1958), in Anthropology 101 classes. His archival film and video collection is recognized as an important piece of our global documentary heritage and is listed on UNESCO's Memory of the World register. This is all impressive, but it doesn't tell us about the actual impact archival films might have on an individual.

My experience at Cine en Culturas showed me what that impact can be. Each night, anthropologists, filmmakers, students, and cinephiles filled the theater to learn about a time, a culture, a way of life very different from their own. Each night, that audience stayed long after the screening for Q&A sessions and discussions that covered a wide range of topics:  John Marshall's working style and deep commitment to the Ju/'hoansi; the evolution of documentary filmmaking techniques; the ethics of documentary and ethnographic filmmaking; the successes and failures of international development work; the current political and economic standing of the Ju/'hoansi; the struggles of indigenous groups in Mexico and worldwide.

N!ai, The Story of a !Kung Woman screens at the Cineteca Nacional.
© Francisco Palma Lagunas
Having worked for John Marshall on his last project, the reception his films received in Mexico City was deeply gratifying on a personal level. It was equally wonderful from a professional perspective, reinforcing the value of the work that the Human Studies Film Archives has undertaken to preserve Marshall's large audiovisual collection and make it accessible for research and exhibition.

Karma Foley, Smithsonian Channel
(and former contract audiovisual archivist at Human Studies Film Archives)

I am grateful to Francisco Palma Lagunas for his beautiful photographs of the Marshall retrospective, and his permission to use them in this post.

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