Thirty years after its release, N!ai, the Story of a !Kung Woman remains an exemplar of ethnographic filmmaking. Directed and edited by John Marshall and Adrienne Miesmer, the film documents the life of N!ai, a Ju/hoan woman and the harsh realities of apartheid in 1980s Namibia, and it presents an intimate portrait of life in one of the last hunting and gathering communities. In honor of the fiftieth anniversary of Documentary Educational Resources, this program will explore the film’s importance to the preservation of intangible culture, and Marshall’s influence on the development of educational, personal, and activist documentaries.
Film Screening (51 minutes) & Panel Discussion: The Cinema of Patience: Reflecting on N!ai, the Story of a !Kung Woman
- Michael Ambrosino, Former Public Television Executive Producer; Creator of PBS series NOVA and Odyssey
- Ilisa Barbash, Curator of Visual Anthropology, Peabody Museum of Archaeology & Ethnology
- Sue Marshall Cabezas, Former Executive Director, Documentary Educational Resources
- Ross McElwee, Professor of the Practice of Filmmaking, Department of Visual and Environmental Studies, Harvard University
- Moderated by Alice Apley, Executive Director, Documentary Educational Resources
Presented by Peabody Museum of Archaeology & Ethnology in collaboration with Documentary Educational Resources
[00:00:15.02] [JEFFREY QUILTER:] Good evening ladies and gentlemen. I'm Jeffrey Quilter, director of the Peabody Museum. And it's my pleasure to welcome you here tonight. Thank you all for coming for this amazingly stellar event, sponsored by the Peabody Museum of Archeology and Ethnology in collaboration with the Documentary Educational Resources or DER, that it's often referred to in the film and museum communities.
[00:00:40.09] DER is an internationally recognized center for documentary, anthropology, and ethnographic film, and a leader at the intersection of documentary filmmaking and social science research. Its mission is to distribute, produce, and support ethnographic and documentary media that foster cross-cultural understanding and empathy and prioritize underrepresented voices. 2018 marks the 50th anniversary of DER. And we're delighted to celebrate its outstanding work for five decades this evening, while we explore the legacy of filmmaker, John Marshall, and his influence on the development of an ethnographic educational personal and activist documentaries.
[00:01:24.66] John Marshall, founder of DER in 1968, together with Tim Ash-- so it's very fitting to celebrate DER's are his legacy with a program that honors its founder. I would like to note an upcoming event on October 24. Professor Rowan Flad will discuss the earliest archaeological evidence from China that documents the Silk Road origins.
[00:01:59.21] Following this discussion this discussion and filming, we invite you to join us in the galleries of the Peabody Museum on the third floor for a reception. Aside from having a glass of wine, you'll have a chance to see our new exhibit, Kalahari Perspectives, Anthropology, Photography, and the Marshall family, curated by Peabody Museum, Visual Anthropologist Lisa Barbash. It's now my privilege to introduce Alice Apely, executive director of DER, who will introduce tonight's film and program.
[00:02:28.80] Alice has served as executive director of Documentary Educational Resources since 2011. At DER, she oversees all day to day activities, including curation, marketing, exhibition, and exhibition of works in DER's catalog. She also ensures ongoing access to the collection for broad audiences through new digital strategies. She's worked as director, producer, and advisor on numerous documentary film projects, including serving as director with David Tames of the film Remembering John Marshall.
[00:03:03.96] Prior to joining DER, Alice conducted audience research, program evaluation, and impact studies for media museum and community engagement projects. She served as a board member for the society for visual anthropology and as juror and coordinator of the SVA's film festival. She holds an MA, PhD in anthropology, and a certificate in the culture and media program from NYU. Please join me in welcoming Alice to the stage.
[00:03:34.90] [ALICE APLEY:] So it's wonderful to be here to celebrate our 50th anniversary. DER's prehistory and that of tonight's film really have its roots here at the Peabody Museum. And so it's especially meaningful that we celebrate our 50th anniversary with you all here. John Marshall's footage from the 1950s was made during a series Marshall family expeditions to the Kalahari sponsored by the Peabody Museum along with the Smithsonian. And John's first film, The Hunters, was edited in the basement of the Peabody Museum with Robert Gardner in what was to become the film studies Center.
[00:04:12.93] DER is delighted to be celebrating 50 years. We'll be rounding out the events in Cambridge with screenings at the HFI tomorrow night in New York City at the Margaret Mead film festival next week and in California with a special program on Tim Ash at the University of Southern California and programs at the American Anthropological Association meetings in San Jose. I'd like to invite you to take a brochure about our 50th anniversary on your way out and get on our mailing list. And we'd love to know if you'd like to get involved with the organization in any way.
[00:04:47.07] So first I want to thank my many partners at Harvard with whom we've been working, including Pamela Durante-- I don't know where people are-- there she is-- and Diana Munn and the others here at the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture, and the staff of the Harvard Film Archive and the Harvard Art Museums. As a small organization, it's a pleasure to work with the well-oiled machinery and extensive resources of the different entities here at Harvard. Also, a big thanks go to Lyda Kuth and the LEF Foundation who have generously sponsored our 50th anniversary events and who share with us a deep commitment to the local filmmaking community, both past and present.
