American Ethnographic Film and Personal Documentary: The Cambridge Turn

American Ethnographic Film and Personal Documentary: The Cambridge Turn

by Scott MacDonald

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American Ethnographic Film and Personal Documentary is a critical history of American filmmakers crucial to the development of ethnographic film and personal documentary. The Boston and Cambridge area is notable for nurturing these approaches to documentary film via institutions such as the MIT Film Section and the Film Study Center, the Carpenter Center and the Visual and Environmental Studies Department at Harvard. Scott MacDonald uses pragmatism’s focus on empirical experience as a basis for measuring the groundbreaking achievements of such influential filmmakers as John Marshall, Robert Gardner, Timothy Asch, Ed Pincus, Miriam Weinstein, Alfred Guzzetti, Ross McElwee, Robb Moss, Nina Davenport, Steve Ascher and Jeanne Jordan, Michel Negroponte, John Gianvito, Alexander Olch, Amie Siegel, Ilisa Barbash, and Lucien Castaing-Taylor. By exploring the cinematic, personal, and professional relationships between these accomplished filmmakers, MacDonald shows how a pioneering, engaged, and uniquely cosmopolitan approach to documentary developed over the past half century.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520275614
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 06/04/2013
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 424
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Scott MacDonald teaches film history at Hamilton College and Harvard University and in 2011 was named an Academy Scholar by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. He is the author of many books for UC Press, most recently Adventures in Perception: Cinema as Exploration (2009).

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American Ethnographic Film and Personal Documentary

The Cambridge Turn

By Scott MacDonald


Copyright © 2013 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-95493-9


Lorna and John Marshall

At the outset, the Marshall family expeditions to the Kalahari Desert from 1950 to 1961 to find and learn something about the San peoples living there were conceived as a means to the end of a more intensive, engaged experience of family life—an upscale version of the family camping trips that would become ubiquitous across the country during the following decades. Laurence Marshall's determination that his family's experiences with the San be useful in producing valuable insights into an ancient way of life led (along with his willingness to finance the project) to the Peabody Museum's sponsorship of the Marshalls' early expeditions, which did in fact produce impressive results, including several significant contributions to the written anthropological discourse about the San and a wealth of photographic and cinematic documentation.

John Marshall's particular excitement about the men and women he grew to know during these expeditions had a good deal to do with his wonder at how much his new friends had come to understand about their environment through their long experience with it, but this early fascination was merely the first stage of what became a lifelong process of learning not only about the people he befriended in the Kalahari but about how much his early excitement about being with them had blinded him to the realities of their lives. Indeed, during the following years, as he came to see how quickly San life was transforming and to feel that his family's expeditions into the Kalahari had contributed to the destruction of the way of life that had so impressed him, Marshall transformed his approach to documenting the San over and over. His hope was that each new contact he had with the "Ju/'hoansi" (Marshall came to use Ju/'hoansi to refer to the group of !Kung San he grew to know, since this is how they referred to themselves), and each new film that resulted from it might bring him and his viewers toward a clearer sense of what the experience of the Ju/'hoansi actually was and what their struggles might mean for those who were coming to know something of them.


When Laurence Kennedy Marshall retired from Raytheon, the electronics company he had founded in 1922, he and Lorna Marshall agreed that they needed to break away from their routines in Cambridge in order to focus on their children. Laurence and Lorna had visited South Africa in 1949, where they met Dr. E. Van Zyl, who was planning an expedition to find "The Lost City of the Kalahari." Laurence decided to join the expedition and to take John with him. As John Marshall would explain later, "After years of war and absence from his family, Laurence wanted to take a trip to get to know his son. One of my hobbies was reading accounts of explorers like Livingstone, Stanley and Grant. I was enthralled by Jock of the Bushveld by Percy Fitzpatrick, and mesmerized by the films of Osa and Martin Johnson." This first expedition, in 1950, led to a series of visits to Nyae Nyae. In 1951 Lorna Marshall and daughter Elizabeth joined Laurence and John; and the family continued to visit the region together for the next decade—a total of eight expeditions: 1950, 1951, 1952–53, 1955, 1956, 1957–58, 1959, 1961. And John Marshall would continue to visit Nyae Nyae into the 1980s.

