Friday, May 29, 2020

Cultures in Motion: The Huichol Film Project 1973-1975 Part II

For Part I of this blog post please click here.

Image from copy at University of California Libraries.
Accessed via Internet Archive
Kalmun Müller was not to the first outsider to experience the Hikuri Neixa (a ceremony which marks the end of the Huichol year and the time prepare the soil for planting and to call upon the rain), but he was likely the first to film it. Other foreign researchers, mostly ethnographers, had visited San Andres Cohamiata during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The eminent Norwegian explorer and ethnographer Carl Lumholtz (1851 – 1922) had been the most prolific researcher to visit the place to date. On a grant from the American Museum of Natural History, Lumholtz visited most of the indigenous communities in Sierra Madre from 1895 to 1898. Following this experience, in 1900 and in 1902, Lumholtz would author Symbolism of the Huichol Indians and Unknown Mexico, which remain important works on the Huichol. 

Like Lumholtz, Müller also extensively documented Huichol lifeways, but he stuck to the camera. After filming the Hikuri Neixa ceremony in 1973, Müller produced and helped produce four more film projects totaling 43,590 feet of film (approximately 20 hours).[i] The Huichol ceremonies of Las Pachitas, the Peyote Pilgrimage, and the
Cambio de Varas are among other important ceremonies that Müller documented. Aspects of daily life of Huichols, with a particular emphasis on child rearing and development also figure prominently in the films.

Notes for camera roll 28, 
helping to identify film after processing and printing.
HSFA 1989.3.3 (ephemera)
This interest did not come from Müller himself, but came from of a group of researchers at the National Institute of Health, the patrons who had financed Müller’s expedition into the Sierra Madre.[ii]

Indeed, one key difference between the film project Müller led in Mexico and the film projects he had led in Europe or the South Pacific, was that the former was conceived and produced as a scientific project. The project was itself part of a broader research agenda to use film as a research method.

According to E. Richard Sorenson, Müller’s supervisor for this project and one of the proponents of the film research agenda:

because the light sensitive emulsion of film produces an objective chemical facsimile of the pattern of light falling on it, it preserves a phenomenological record of the pattern of light received. The data does not have to be screened by the cognitive organization of a human observer before it can be preserved. Because of this, film preserves information not just of what has been “seen” and “selected” by the culturally programmed mind of the filmer but also what he has not.[iii]

Film, in other words, would be inevitably more objective a method of describing reality than the pen of even the most experienced researcher. Unlike humans, the argument went, cameras could capture a fuller representation of the present, which would enable future researchers to see aspects which would have otherwise escaped the eye of the field researcher. Sorenson’s perspective was heavily influenced by his mentor Margaret Mead, who also believed in the objectivity and emancipatory nature of film. It was this faith in film that motivated Mead to help found the National Anthropological Film Center in 1975, the predecessor to today’s Human Studies Film Archives.

Huichol social interaction at the Fiesta de las Pachitas, Summer 1974 [iv]
Frame grab from HSFA 1989.3.1-3A
Applied to the Huichol people of San Andres, the research film method would generate increased understanding on questions such as: How do children in isolated societies become “enculturated”? How do psychedelic plants influence indigenous social organization? And, perhaps more importantly, what can the U.S. learn from people like the Huichol to address their own sociocultural ailments?[v]  

In practice, however, the research film method as Müller applied translated into long and mostly static takes without an explicit narrative arc or angle, and indeed most of the 46 film rolls that make up this collection were made this way. The other, and perhaps more important component of the Huichol project as a scientific enterprise, was the annotations to the films themselves. Dozens of synchronized and non-synchronized, Spanish and English annotations accompany the films Müller made. These annotations, drafted in collaboration with Eliseo Castro Villa (Müller’s main indigenous informant/collaborator in San Andres) and Rocio Echaverría (a government nurse who had worked in San Andres for many years prior to Müller’s arrival and who would marry him in 1973), added a rich layer of detail on the specific names and processes for the people, ceremonies, plants and other things filmed. 

Kalmun Müller narrating the first time a child in San Andres Cohamiata consumes peyote during the Hikuri Neixa ceremonyWinter 1975. HSFA 1989.3.3-9A 16mm workprint (Workprint is a temporary copy of film footage used for editing. It can have unstable color dyes causing the film to fade to a reddish hue.)

This added layer greatly amplifies the amount of contextual information about the moving images that appear on the films. But it would be after longs hours of conversation—while annotating these films behind a flat bed editing table—when Müller, Castro, and Echaverría would reveal even more telling pieces of information regarding Huichol culture and behavior. For it was at these times, when the commentators would reveal in jest, irritation, or silence, how their visions and concerns about the Huichol people differed. 