[00:05:27.95] Finally, thanks to the DER staff and board without whom any of this would be possible. The decision to screen N!ai, the Story of a !Kung Woman as part of our 50th anniversary celebrations was an easy one. Not only is it exemplary of John's work and DER's priorities, it is likely our most popular title.
[00:05:48.44] In 2017, on Canopy, which is one of the educational streaming platforms through which our films are available on college campuses, it was played 6,589 times for a total of 101,000 minutes watched. Its equally popular on Alexander Street, which is the other big streaming platform. According to World Kat, 37 colleges and universities own film prints. 137 own DVDs. And I'm sure there are also still VHS copies in use, seriously because we get requests for upgrades from VHS from time to time.
[00:06:29.63] So immediately after the screening of N!ai today, we'll be sharing about four minutes of some video recently sent to us from Tsum!kwe by Chris Lowe, a British anthropologist, who has been working with a group in Cape Town to start a San Heritage Center. And he recently visited Tsum!kwe . So we have a little treat at the end of the screening.
[00:06:51.44] So finally, before we start the film, I'd like to invite Sue Cabezas to come up. And Sue is part of the panel. So she'll get a full introduction later. And she's going to share a message from Lexie Marshall, who is John's widow.
[00:07:05.15] [SUE CABEZAS:] It gives me enormous pride and pleasure to join in this celebration of Documentary Educational Resources 50th anniversary. Legend has it that DER's origin began in the basement of the Marshall's home at 4 Bryant Street in Cambridge in the late 1960s. From then on, Tim Ash and John Marshall pursued their aspiration to create and preserve outstanding ethnographic cinema.
[00:07:35.72] This half century anniversary marks the success of this endeavor. John Wood, this evening, be basking in pride, satisfaction, and gratitude as this tribute commemorates a job well done. Congratulations to DER to executive director Alice Apley and to all this organization's friends, participants, and supporters for the finest gift that could possibly be awarded to John. Alexandra Marshall."
[00:08:18.47] [APLEY:] We have a wonderful panel tonight, which I hope will stimulate some discussion about the long-term success of N!ai. We've set this up as a conversation, though, we'll be going around hearing from each of the panelists and reserving a few minutes at the end for questions. I want to acknowledge that there are several Kalahari scholars in the audience, as well as friends of John's and DER. And they also hold important pieces of the history and the story of the !Kung and hope that whatever doesn't come out during the discussion today will continue later during the reception.
[00:08:52.08] So I'm going to just introduce the panelists. And then we'll go around again and talk a bit. So on my left immediately is Sue Carbezas. And she's currently the executive vice president of Applewood Books. And before that she was executive director of DER from 1974 to 1993. And during that time she served as producer for N!ai the Story of a !Kung Woman, as well as many other projects at DER.
[00:09:20.64] On my right is Ross McElwee. He's made 10 feature length documentaries, including Sherman's March, Bright Leaves, and Photographic Memory. His awarding winning films focus on his family and personal life. He's a professor of practice of filmmaking, department of visual and environmental studies at Harvard.
[00:09:39.38] Ross spent a month in the Kalahari-- I think it was a month-- with John Marshall in 1978 shooting material for what would become N!ai. On my far left is Michael Ambrosino best known for creating Nova, which is about to present its 45th season on PBS. He was also the creator and executive producer of Odyssey, which is where N!ai premiered on television. He's the executive producer of the Ring of Truth and consulting executive producer of Eyes on the Prize. And his last production--
[00:10:15.47] [MICHAEL AMBROSINO]: Consulting executive.
[00:10:16.97] [APLEY:] Consulting executive producer of Eyes on the Prize. His last production was as producer and on air correspondent for Frontline in the West Bank and Gaza entitled Journey to the Occupied Lands. And finally, on my far-right is Lisa Barbash. She's curator of Visual Anthropology here at Harvard's Peabody Museum and a co-filmmaker of Sweetgrass with Lucien Castaing-Taylor.
[00:10:41.93] Based on her most recent book, Where the Roads All End, Photography and Anthropology in The Kalahari, she has curated the exhibition Kalahari perspectives, anthropology, photography, and the Marshall family, which you'll have a chance to see following the screening or following our discussion. So a quick note, the title for today's event, The Cinema of Patience, comes from a tribute to John written by Sandeep Ray and published in Chimurenga, a South African literary magazine. Sandeep had been a student of John's at Hampshire and then went on to work as an editor on A Kalahari Family.
[00:11:17.09] And Sandeep explains what he means by a Cinema of Patience. He writes, "John had always felt that the best way to make films was to patiently follow a character until you had enough footage that you got under their skin." He noted that "John rarely used a tripod and his camera work was amazingly steady and smooth. Whether he was filming the Ju/hoan in Africa, policemen in Pittsburgh, members of an insane asylum in the classic Titicut Follies with Fred Wiseman or following the election campaign of the mayor of Haverhill, Massachusetts, John remained steady and quiet, taking it all in." Sandeep writes "that John liked to say that in a good film you have to leave the theater feeling that you've met someone."
[00:12:04.31] So I just wanted to open with those thoughts and then turn to Sue who was involved as the producer, co-producer with John to get a sense of how did this film come about, because we see in the film that there was footage from the 1950s and then footage in the '70s.
