The Boston Museum of Fine Arts is presenting a series of films from Documentary Educational Resources (DER) as a tribute to John Marshall, a leading filmmaker who died last year on April 22. Marshall devoted most of his life to making films of the Ju/’hoansi in the Nyae Nyae area of Namibia.
The first films in the series, shown last night at the museum, included a re-mastered version of Marshall’s first, well known, film on the Ju/’hoansi, The Hunters, plus a second, A Tribute to John Marshall. Other films from DER will be shown on additional nights throughout April as part of the Museum’s film series. DER, located in Watertown, Massachusetts, is a film distribution nonprofit company that Marshall helped found over 35 years ago.
Marshall began his career as a filmmaker in the Kalahari in the early 1950s when his family mounted an expedition to southern Africa to study the Ju/’hoansi (at the time the little-known group was called the !Kung). Cynthia Close, the Executive Director of the DER, was quoted by his obituary in the Boston Globe on April 27, 2005, as saying that Marshall “was a pivotal figure in the development of the cinema verite form of filmmaking: one man out there filming reality.”
When his five-part film series on the Ju/’hoansi, A Kalahari Family, was released in 2003, the website NewEnglandFilm.com published an article that included an interview with the filmmaker. Marshall revealed that when he and his family first approached the Ju/’hoansi in 1950, they had no idea what to expect. “At one point we were told that they would hide behind bushes and shoot us with their little poison arrows and we wouldn’t even see them,” he told the interviewer.
Between The Hunters of 1958 and A Kalahari Family of 2003, Marshall produced a legacy of distinguished films, most, though not all, about the Ju/’hoansi. A review of his work in American Anthropologist of September 2004 (p.589-594), indicates that The Hunters and a later film, N!ai, The Story of a Kung Woman, “have had a vast influence” in the field of ethnographic filmmaking and film production.
The review emphasizes that A Kalahari Family displayed Marshall’s sensitivities to Ju/’hoansi feelings and his advocacy for their rights. In the series, Marshall attempted to show the Ju/’hoansi within the context of their contemporary social conditions as well as their history. “A variety of scenes … confront the viewer with both tranquility and tragedy” (p.590), wrote Matthew Durington, author of the review. Marshall’s depictions in his films of racial tensions convey the way the “Bushmen myth” excuses and supports the murders and land seizures that the Ju/’hoansi have had to endure.
The review also covers some of the critical evaluations of his work and places those criticisms in the context of the art and craft of filmmaking. It emphasizes the effective power of his filmmaking by pointing out the way A Kalahari Family uses natural symbols such as the death of a baobab tree or the dirt track leading to the community as allegories for the demise of their way of life due to their contact with the encroaching outside world.
During the numerous Marshall family trips to visit the Ju/’hoansi, John’s mother, Lorna Marshall, conducted ethnographic studies. She wrote a series of scholarly articles and two books, The !Kung of Nyae Nyae and Nyae Nyae !Kung Beliefs and Rites.
His sister, Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, who also participated in the family expeditions, wrote the international best seller about the Ju/’hoansi, The Harmless People. According to his obituary in the Boston Globe, she commented that her brother “really became a part of [the Ju/’hoansi] culture and learned their language. He wasn’t on the outside looking in.”