It is through Echaverría’s silence, punctuated with occasional outbursts of detailed information during one of these sessions, that one learns about the ways the Huichol people were coping with the debt and poverty the U.S.-backed Green Revolution was bringing to Huichol communities in the early ‘70s. [vi] It is through Müller’s repetitive dismissal of her comments that we may infer why she keeps mostly silent through the annotation process. It is also through Castro’s mocking of Müller as a friend of the Huichols who does not know their names that we learn about his possible irritation with the project.[vii]  A frustration which other Huichols may or may not have shared with Castro but that nonetheless makes one wonder: what was the story on the other side of the lens?

Photo by Kalmun Müller, 1975
As master storytellers who were historically weary of the power of narratives in shaping their cultures, landscapes, and societies, who knows how the Huichol of San Andres Cohamiata may have bent their own reality for Müller’s camera?  
We may never know, but what is certain is that to understand how cultures negotiate power in film, we must look at what lay behind the camera as well as in front of it.  
Enabling viewers to do so—to see through both sides of the lens—is indeed what makes the Huichol Film Project most remarkable. Influenced by the scientific film method, the extensive annotations and structured approach to filmmaking of this collection offer not only a more nuanced image of the Huichol people as film subjects, but also a more detailed glimpse into the culture and perspective of its filmmakers. As a clear and multifaceted window into the past, this collection represents a valuable resource for scholars interested in the history of film and of the Huichol people. For its incredible detail on the social and cultural practices of their ancestors, the Huichol Film Project should be of most interest and value to the Huichol people of San Andres Cohamiata. 

José Carlos Pons Ballesteros
Graduate Fellow
NMNH-Department of Anthropology

Original film footage of the Huichol Film Project, along with sound recordings and associated documentation, form part of the collections of the Human Studies Film Archives.  You can find more information about this film collection here.

[i] According to catalogue records the Huichol Film Project is made of 50 camera rolls, according to the Processing Proposal for the collection, the Huichol Film Project is made of 46 rolls.  Muller’s footage was used to produce the edited film Huichols: People of the Peyote around 1976. Thomas Perry produced this film in collaboration with Steven Dreben, who edited and directed it.

[ii] There is dark back story to the main proponents of this research film method, visual anthropologist E. Richard Sorenson (1939 – 2015) and his mentor medical researcher Carleton Gajdusek (1923 – 2008), interest in childhood development, which I will not address here as it is complex and not the focus of this essay.  Suffice it to say that Gajdusek was charged with child molestation in April 1996. For more information about this watch the excellent documentary The Genius and the Boys by Bosse Lindquist (2009) or read: Spark, Ceridwen. 2009. “Carleton’s Kids: The Papua New Guinean Children of D. Carleton Gajdusek.” The Journal of Pacific History 44 (1): 1–19. 

[iii] Quote drawn from The Huichol Film Project, Unfinished Draft of the Huichol Enculturation: a Preliminary Report. Human Studies Film Archives, Smithsonian NMNH.

 [iv] The Huichols celebrate the Fiesta de las Pachitas around the time of Ash Wednesday. This ceremony mixes Mesoamerican, Mexican, and Catholic symbolism and rituals to commemorate the early attempts by Catholic missionaries to convert the Huichol people into Christianity. For this festival the Huichol participants are divided into two main bands, the Jews and the Toros, while the rest of the community watches, as the film roll 89.3.1-3A suggests, often in jest. The Jews represent the Huichol ancestors. The Huichol represent the Jews by painting their faces black, some men dressing as women, all of whom try to escape the Toros. Huichols representing the Toros carry red flags and bull horns with which they run after the Jews. One interesting historical relationship this festival, and in particular the depiction of Christian missionaries as Toros, may speak to is the connection between the arrival of Christianity and the development of cattle agriculture in northwest Mexico. For more information on this complex ceremony read:  Jáuregui, Jesús. "Las Pachitas en la Mesa del Nayar (Yaujque’e)." Dimensión antropológica 34 (2009). 

[v] The Huichol Film Project, Grant Application. Human Studies Film Archives, Smithsonian NMNH. The question as to what Western society can learn from indigenous peoples is not unique to the Huichol film project, in fact it has served as the inspiration for much of the ethnographical research that has been conducted for the last half-century. For a short but interesting comment on this matter see the Introduction by Kathleen Berrin in her edited book Art of the Huichol Indians, 1979.

[vi] Huichol FIlm Project, 1975, sound roll 1989.3.3-1, annotation track in Spanish. This tape describes the First Use of  a Corn Thresher

[vii] Huichol FIlm Project, 1975, round roll 1989.3.1-14, annotation track in Spanish. This tape describes the yearly Huichol Tree Planting Ceremony

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