Ethnographic Films by John Marshall


May 21st, 2010 

Marshall (1932-2005), along with Jean Rouch, Timothy Asch, Robert Gardner, and others, developed and defined, and re-defined, a more sustained use of film in ethnography. He first began filming in Africa, specifically, Namibia, in 1949, at the age of 17 while on a family trip. Soon after, he began a life-long relationship with the !Kung Bushmen (now more accurately known as the Ju/’hoansi) in Namibia’s Kalahari Desert, producing an important series of short and feature films on their lives and customs and later working as an advocate for their rights and welfare.

Marshall also established himself in the cinema verite movement, working as the cinematographer of Frederick Wiseman’s legendary TITICUT FOLLIES (1967) and producing his own work on the Pittsburgh Police.

Marshall’s !Kung films are remarkable in the access he was given and the extensive commitment he had towards his subjects. Marshall was given a !Kung name and developed a close relationship with the !Kung. He, like Jean Rouch and others, felt that the cold scientific detachment of standard ethnographic work was not the best way to get to know a people. His films have an immediacy and intimacy that helps to show the !Kung as individuals and not “subjects for study.”

This program features a selection of Marshall’s work from the 1960s and 70s, though the footage was shot earlier. It focuses on familial relationships and the human impulse for play.

AN ARGUMENT ABOUT A MARRIAGE (1969, 18 mins., 16mm)
In 1958, with assistance from the Marshalls, a group of Ju/’hoansi returned home to Nyae Nyae after several years as unpaid, captive laborers on a farm. One woman, whose husband had escaped the farm and left her behind, had a child with another man. Upon the group’s return to Nyae Nyae, an angry argument broke out over the matter. An Argument About a Marriage raises questions about the impact of European farms on the economic and the social life of the Ju/’hoansi; about the complexities of marriage rules and bride-service in their traditional kinship system; and about the nature of conflict and its mediation among the Ju/’hoansi. Despite the interpersonal anger, we see how one’s skillful intervention prevents this particular conflict from escalating to violence.

DEBE’S TANTRUM (1972, 9 mins., 16mm)
In this film a five-year-old named Debe refuses to let his mother Di!ai go gathering without him. Di!ai appeals to her daughter N!ai to entertain the child but Debe resists. In the end Di!ai leaves with Debe on her back. This is a companion film to The Wasp Nest which shows Di!ai, Debe, and other women and children on the subsequent gathering expedition.

LION GAME (1970, 4 mins., 16mm)
/Gunda, a young man (who later marries N!ai), pretends to be a lion. He is “hunted” and “killed” by a group of boys.

THE MEAT FIGHT (1974, 14 mins., 16mm)
In this film, an argument arises between two bands when an antelope killed by a hunter from one band is found and distributed by a man from another band. The film illustrates conflict mediation in traditional Ju/’hoan society and the Ju/’hoan leaders’ ability to settle disputes without violence and without formal political organization.

PLAYING WITH SCORPIONS (1972, 4 mins., 16mm)
Children tempt fate, playing with scorpions.

A RITE OF PASSAGE (1972, 14 mins., 16mm)
This film, shot in 1952-53, documents the scarification ceremony called “marking” which was traditionally held for Ju/’hoan boys after they had killed their first large animal. Here, /Ti!kay, a boy of thirteen, shoots his first wildebeest with an arrow. /Ti!kay’s father, Kan//a, and Crooked /Qui help the young hunter track, skin, and butcher the animal. After the meat is brought back to the village, a scarification ceremony takes place, symbolizing the importance of hunting and /Ti!kay’s passage into social manhood. He is now considered an acceptable son-in-law by the parents of the girl to whom he has long been betrothed.

TUG-OF-WAR – BUSHMEN (1974, 6 mins., 16mm)
In the Ju/’hoan version of this universally popular game, boys in two teams wrestle over a length of rubber hose.

(Film descriptions from Documentary Educational Resources)


Filed under: documentary, film