[00:12:26.57] [CABEZAS:] Thank you, Alice. So I was so fortunate to have had an opportunity to meet John in 1974. And to begin to develop a working and friendship relationship with him over many, many years. I started working with John as an administrative assistant when a mutual friend told me that there was this filmmaker that she knew who was looking for somebody to help organize his life. And she said give him a call. And I did, and I told him who I was and said who I knew and that I heard he was looking for somebody to help organize his life.
[00:13:06.59] And he stopped, and he thought. And he said, really, well, maybe that is a good idea. Why don't you come in and let's meet. So we had-- that all was the beginning of my many, many years of working with John and with DER with Tim and the beginning of my understanding about what had happened with John.
[00:13:29.43] He was a young man, who's 17 years old and asked to take a camera and become part of this enormous and momentous longitudinal film study and to become the documenter on film of the !Kung. So it was a wonderful opportunity. And I had a chance to meet with John for many, many years and talk wonderful-- get stories from him, understand a lot about where he was coming from and his passion to document for the people, to allow them to document for themselves what their life was really like.
[00:14:10.34] And you'll see, in this film, the combination of through that period of time of what that was all about. One thing that really hit me when I saw this again tonight was that this was not the end for John's involvement with the !Kung. It was the beginning of yet another era of advocacy that John felt was something, in my estimation, anyway, he felt that it was something that he wanted to do, was held to do and relished in it. He had many, many years subsequent to the editing of this film, engaged in documenting medical history, working with a number of other people who had gone back with him to film over and over again. And so his legacy, as far as I'm concerned, was the longitudinal nature of his filming and his involvement and his love of the people.
[00:15:11.77] [APLEY:] Great. So he was actually banned from returning to Namibia in the '60s. But can you fill us in on how did he then come about and what were sort of his intentions from what you could see in making this film?
[00:15:27.28] [CABEZAS:] So what I think-- and again, this comes mostly from conversation, observation, and I think friendship-- was that on the heels of the Bushmen of the Kalahari, which was filmed in 1972-3 and came out in 1974, that film was a film that was not necessarily the type of film that John wanted to produce. It was a film that was a narrative. It was actually managed, run by the BBC-- National Geographic excuse me. And John was a big player in that.
[00:16:03.67] And I think that when he came back and that was finished, he really wanted to be able to continue to do the types of films, which were the sequence films that he had developed along with Tim Ash in that style as an educational tool for people to be able to make their own observations about what they're seeing on film. And I think, in some ways, as a reaction to that those narrative films, John wanted to go back and continue the documentation and came back from the shoots in the 1970s to be able to create more sequence films. He had done another pull ourselves up or die out. He'd done a number of videos that came out after all of this. And I really believe that it was a continued interest in pursuing the documentation and allowing the people who are in the films to be able to speak for themselves.
[00:17:03.93] [APLEY:] Great. So let's turn to Ross to hear a little bit about what it was like to actually be in the field with John and shooting with him and what you as a filmmaker took away from that experience.
[00:17:16.95] [ROSS MCELWEE:] I could really connect to that comment someone made about John really needed somebody to organize his life. Part of the reason I felt John didn't need help with organization-- all filmmakers do, but he was so passionately riveted on the way these people were living and trying to record it in a way that was honest and straightforward and true, that he became-- he had tunnel vision about it. And he was never happier, it seemed to me. And I knew him certainly-- I got to know him better after this film shoot, but we come back to Cambridge. I would it end up at various events or dinners with him.
[00:17:57.39] And I always felt he was nowhere nearly as comfortable here as I had seen him in the Kalahari. And I think that was his family down there. That really was his family.
[00:18:06.94] And he wanted to honor what his family's lifestyles were like and also what was happening to them. As time went on and geopolitical forces started to reshape what was happening in South West Africa, what is now called Namibia. It's interesting for me to see that clip that was shot in, I guess, 2018 I'm sure by two well-meaning anthropologists. But I was immediately struck by the difference in which they filmed N!ai and her husband.
[00:18:45.09] They were shooting down on him. And that's not a big deal. You could still understand what they were interested in talking about. And that all was very evident, but it represents for me a difference in the way that most filmmakers had dealt with filming other cultures for many, many years.
[00:19:06.49] And I think John's insistence on getting down at the level of the people he was filming is both literally and symbolic of the way that he approached his film making. And I certainly learned a lot by watching his films, but also in being down there and watching him do filming. And for me, it was a tremendous honor to be there.
[00:19:28.02] It was the thrill of a lifetime really, because I one year out of having finished film school and suddenly here was this opportunity. And I will never forget that whole event. I mean, I could talk forever about the different things that happen on different days, but maybe you should direct the conversation a little bit at this point.
[00:19:50.30] [APLEY:] Well, maybe you could share one story about what it was like being in the field with him and perhaps we talked a little bit also about this idea which the anthropologists and filmmaker David McDougal has about that the cultural environments that shaped the filmmaking style. Is there, I don't know, anything that you saw that resonates with that?
[00:20:14.40] [MCELWEE:] Well, I mean I could just pick the first day I was there to tell the story of what that was like. But I had flown on a fairly quick notice, two days notice, either accept this position or not. And I said I'll go.
