We’re kicking off Giving Tuesday early this year! Your donation today will be matched up to $10K, doubling your impact! If you donate $50 today, the Reader will receive $100.
The Reader is now a community-funded nonprofit newsroom. Can we count on your support to help keep us publishing?
Three years after the controversy surrounding the 1915 release of The Birth of a Nation, the “documentary” Among the Cannibal Isles of the South Pacific purported to introduce to the world a tribe of man-eaters inhabiting an isolated islet off the coast of Australia. Benign-looking natives posed for the white interlopers and their camera, their quizzical gazes punctuated by images of human skulls and other contrived menaces.
“That’s a transitional film in the history of the documentary,” says Tom Gunning, professor of film and media studies at the University of Chicago. “It is deliberately dramatized, a travel fantasy that reflects the imperialist attitude of the time. It looks on the exotic with curiosity, as most travelogues from the dawn of cinema through the 20s did, but it also tries to present a semblance of a story in the encounter between depraved, childlike natives and rational, mature Europeans.”
Martin and Osa Johnson, the husband-and-wife team behind Among the Cannibal Isles, were American explorers who mastered the possibilities of the early travelogue. Born in Rockford, Martin Johnson had sailed with Jack London on the Snark and later mounted slide shows of his travels abroad. Post-Victorian nickelodeon audiences were enthralled by Johnson’s record of the faraway jewels of Western colonialism, and the shows’ financial success further fueled his ambitions. In 1912 he and Osa began traveling to remote areas, explorations that resulted in Among the Cannibal Isles. A decade later Johnson released Simba: The King of the Beasts, a feature-length documentary of an east African safari that showed bare-breasted tribal women as well as Osa displaying her prowess with a gun on a lion hunt.
“Not everyone was taken with their brand of staged thrills,” Gunning says. “An exhibitor went so far as to send a telegram to the Johnsons: ‘Audience bored with cannibalism, send us animal films.’ And critics like John Grierson looked down on the merely descriptive travelogue genre in general, preferring instead artful, thematically coherent documentaries like Nanook of the North that rearranged reality.”
Indeed, the prejudices of the critical establishment consigned what Gunning terms the “early nonfiction films” to the dustbin of scholarship. Only in recent years have academics begun to focus on these materials not so much for their content as for what they reveal about the cultural and social environments that produced them. Three years ago Gunning and his American colleagues were given access to the archives of the Netherlands Film Museum, one of the most extensive repositories of such materials. This weekend examples culled from the collection, including the Johnsons’ two movies, will be shown at the U. of C., after which representatives from the museum and other experts in early cinema will participate in discussions.
“Borrowing a French term of the time, we call these films ‘actualities,’ footage that lacks an argument and organization, as distinguished from later documentaries that move beyond the primal act of looking through creative dramatizing of the raw material,” says Gunning. While the makers of these nonfiction films were mostly unknown, they still had points of view. “These neglected pioneers were generally European, adventurous in spirit,” Gunning says, “but they weren’t specialists of the regions and cultures they filmed. They had audiences at home in mind, regular moviegoers who were curious about the customs and lifestyles of those they considered exotic.”
Many of these filmmakers drew on the traditions of painting and still photography for a pictorialism that still looks hauntingly idyllic today, and some even hinted at quasi-ethnographic pretensions, giving their films titles like Japanese Ladies and The Cultivation of Tea in Western Java. Even America seemed exotic. In A Marriage Among the Redskins and The South of the United States, cliches like brave warriors and dancing minstrels crop up. “Sure, these travelogues helped create and reinforced stereotypes,” Gunning says, “but they also represented a kind of contact, an immediate recognition that people in other lands walk, eat, and play. Why, they aren’t all that different from us.”
“Colonial Imaging: Early Films From the Netherlands Film Museum” will be shown in five installments. Programs one and two will be screened at 7 PM on Friday, with musical accompaniments from pianist Sebastian Huydts and Friends of the Gamelan; admission is $8. Programs three and four begin at 9 AM on Saturday; each screening will be followed by a discussion. Admission is free. Screenings are at Max Palevsky Cinema, 1212 E. 59th. Call 773-702-8575. A fifth program, of home movies taken by a Dutch bureaucrat in the East Indies during the 1930s, will be shown Saturday starting at 2 at the Film Studies Center, 5811 S. Ellis; that’s also free. Call 773-702-8596 for more. –Ted Shen
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Martin and Osa Johnson photo.