The Marshalls were not tourists. From the beginning, Laurence and Lorna believed that these should be working visits, and they were immediately in touch with Lauriston Ward and J. O. Brew, anthropologists at Harvard. By the time of the 1951 expedition, the Marshalls had developed a system for serious study of what was one of the last hunter-gatherer groups in Africa:

We tried to find an ethnographer or a graduate student who wanted to go and study daily life of hunter-gatherers on the plains of Africa. We couldn't find one. Isn't that incredible? We went through Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Chicago, and a couple of other places that Dad called up and said, "Who wants to start this study?" Dad said he'd back them for a long time, for an in-depth, long-term study because he thought that would be unique, and nobody responded.... So the result was that Dad said, "Okay, Lorna, you're going to do the ethnography; Elizabeth, you're going to write a book; John, you're going to do the movies." And he handed me a camera and said "Shoot the films."

The first three expeditions were sponsored by the Peabody Museum of Harvard University; the expeditions from 1955 through 1961 (the "Peabody Museum Kalahari Expeditions") by the Peabody, the Smithsonian Institution, and the Transvaal Museum of Pretoria. These expeditions produced Lorna Marshall's The !Kung of Nyae Nyae (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1976), a substantial, early ethnographic study of the San of the Kalahari; Elizabeth Marshall Thomas's The Harmless People (New York: Vintage, 1958), a beautifully written reminiscence of her and her family's experiences with the San during the 1951, 1952–53, and 1955 expeditions; and a considerable series of films, beginning with !Kung Bushmen of the Kalahari, which John Marshall says was edited by "my mother, my father, and filmmaker Jerry Ballantine"; and First Film, which Lorna edited from the same footage in 1951 (fig. 1).

While The Hunters is usually considered the first important Marshall film about the !Kung and the instigation of the long series of !Kung films that followed, this is unfair to the accomplishments of First Film. While the Marshalls' visit to Gautscha in Nyae Nyae in 1951 was only six weeks (Lorna Marshall has indicated that the 1952–53 expedition was "the most productive period of our study"), it was long enough to produce footage that not only served as warm-up and précis for the long saga of films that would follow, but was at some point edited into a film that has remained remarkably underappreciated. Shot in a very functional manner—Laurence had told John, "Don't try to be artistic. Just film what you see people doing naturally. I want a record, not a movie"—what became First Film was edited so as to provide an information-filled overview of !Kung life at Nyae Nyae.

After a bit of indigenous music and a map locating Gautscha, a group of !Kung arrive and set up their temporary village. During the hour-long film, we see men making karosses (the cloaks made from animal skin that women wear), men and women getting and sharing water, women gathering foods ("women's principal work"), a child dancing (the earliest imagery of N!ai, who would become a central character in John Marshall's films about the Ju/'hoansi), boys setting snares for guinea fowl, men hunting for spring hare, the making of bows and poison arrows, men hunting gemsbok and wildebeest and the distribution of meat, eating and cooking, women making beads and a man playing music on his bow, boys playing, the group dancing and singing, a man falling into trance and coming out of it, children dancing, the group smoking, talking, and laughing; then, packing up and leaving to walk to the next temporary village. A bit of indigenous music ends the film. John Marshall's later films would focus in on many of the particulars of Lorna Marshall's overview, often using virtually the same language in his voice-overs as she uses in hers.

It is the nature of Lorna Marshall's voice-overs in First Film that makes this film distinctive and memorable—probably more distinctive and memorable than it seemed in 1951, precisely because of the way in which voice-over in documentary has been debated during the past sixty years. It is not clear precisely when this voice-over was married to the imagery (Cynthia Close, director of Documentary Educational Resources [DER], suspects that it was in the 1970s, but John Bishop, who worked with the Marshall materials at the Peabody Museum, has suggested that, whenever the soundtrack was recorded, the comments that became the voiceover had had a history in advance of their inclusion on the soundtrack of First Film: "I imagine John cut it [the first version of First Film] for her soon after their return so she could use it to illustrate a lecture, or possibly to be used for multiple performances of the lecture, a popular use of documentary footage in the 1950s." As Bishop suggested to me, the tone of the narration "is as if she was projecting to a large audience."

What seems noteworthy now about Lorna Marshall's voice-over on First Film is the degree to which she seems to have avoided many of the problems of conventional documentary voice-overs, including those in early ethnographic films. She is certainly not a "voice of god" or even a "voice of goddess." While the imagery John Marshall recorded and put together for his mother (presumably under her direction) must have seemed exotic to the original audiences, and still may seem exotic to audiences unfamiliar with ethnographic filmmaking, the voice-over commentary in First Film reveals not merely Lorna Marshall's familiarity with the people gathered at Gautscha, but her unpretentious empathy with them, as a parent. There are statements that seem to mean to protect the San from stereotyping by the audience—"We observed no theft nor aggression; we observed impressive honesty, cooperation, and integration among this far away and independent group"—and comments that remind us of the physical difference between the San and the viewer: as one woman cuts meat with a knife close to her face, Marshall comments, "A good way to eat if one belongs to a short-nosed race."

The overall tone of the voice-over is quite informal, something like the comments of a good teacher telling a class about some people she knows (Marshall, who graduated from the University of California at Berkeley with a B.A. degree in English, had taught English at Mt. Holyoke College before meeting Laurence Marshall). When Old Gau is smoking, she comments, "Like every good bushman, he passes the pipe around," and a moment later, as we see Old Gau with his grandson, "Little ≠ Gao ... loves his grandfather and, I think, wants to be just like him. The grandfather adores this child." As we see young N!ai dancing, Marshall notes, "She is a blithe child," and as we see a widow, Marshall comments that she "sometimes looked lonely. Not always, but sometimes."

In one instance Marshall engages gender relations in a manner that suggests a kind of insight that goes beyond, or beneath, detached scholarly observation: within a composition where the "head man" is in the left foreground and his wife and several other women are sitting in a circle in the right background, Marshall indicates that the head man "rarely gives orders, but ... ," then says, "Watch his wife!" The wife makes a gesture with her hand as if to say, "Leave us alone, mind your own business," after which Marshall says, "But they do what he says." Marshall adds that the head man "watches over his people," and that his wife is a "lively woman": "One felt she would not be easily imposed upon." Throughout Lorna Marshall's voice-over in First Film, and despite what seem to be moments of humor meant to amuse the audience, one can feel Marshall's immense, unpatronizing respect and affection for the people she is introducing to us; these people, she suggests, are not simply types, generic representatives of a way of life, but individuals that she is coming to know and working to know better.


John has 6000 feet of film—He created a documentary—to be called The Water Hole. I yearn to see it. He will edit it. He has 2 more sequences to make. How he has opened to this and taken hold! At last his creative powers are geared to achievement. Laurence and I are deeply happy. Laurence and John are planning to order more film, so John can feel an abandon of creation, not worry about using or wasting some footage.


The filmmaker's response is in many ways the reverse of that of other viewers. For the filmmaker, the film is an extract from all the footage shot for it, and a reminder of all the events that produced it. It reduces the experience onto a very small canvas. For the spectator, by contrast, the film is not small but large: it opens onto a wider landscape. If the images evoke for the filmmaker a world that is largely missing, in the spectator they induce endless extrapolations from what is actually seen.... But for the filmmaker the same images only reaffirm that the subject existed. Instead of imagining, there is remembering; instead of discovery, there is recognition; instead of curiosity, there is foreknowledge and loss.


The Hunters (1957), shot and edited by John Marshall (with some postproduction assistance by Robert Gardner), remains, by far, the best-known film in the Marshall family's saga of Ju/'hoansi life, and among the best-known of all ethnographic films. Indeed, in the United States The Hunters seems to have revived a tradition of representing far-flung cultures that was begun by Edward Curtis in In the Land of the Head-Hunters (also known as In the Land of the War Canoes) (1914) and Robert Flaherty in Nanook of the North (1921) and Moana (1926). In some senses, of course, The Hunters has much in common with Nanook and Moana, and over the years, it has been critiqued in much the same way. While all three films communicate a level of reality that Flaherty and Marshall understood as basic to the Inuit, the Samoans, and the Ju/'hoansi at the time when they shot these films, the Flaherty films and The Hunters are not simply candid records of events as they unfolded. As most everyone who is introduced to these films now knows, the events we see were constructed in the editing—even though the editing in all three films allows many viewers to believe they are seeing events unfold precisely as they unfolded in reality at the time of the shooting. This, it seems to me, has always said more about the hunger of film audiences to believe in the candidness of what they see than it does about any attempt on the part of the filmmakers to fool anyone; indeed, the current generation of college students seems convinced that candid recording is documentary and that any fabrication subtracts from reality—despite the obvious fact that simply turning on a camera and recording what is going on and presenting the results is revealing of almost nothing at all.

The feeling of betrayal on the part of some critics of The Hunters seems particularly naïve, since from the beginning of the film Marshall is at pains to make clear that he is not simply providing information about a far-flung cultural group but is artistically constructing a tale. Of course, in 1957, when The Hunters was completed and first shown, it was such a departure from the lecture-documentaries that had dominated nonfiction filmmaking for a quarter century that, by comparison, it must have seemed astonishingly candid.