[00:20:32.28] Flew to Madrid, changed planes, flew to Windhoek changed planes again, took a small Cessna that landed on a dirt road somewhere near Tsum!kwe . And I'd been flying or encased in steel capsule fuselages for 30 hours at that point. [CHUCKLES] And I was very tired. And John said, why don't you take the day off tomorrow? We'll just calmly introduce you to what's going on here. And you won't have to do any shooting tomorrow.
[00:21:04.42] Well, the morning, when I woke up, there was a tremendous racket. There was a huge argument going on. And it was, in fact, that scene in which N!ai's daughter has been accused of being unfaithful. And that fight went on an entire day. It was eight hours of shooting. And I just kept filming. John said, don't stop. Film everything you can. Both of us were shooting different aspects of what was going on.
[00:21:36.75] And I think I shot more film in that one day. This is film, not video. So there was a constant process of changing magazines, one 10-minute load and getting another 10-minute load and trying to parse that out and shoot that. It went on nonstop for that entire fight, which was so complicated, and so many different people weighing in on who was guilty, who wasn't, who was to blame. And I had no idea what the hell was going on--
[00:22:04.38] --and also found I was invisible with my camera, and that nobody seemed to at all be concerned that I was shooting. And it was just an amazing experience. And so I filmed where emotions seemed to be the strongest, even though I had no idea who the main characters were. I didn't know what was at stake. I didn't know what they were arguing about. But because they're so expressive as people, there was another way in which it was fairly easy to film. And so that was literally my first day.
[00:22:37.44] And then I was allowed to be tired the next day and get the rest that I never had. But it was an amazing experience to be with John. And over and over again, the longer I stayed, I could see that he had earned his right to be there and film these people. And more than just that, they adored John. They thought of John as their son or their father, depending on which generation they were. And it was really gratifying to me to be in that world.
[00:23:04.52] And then, of course, John was determined not to romanticize their lifestyle. He very much wanted to do filming that had to do-- that addressed the changes that were being forced upon the reservation. And so that became part of our filming. And it was incredible to see his footage, which I actually haven't seen in quite a long time. And so for me, it was like-- suddenly it was 30 years ago. It was just incredible.
[00:23:32.69] [APLEY:] That's great. Thanks. So let's turn to Michael. So it's quite remarkable that this film, in the end, it was made for television, which is quite a departure from John's earlier films, right? Like other-- the !Kung films he was making right before that were really for the classroom. So there's quite a story behind the origin of Odyssey and its connection to NOVA. And can you tell us a bit about how it got started?
[00:24:02.25] [AMBROSINO:] OK. NOVA began in 1974. PBS paid my salary and gave me to the BBC in 1970-71, which had happened to everybody in their life. I discovered that they were doing in features group programs dealing with the process of how things happened. And their science program did that. And I came back to start NOVA. It took about two and a half years to develop and raise the money.
[00:24:32.86] And we started making programs about how people use the process of discovery to find out how the world worked. We didn't consider it a science series. We were trying to find out how the world worked.
[00:24:47.44] We used many topics, and we used many techniques. There were two plays done in the first three years. There was an archaeology and an anthropology program done in each of the first three seasons. And the reason that we're celebrating the 45th season in 44 years is because we made two seasons in the first year, because I felt that we had to impress upon the stations of PBS that real stories about real people was as important as the music, the drama, the dance, and the ballet, which was the darling of PBS and was easy to fund.
[00:25:34.18] No science company funded NOVA, except Polaroid, in our backyard, run by four people. You could talk to all of them. And they were a big help.
[00:25:53.78] [APLEY:] Odyssey-- so then, yeah, how did Odyssey start?
[00:25:56.26] [AMBROSINO:] NOVA formed Odyssey as a complement to Nova. Odyssey was going to be about the peoples of the past and present, using archaeology and anthropology. And it was a personal mission, almost, because I felt that the world was concerned with the other. And when they talked about the other or thought of the other, they thought of primitive, and they thought of savage. And we are all the descendants of intelligent, competent, courageous, creative, artistic people. And I wanted to demonstrate that the peoples of the past had all of those attributes.
[00:26:49.37] We made two seasons of Odyssey. Reagan cut the public television budget 40%. And the stations had to vote between NOVA and Odyssey. I came back from an awards ceremony at Columbia University and told the staff that we were shutting down. It was a very bad day.
[00:27:12.15] [APLEY:] And now I'd love to hear how this film ended up being an Odyssey film. And I know you have some notes from Adrienne Miesmer. And I also just want to share some numbers here. Just to give you an idea of the editing process, the total amount of footage from the 1950s was 333,500 feet, or 157 hours of film. And from 1978, from the shoot there, there was another 150,000 feet, or 69 and 1/2 hours of film. [CHUCKLES]
[00:27:50.68] [AMBROSINO:] I'd known John and loved him for years. But he invited me to come to an editing room, because he thought that Odyssey was the perfect place for this film. I expected something between an assembly and a rough cut. And what I saw was a room full of film cans.
