Filmmaking | Retrospective

Remembering John Marshall (1932-2005)

1 Jul , 2005  

Written by Alice Apley & David Tamés | Posted by:

A retrospective of the career of John Marshall who spent five decades filmmaking the everyday lives and struggles of the people from Nyae Nyae in Bushmanland, Namibia.

"When I first watched John Marshall’s "N/um Tchai: The Ceremonial Dance of the !Kung Bushmen" (1969), an observational film about a Ju’/hoansi trance dance filmed in the Kalahari Desert in the 1950s, I wanted to reach out and wipe the sweat off the dancers’ brows. That’s how enveloping were the rich sounds of singing and stomping feet, the images of the tight circle of dancers. Marshall’s camera wove in and out of the circle of pulsating bodies, as if it was just another dancer. From the heat of the dance, the film ends with quiet, the sun coming up and the dancers walking off into the bush to start a new day. And I too felt exhausted, as if I had just spent an all-nighter in the bush. I knew that Marshall had worked hard to create this magic of transport — he improvised synch sound in the editing room, and limited the explanatory information to a series of titles at the opening of the film — but he made it look so easy." – Alice Apley

On April 22, 2005, John K. Marshall, pioneering documentary filmmaker and resident of Belmont, Massachusetts, died after a battle with lung cancer.

John Marshall first went to the Kalahari when he was 17. In 1950 he accompanied his father, Laurence Marshall, on a search for the "Lost World of the Kalahari." A year later he returned to the region known as Nyae Nyae, with his entire family on an expedition to look for "wild bushmen." He received a 16mm Kodak camera from his father with the advice, "Don’t direct, John, don’t try to be artistic, just film what you see people doing naturally." John’s mother, Lorna, subsequently published a number of ethnographic papers based on the lives of the people they lived with. His sister, Elizabeth, published "The Harmless People," a popular account of their expedition.

John Marshall spent the next 50 years, on and off, filming the lives of ≠Oma Tsamkxao and his extended family, whom he had first met as a young man. It would just so happen that ≠Oma’s family and their community would undergo considerable social change, and, in part, because of the attention of Marshall’s camera, hold a unique place in western media and imagination. At crucial points throughout this history, Marshall was there to document the changing realities and offer up clearer and clearer understandings in the competing histories of who these people were and what their lives should be.

Any one of John Marshall’s films is a rich experience in the intertwined histories of documentary media and ethnographic film. Each offers a unique window into the changing technical possibilities and documentary styles beginning in the 1950s with work that anticipated the cinéma vérité of the 1960s. Together they stand as a testament to Marshall’s tireless experimentation with the medium. In his autobiographical writings, Marshall offers insight into his evolution as a filmmaker as he tried to get to the inherent story of an event, "I began recording events more closely with my camera. I tried to follow what people were actually doing and saying. I filmed thoroughly instead of covering complex events with a few shots to illustrate my own mental constructs and informal scripts."

As Marshall gained experience, his films became more intimate and revealing. Reflecting upon this, he wrote, "I began shooting events from angles and distances that approximated the perspectives of the people I was filming, I tried to film as a member of the group rather than shoot standing outside as an observer." He began thinking about his position vis-à-vis the people he was filming, asking, "Am I someone in the group? Who? Why am I looking at the other person? