The Navajo Films

Though truly experimental, these seven gems are rarely screened and have mostly gone unnoticed by the experimental film crowd. In 1966 anthropologist John Adair and filmmaker Sol Worth gave cameras, film, and minimal technical instruction to seven Navajo, most of whom had seen little cinema or TV, and let them film themselves. The structure of the films, Worth and Adair reasoned, might reveal how the Navajo saw the world. The seven filmmakers mostly recorded physical tasks–weaving, washing clothes, digging a well–but invariably linked process and product to human labor and the land. In Susie Benally’s A Navajo Weaver and Alta Kahn’s Second Weaver, completed blankets are the end result of herding sheep and gathering plants for dyes. John Nelson’s Shallow Well Project cuts from a moving pump to water gushing from a spigot, emphasizing that water results from mechanical and human labor. Mike Anderson’s Old Antelope Lake presents the lake not in picturesque vistas but as part of the life of the community, a place to water sheep and wash clothes. Unlike the other Navajo, Alfred Clah had attended art school; his symbolic drama The Intrepid Shadows begins with the disruption of a spider web and meditates on the individual’s relationship to the land. The films’ images have the freshness of objects seen for the first time, while the many jump cuts, which seem abrupt at first, emphasize what’s left out and imply that the films are transitory documents of a larger reality. On the same program, Nelson’s Navajo Silversmith and Maxine and Mary J. Tsosie’s The Spirit of Navajos. School of the Art Institute, 112 S. Michigan, room 1311, Tuesday, April 21, 4:30, 312-345-3588.

–Fred Camper

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): The Spirit of the Navajos film still.