[00:28:12.13] And he and Adrienne would pull pieces to show me, so that what we were seeing was a five-hour list of possibilities. We agreed that this is something that could be made into a film. My only contribution was John was so convinced that he had to show you what was happening at Tsum!kwe that most of what he wanted to show was that. I felt that in order to show what was lost, there had to be more material of the normal life of these intelligent, creative people in the bush who were living at peace and were living rather well before they were forced off their lands into Tsum!kwe . And that was about it.
[00:29:11.33] [APLEY:] Did you want to share some of what Adrienne Miesmer shared about--
[00:29:14.92] [AMBROSINO:] Yes.
[00:29:15.70] [APLEY:] So Adrienne was the editor.
[00:29:18.22] [AMBROSINO:] Adrienne couldn't be here, so she and I have been having a conversation over the last couple of days to figure out what I remembered and what she remembered. And I am here as her agent. I want her to participate.
[00:29:33.10] "When John asked if I would go with him to take sound on the film he was proposing to do, I was instantly on board. His mission was to find N!ai and any family left of her band. Before we left, I screened some of the old footage so I could get a sense of the past work he and his family had done, which was legion. It took hours and hours simply to log it. We would continue with this process when we returned.
[00:30:03.61] I'll never forget the moment we arrived after a 25-hour series of flights and being held up in Johannesburg airport for the day to get the film gear released. We were finally allowed to fly on to Windhoek. From there, our trucks fully loaded with fuel, supplies, and food, we drove to the area in Tsum!kwe that John had sleuthed out as the most likely place where N!ai and her family might still be. Really, it was a needle in a haystack chance. But he was typically optimistic, typically determined, typically brave.
[00:30:42.10] It was already sunset when we parked the vehicles by the side of the road and were starting to walk down the long dirt path into the bush when John saw a small group of men walking toward us. It was old-- and I'm not going to do it with the clicks-- Toma and /Gunda. And John went nuts, ran to them and they to him, lots of embraces, tears, as I recall, so very moving. The entire band joyfully welcomed his return and were so generous about our moving into their lives and filming them.
[00:31:16.84] He was distraught by the state of affairs among the !Kung group we filmed. They were largely confined to camps in Tsum!kwe, situated near enough to TB outposts for them to get help. They were terribly poor, still mostly lived in skerms or makeshift huts, fires polluting their every breath. They were eating some canned food and other handouts from the government but mostly mealy meal.
[00:31:45.67] Only a ghost of the traditional way of life was still in place. Nobody was really hunting or seriously gathering or regularly practicing their medicine.
[00:32:00.25] While there, John asked /Gunda, N!ai's husband to do a healing ceremony and one of the young men to lead a giraffe hunt to supplement the earlier footage he had. He filmed ordinary daily life as well, conducted interviews, recorded disputes. These scenes from 1978 could then be intercut with the old footage from when N!ai was small and the band still truly living the old way of life.
[00:32:28.63] A few of the younger men stood up to the camera and berated the government for taking away their land rights and their way of life. But for the most part, there was a pervading sense of helplessness. At the time, the Ju/'hoansi were being conscripted to fight for the South African army, SWAPO, against the Anglicans, as I recall. They were great trackers and no doubt were given some minimal amount of money. The saddest aspect of that, John observed, was that wearing a uniform and being paid and occupied actually made them proud-- well, some of them. And he knew they were being used and could be killed.
[00:33:13.27] Because N!ai was a common thread in all this, miraculously being alive and still in the area with her husband and grown daughter, we had a great loom on which to thread the film. We recorded her and her activities daily. Because of this, she was accused by the others of being opportunistic, a not unexpected outcome, from all the attention she was getting. There were fights over her being favored, jealousy being a trait common among this group, as well as among most everybody else, I guess.
[00:33:47.20] John was a natural-born, intuitive filmmaker, knew enough to get N!ai to make up a song about her plight and sing it to the camera. I think this footage was seminal and set the ball rolling. It was so compelling. We couldn't not use it. 'Death is dancing with me now,' she sang. Wow. We nearly fell out of our boots.
[00:34:17.28] My recollection of the early days of editing, including the marathon syncing up and continued viewing and logging of miles of film, new and old, which took stupendous amounts of time. Many mornings, John was pacing around DER as we fretted over how to create a film worthy of the song.
[00:34:37.99] There was a good deal of footage of the old ways, from the 1950s shoot, as he rightly recalled. The problem was how to integrate all of that with the miles of film John brought back, which we eventually did. Your encouragement to help him do so helped him, no doubt. In a significant way, what the !Kung were going through is so typical of the dismantling and endemic ways of life around the world. John knew this. But because of his earlier, very real relationship with this particular group, he took everything that happened to them very personally.
[00:35:13.98] We were lucky that you decided that N!ai was worthy of inclusion in Odyssey. It gave John both the national exposure and some capital to work with. He is and was one of my favorite human beings on this planet-- all heart, no bullshit."
[00:35:33.72] That's Adrienne Miesmer.
[00:35:35.76] [APLEY:] Wonderful. Thank you.
[00:35:38.24] So last, I want to turn to Ilisa, who's going to talk a bit about the reception of N!ai, starting with when you were a graduate student.
