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Saturday, October 22, 2011

HSFA Detectives Solve Mystery Film Reel (or Almost) - Part 2 of 2

Join us for the exciting conclusion of our archival mystery: Who created the unusual roll of film known as "Japan: Promotional and Theatrical Footage, ca. 1927" and why?  Missed Part One of the story? You can read it here.

Frame grab from "Japan: Promotional and Theatrical
Footage, ca. 1927", our mystery roll of film.
After gaining some insights from the contents of the film and from the film itself, we returned to the questions surrounding the film's former owner, Theodore Richards, in hopes of determining why our mystery film was made. Although we had Richards' biographical information from books, our summer intern, the insatiably curious Adrianna Link, was not satisfied so she engaged in her favorite activity Internet detective work.  What she found was indeed important for providing our first glimmer into a possible why.  Richards, who worked as the Field Secretary for the Hawaiian Board of Missions, began publishing a periodical in 1903, “The Friend”, where he promoted his idea to make Hawaii a multi-cultural or interracial “Christian” society. He emphasized outreach to newly arrived Asian peoples, particularly those arriving from Japan.  In 1912 he wrote an article for The Journal of Race Development titled “The Future of the Japanese in Hawaii: Things Problematic, Things Probable, Things Potential.”  By 1930 he was setting up a multi-racial community named Kokokahi, meaning “one blood” in Hawaiian. Houselots were distributed and raffled based on a racial quota that reflected the island’s general ethnic makeup, but the Great Depression and then World War II halted Richard’s utopian idea before it could really begin.  Ah, could Richards have screened this film as part of his efforts to educate and encourage cultural understanding in many of the island’s Christian organizations?

Who would have guessed that in small-town Maine on the Kennebec River I would meet someone who would use just the right words to pull this all together?  At Northeast Historic Film's annual symposium, I screened the film in its entirety to an audience of archivists, scholars, filmmakers, and film lovers. Filmmaker Artemis Willis, who has worked extensively in Japan, commented that most of the film was a collection of stereotypical views of Japan at that time — a collection of pretty picture postcards as it were. She added that it was also typical for missionaries of the time to promote their mission work at home using similar moving images.  Dino Everett, archivist in the Hugh M. Hefner Moving Image Archive, USC, commented that they had several early 20th century travelogues on Japan with very similar type of content.  Hurrah! These comments supported our supposition that Richards very likely screened this film footage to educate Christian audiences about Japanese culture. (Among other things, Richards' audience would have learned about the complicated process of styling a Geisha's hair, as shown in the clip below.)

But this still leaves the mystery which will always nag me — how did it come to pass that these bits and pieces of film were assembled — where did they come from?  But that is my obsession. What is intellectually intriguing now is how missionaries used film to promote their work and, more specifically, Richards' work in promoting interracial harmony—a timely topic for our time.

My sincere thanks to Michele Mason, Assistant Professor of Japanese, Department of Asian and East European Language and Cultures, University of Maryland; Brian Real, PhD student at University of Maryland; Adrianna Link, PhD student at Johns Hopkins; Karma Foley, moving image archivist at HSFA; and Daisy Njoku, media resource specialist at HSFA.

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