The Hunters opens with a brief montage of nineteen shots of the Kalahari environment and its flora and fauna. The first three shots (10, 8, and 7 seconds, respectively) draw immediate attention to the filmmaker as visual artist, in that the tiny sequence is sutured together on the basis of subtle movements: in the first two shots, of a bush moving in the breeze, and in the third, by the slightly unsteady movement of the handheld camera as it records a long shot of a vulture (?) in a distant tree. After a brief shot of a lizard, at first still, then moving, we see, through some brush, a tree underneath which we gradually realize are at least two antelope. These first five shots are silent, but the longer sixth shot introduces a wide-angle shot of two men walking through a field, hunting (this image is carefully composed so that one man walks at the right edge of the frame; the other man at the left edge; the shot is accompanied by phrases of what we assume is a bit of music indigenous to this environment). Once the men are visible, our sense of the earlier shots takes on another level: we realize that our carefully noting the tiny movements in this environment has been an evocation of what these hunters must do as they search for game. This conflation of our sensitivity to Marshall's composition and editing and the hunters' sensitivity to their environment is maintained through the remaining thirteen shots, and concludes with a 14-second close-up of one hunter, which fades out just as the title of the film is presented.


Excerpted from American Ethnographic Film and Personal Documentary by Scott MacDonald. Copyright © 2013 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents


A Tentative Overview of Boston-Area Documentary Filmmaking • Ethnographic Film and Personal Documentary • Pragmatism: Learning from Experience • The Mission of American Ethnographic Film and Personal Documentary: The Cambridge Turn • Subjects for Further Research • Acknowledgments

1. Lorna and John Marshall 

Beginnings: Lorna Marshall and First Film • John Marshall: The Hunters • Idylls of the !Kung • Pedagogy • Expulsion from Eden: Bitter Melons and N!ai, the Story of a !Kung Woman • The Pittsburgh Police Films and Brakhage’s Eyes • Putting Down the Camera and Picking Up the Shovel • The Road Taken: A Kalahari Family • A Process in Time

2. Robert Gardner 

East Coast/West Coast: Early Experiments • Gardner and the Marshalls • Dead Birds • The Experience of Filmmaking as Thought Process • Robert Fulton: Reality’s Invisible—“Serious Playing Around” • Screening Room: Midnight Movies • City Symphony: Forest of Bliss • The Return of the Repressed: Ika Hands • Still Journeying On: Unfinished Examinations of a Life • Studio7Arts: Sharon Lockhart’s Double Tide and Robert Fenz’s Correspondence

3. Timothy Asch 

Dodoth Morning and the Ethnographic Deadpan • Asch and the Yanomamo • The Ax Fight

4. Ed Pincus and the Emergence of Personal Documentary 

The Miriam Weinstein Quartet and Richard P. Rogers’s Elephants: Fragments of an Argument • Ed Pincus’s Diaries (1971–1976) • Alfred Guzzetti: Family Portrait Sittings • Guzzetti: It’s a Small World • Guzzetti: Time Exposure

5. Alfred Guzzetti and Personal Cinema 

Air • Experimental Video: “Language Lessons” • Scylla and Charybdis • Still Point

6. Ross McElwee 

Finding a Muse: Charleen • Finding a Voice: Ann Schaetzel’s Breaking and Entering and McElwee’s Backyard • Dopplegänger: Sherman’s March • Nesting Dolls: Time Indefinite • On the Road Again: Six O’Clock News • Occupational Hazards: Bright Leaves • Orpheus: In Paraguay and Photographic Memory

7. Robb Moss 

Riverdogs: A Possible Eden • The Tourist: “Freelance Editing” • Voyage of Life: The Same River Twice

8. Panorama: Other Approaches to Personal Documentary 

Steve Ascher and Jeanne Jordan: Families in Transition • Michel Negroponte: Getting Involved • Leacock and Lalonde • The Subject Rebels: Nina Davenport’s Films and Ed Pincus and Lucia Small’s The Axe in the Attic • The Political Is the Personal: John Gianvito’s Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind and Jeff Daniel Silva’s Balkan Rhapsodies • Alexander Olch’s The Windmill Movie: “This Little Séance of Flickering Light” • Amie Siegel’s DDR/DDR

9. Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Sensory Ethnography 

Ilisa Barbash, Lucien Castaing-Taylor, and Sweetgrass • “Sheeple”: Castaing-Taylor’s Audio-Video Installations • The Sensory Ethnography Lab: J. P. Sniadecki, Stephanie Spray, Véréna Paravel, and Leviathan


Appendix: Film Sources 



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