[00:35:49.50] [ILISA BARBASH:] Yeah. It's actually amazing to hear all of you talk about N!ai, because I feel as if I've been living with N!ai since 1988 or '89, when I first saw the film. And it completely mesmerized me as a graduate student. It was shown in an ethnographic film class for aspiring ethnographic filmmakers. And it followed the canon of ethnographic film, which was Robert Flaherty's Nanook of the North, John Marshall's The Hunters, Robert Gardner's Dead Birds, Tim Asch and Napoleon Chagnon's Yanomami films, and Jean Rouch's Jaguar and Les maitres fous, and Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead's Trance and Dance in Bali.
[00:36:44.28] And you'll notice that among all of those films, there are very few made by women. And for me, as a woman graduate student, it was really, really wonderful to see a film about the lives of women, because many of the films we'd been seeing not only were by men but were about men's lives.
[00:37:10.72] And as late as the new millennium, I was reading a manuscript by someone who was analyzing a photographic archive. And he said, well, the reason why there are so many photographs here of men is because men's lives were more important. And I flagged this as something that should be amended. And it was amended to say that "the relative absence of women results from both the interests of the researchers and the fact that they themselves were male with limited access to women." So that is one reason why I love N!ai.
[00:37:51.57] Other reasons are that N!ai doesn't, as some of us have talked about, leave people in the past. And I think that's very important in anthropology. I think that the records that Asch and Chagnon, Flaherty, and others have made are exceedingly important.
[00:38:16.11] But they're historic. And all too often, people are left in their historic past in ethnographic film classes. And what John Marshall and Adrienne Miesmer did was to pull people out of the past and to situate their lives in the present so that certain forces that affected their lives, and as Michael said, all too many people's lives in the world. Colonialism, which included land grabbing and religion and conscription into armies, all of these affected people's lives, as well as filmmakers affected their lives and created a kind of change.
[00:39:07.74] Also, this is an important film in anthropology because it addresses the trend in the 1980s of reflexivity in anthropology, where anthropologists stopped acting as if they had no impact on the people that they were researching, but in fact needed to acknowledge their own positions vis-a-vis the subjects. And this was done in writing. And this was done in filmmaking. And you can see it through this film because of the direct address to the camera that N!ai has. We're not pretending that she's not being filmed. We know this. And the camera is head-on, as Ross says, engaging with her.
[00:39:57.53] There's also a critique of filmmaking implicit in the film through the somewhat sort of hilarious scenes of The Gods Must Be Crazy. And in this, we're not only seeing the problematic nature of feature filmmaking. But I believe that John was also thinking that we'd think, oh, yeah, so what does that mean for ethnographic filmmaking? Maybe we need to take a more critical stance when we're looking at ethnographic films as well.
[00:40:28.63] [APLEY:] Yep. Great.
[00:40:30.19] [AMBROSINO:] Please explain that the film that we were watching being made was that feature film.
[00:40:41.38] [BARBASH:] Yes, The Gods Must Be Crazy.
[00:40:43.68] [AMBROSINO:] Which was tremendously popular.
[00:40:46.72] [BARBASH:] Yes.
[00:40:47.14] [AMBROSINO:] It was a box office hit all around the world.
[00:40:49.88] [BARBASH:] Well, when I have to explain who the people are that I've been doing research on and doing the photographic exhibition that we're going to see on, I say, have you seen The Gods Must Be Crazy? It's those people.
[00:41:08.16] [APLEY:] Yeah. Yeah. And what have you found about how the film was received both academically and by the public?
[00:41:19.71] [BARBASH:] I think, academically, I've taught with this film, and I find that students often identify with N!ai, especially female students. I think to have this very honest protagonist in a film is really engaging. She talks about issues that most of us wouldn't want to put in a film, like her sexuality and her fears and strife within her community. It's a much more honest kind of presentation than I've seen in a lot of ethnographic film.
[00:42:00.84] I have had instances where students have been very upset at the degradation that's portrayed in the film. And I know Peter Loisos who's written about this film, has also commented on this. And I had a student once walk out of the classroom, because she was so upset about what was going on in the film.
[00:42:23.16] If we have time, I can talk about a couple of reviews that I found of N!ai. [LAUGHS]
[00:42:30.96] [APLEY:] Do we have to get out right at 8:00? I wanted to open now. Can we open it up to a few questions from the audience?
[00:42:38.04] [BARBASH:] Why don't we do that?
[00:42:39.29] [APLEY]: Yeah. Does anybody have any questions for anyone on the panel?
[00:42:44.71] [AUDIENCE:] So this is a general question to anybody who was there and observed it. So this wasn't-- oh, sorry. So in other words, the work that John did was not scripted beyond saying, let's have a giraffe hunt or let's have a healing ceremony? Because it doesn't always seem to me compellingly obvious that there's no scripting involved.
[00:43:10.51] [MCELWEE:] Well, I can speak based upon what I saw. I wasn't there for the entire thing, the entire shoot. And also, the shoot went on over a number of years, if you count all the old footage that he had.
[00:43:21.90] I know that John did encourage Toma-- was it Toma also--
[00:43:28.83] [APLEY:] Toma.
[00:43:29.30] [BARBASH:] Toma.
[00:43:30.23] [MCELWEE:] --to hunt for a giraffe. That might not have happened without John's encouragement. So that's a good point. And so you could say, in that way, maybe the film isn't quite as honest as we would like for it to be. But then, what is honesty? How do you--
[00:43:46.39] [AUDIENCE:] I wouldn't say honest. I would say spontaneous. There's so little difference.
