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Edward S. Curtis

Early Silent Documentaries: Real-life Adventure Cinema

Since the dawn of cinema, cameras have been taken around the world to capture unique and exotic sights previously available to audiences only in still photographs.

Motion picture pioneers the Lumiere brothers sent their cameras to get scenic shots of foreign landscapes and cultures, and rivals (such as Britain’s Mitchell and Kenyon) followed suit, creating programs that took audiences to faraway places. Mitchell and Kenyon narrated their presentations, turning the shows into events, while on the lecture circuit, explorers started using movie cameras to supplement their slide shows with moving picture footage.

These pre-documentary forays inspired filmmakers and explorers to take their cameras into more remote and inhospitable locations.

‘The Epic of Everest’

Herbert Ponting accompanied Captain Robert Scott on his 1911 expedition to the Antarctic with two moving picture cameras. Frank Hurley, the official photographer of Ernest Shackleton’s 1914 Antarctic expedition, also brought a movie camera. Captain John Noel, gripped by fascination with the Himalayas, documented the third British ascent of Everest in 1924. Photographer and anthropologist Edward S. Curtis went to the coast of British Columbia to recreate the lost culture of the Pacific Northwest tribes. Robert Flaherty, still celebrated as the father of documentary filmmaking, took his cameras to the Arctic to capture the culture of the Inuit, and to Samoa to document South Seas life. And before they made King Kong, Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack hauled their cameras through the mountains and plains of Iraq and the jungles of Thailand to explore the rigors of life in worlds far from our own.

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Milestones: ‘In the Land of the Head Hunters’

InLandHeadHuntersIn the Land of the Head Hunters (Milestone, Blu-ray, DVD) is not a documentary but it is an invaluable historical document nonetheless. Famed photographer Edward S. Curtis made a career documenting the native tribes on the west in the early 20th century, preserving the imagery of a culture that had almost entirely eradicated through resettlement and assimilation. He lived for a time with the Kwakwaka’wakw (Kwakiutl) people of British Columbia and filmed some of their traditional dance for his lectures before he came up with the idea of making a feature with the members of the tribe.

Neither documentary nor strictly recreation—Curtis wrote a melodramatic tale drawn as much (if not more) from western mythology and European fairy tales as from native cultures—In the Land of the Head Hunters showcases traditional dances and rituals from the era before contact with white settlers through its story of love and war. There’s a brave warrior in ritual of manhood, the daughter of a chief who is in love with him, a cruel sorcerer who plots to destroy the warrior, and the sorcerer’s brother. The actors were all non-professionals and Curtis, who is more documentarian than dramatic storyteller, a rudimentary filmmaker, but he worked with the tribe to recreate the costumes, masks, canoes, and longhouses of the old culture, preserving a legacy that the Canadian government was trying to stamp out (the tribes were forbidden from practicing their cultural rituals and this film provided an exception, which they eagerly took).

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