[00:43:51.27] [MCELWEE:] But much of it is spontaneous. And all the fight scenes, the healing scenes, the hunting and gathering scenes that appear in the early footage is all spontaneous. John was just being very alert to what was happening and capturing it as it unfolded in front of the camera.
[00:44:09.90] I think what he realized was he had to sort of start directing a little more than he had in his life. A little bit presumptuous of me to say this here, because I don't really know the whole history of the prior shooting, the prior filming that he did in South West Africa, in Tsum!kwe. But I think that he realized there were too many issues here that needed to be pointed out, especially to an American television audience. And those were possible malnutrition that was now happening, because people were having to eat mealy meal. They couldn't hunt and gather the things that used to keep them relatively healthy.
[00:44:48.84] The presence of SWAPO, the South West African People's Organization, which was waging war against South Africa and beginning to move into Namibia and the presence of more and more tourism and, of course the presence of the South African army on the reservation, the fact that the !Kung were prevented from moving around as much as they had. All of those things, he felt, had to be illustrated before it was too late. So he set some things up, I believe, to sort of illustrate those points. Does that seem fair?
[00:45:24.56] [CABEZAS:] Oh, I wasn't there, so you know definitely more than I. What I think is that he probably had gone with an open mind about-- I think he really didn't know quite what he was going to find when he went back in '78. And as was described, as Adrienne had suggested too, finding the people, in and of itself, was quite an amazing feat. And I'm sure that John, when he got there, saw things that completely repelled him, and things that excited him, and also things that he wanted to let the world know about.
[00:45:58.26] And I think that probably in his desire to be honest, I think he felt that those things needed to be represented. And so to that point, I think, Ross, I would completely concur that that would probably be what would have happened.
[00:46:12.65] [BARBASH:] I can speak a little bit to the early footage, because I've done research on the era between 1950 and 1961, when John went back about six times within that to be with N!ai and her family and other people you see in the film. And at one point, from 1952 to '53, he lived there for over a year. So that's one of the things that makes this such a remarkable body of ethnographic work is that he lived with these people. He worked with his family, with these people. He saw them every day over years, for continuous amounts of time so that he could anticipate what they might be doing.
[00:47:05.19] I do know that certain things were reenacted in the beginning, because they didn't have the capacity to shoot things that were happening at night. So the marriage between N!ai and Gunda actually happened while-- they just didn't see it happen. So that was reenacted.
[00:47:25.33] And the trance dance, it's very clear that they go into trance. But normally, trance dances did happen at night. But I wouldn't call that faking. I would call that a kind of cooperation in which people worked with John to share their lives with him on film.
[00:47:46.27] [APLEY:] Yep. Great. Another question?
[00:47:58.43] [AUDIENCE:] When in the filmmaking process, if this is known, did John decide to make this about N!ai, or for her to be the central character? Was that known before 1978 or not?
[00:48:11.66] [MCELWEE:] I'm not sure I'm qualified to answer that question. N!ai was already the center of attention when I arrived there in July of 1978. Sue.
[00:48:20.81] [CABEZAS:] Well, I think that from what I could gather, that when John went back in '78, he never shared-- with me, anyway, but that doesn't mean anything-- [CHUCKLES] that he was actually going in search of N!ai. And he was going in search of Toma. He was going in search of Tsamko, Gunda, N!ai, the entire family and their band, and wanting to see what had happened.
[00:48:44.42] N!ai was clearly a person who was somebody that was charismatic, who was outspoken, spunky, all of these things that make for a wonderful dramatic character. My guess is that when John got back there and saw what was going on and saw the relationships that were happening and the fact that there had been other film companies who were going and were paying, such as the company that was doing The Gods Must Be Crazy, that N!ai was already a celebrity in her own right in that regard as well. So my guess is that it was probably a combination of serendipity and history.
[00:49:28.58] [MCELWEE:] It's also John had that uncanny ability, which filmmakers do develop, if they're lucky, over time, of being able to identify star attraction, star presence before the camera. Some people have it. Some don't. N!ai had it.
[00:49:45.18] And he did short films too. Like Joking Relationship, that little short film, is N!ai and her uncle.
[00:49:50.78] [CABEZAS:] Yeah.
[00:49:51.20] [MCELWEE:] Right? So a portion of that appears in N!ai, the film that we just saw. But that means, way back then, when that was filmed in the late 1950s, I guess--
[00:50:03.92] [BARBASH:] '57, I think, or '58.
[00:50:06.24] [MCELWEE:] --that John already knew she was special. And that doesn't mean he knew he was going to end up making a film about her. But she was one of the four or five people that John was already focusing on with his filmmaking and did create a number of short films based upon those people early on.
[00:50:24.68] [CABEZAS:] There may also be other people in the audience who have perspective on this that may be able to add. We're just a few people up here. So if anybody else does, it might be a good idea-- if there's factors or observation, it might be helpful to hear it from other people too.
[00:50:46.96] [AUDIENCE: INAUDIBLE] contribute so much as to hope that some of the Kalahari experts you spoke about being in the audience might have something to say. And what I would most like to hear, either from them or from you, is you did say something about N!ai's spunky personality. And I was disappointed that nothing of that showed through in the recent clip that you had.
[00:51:15.17] And I was wondering whether gender roles, family roles have shifted in a non-egalitarian direction, because since they left off living the old way, from reading Elizabeth Marshall's book, my impression was not that men and women were equal in the old days, that it was sort of proverbial that men are better, even then. But there still seemed to be-- as we saw in the earlier footage and N!ai today, there was a good deal of autonomy resistance possible for women. And then one didn't really see that in the clip done this year. But that, of course, was short.
[00:52:08.48] [APLEY:] Yeah, I guess I would hesitate to extract too much from that 2018 clip. I think this was a visiting anthropologist who didn't have the kind of relationships that John had with the characters. And we thought it was important to include this little bit, partly to speak to what Ilisa brought up earlier about this is a community. They're still alive. They're still there, and we feel like it's really important, particularly with ethnographic films, to remind people that these are living people. Yeah, I can't say more about the changes in gender relations.
[00:52:49.13] [MCELWEE:] One of the changes is that 30-something years have gone by.
[00:52:52.21] [APLEY:] Yeah. [CHUCKLES]
[00:52:53.21] [MCELWEE:] So she's probably slowed down a little bit. She certainly has the right.
[00:52:57.77] [AMBROSINO:] Also, there is a profession called filmmaking, and John was a filmmaker. And he knew how to get a story. He knew how to make people understand that he was there to be that good fellow who was making the story. And he did so. And I think you also saw the craft. And N!ai became a story because-- well, N!ai is unique. Granada Television made many, many ethnographic films for television. I know of none that covered the life of a human being over that period. And that's why it became an Odyssey.
[00:53:39.45] [APLEY:] Yeah, well, the length of footage from the 1950s to the '70s is really exceptional. And of course, the Kalahari family covers 50 years. And that's even more exceptional. [CHUCKLES] Yep. Final question?
[00:53:58.82] [BARBASH:] Do any of the Kalahari experts hiding in the audience want to--
[00:54:04.88] --answer about what may have happened with gender roles at this point?
[00:54:10.88] [APLEY: LAUGHING] We're just staring at Robert. Yeah. [LAUGHING]
[00:54:14.98] [AMBROSINO:] He's got a beard. He's got to be an expert.
[00:54:18.42] [AUDIENCE:] A question to Sue, Marjorie Shostak's Nisa, what influence did that have on the film?
[00:54:26.63] [CABEZAS:] I'm sorry, at what age--
[00:54:28.43] [AUDIENCE:] Marjorie Shostak's Nisa, which was the bestselling ethnography at this stage, what impact did that have in the making of the film? I think it was probably just before.
[00:54:41.60] [CABEZAS:] I think that there were extensive parts of the interviews that Marjorie had had with Nisa that she and John had talked a lot about. They had a very close relationship about what was going on with young women in among the !Kung. And I know that there were a lot of conversations about what were the important-- kind of the dynamic human elements of a girl's life.
[00:55:13.99] And Marjorie was just such a wonderful person to be able to bring that out and to, I think, encourage John also to be thinking maybe in a way that was a little bit different. I don't know that that answers the question. [CHUCKLES]
[00:55:28.97] [AUDIENCE:] OK,
[00:55:30.87] [APLEY:] Yeah. You know, I don't know specifically about when N!ai became the focus in the film. But just thinking about the timing of it, yeah, Nisa came out, I don't know, in '76 or something? It says in the credits that the interviews with N!ai were based on the interviews with Nisa.
[00:55:48.92] And I know that John was always going back and looking at the shortcomings of earlier works and trying to address those in the next works. And from what I understand, there was criticism of The Hunters was man, the hunter. And we're talking '70s, second-wave feminism. And there was a lot of interest in women's lives.
[00:56:12.71] So I don't know specifically, but clearly, it was the moment to do a women's story. Yeah.
[00:56:25.50] [AUDIENCE:] Yeah, just wanted to have a quick comment, speaking not as an expert--
[00:56:30.43] [AMBROSINO:] Can't hear you.
[00:56:31.28] [APLEY:] Hold your mic up higher.
[00:56:32.42] [AUDIENCE:] Oh. Speaking not as an expert, but as a Namibian, one of the things which just brings tears to my eyes every time I see this film-- and I teach it frequently, and what's interesting, talking to American students, what's the most distressful scene you see in the film? You know what they say?
[00:56:52.32] [AMBROSINO:] The sand.
[00:56:54.77] [AUDIENCE:] Killing the giraffe.
[00:56:55.94] [SOFT GASPS]
[00:56:59.10] Anyway, as a Namibian, let me say, what I love about this film is the stuff which John captured which he didn't realize he was capturing, like the broad, big bureaucratic desk with the guy with his wife. And the reason for that is the guy, Mr. Jonker is an alcoholic who'd been sent there as a punishment posting.
[00:57:22.94] The other thing which strikes me and which just brings tears to my eyes, the final scene when the soldiers are leaving on the truck ostensibly is equal to whites with equal salaries, what they're wearing are white school cadet caps, stressing their inferior status
[00:57:46.44] [APLEY:] Thanks. [QUILTER:] Can we thank our panelists and then--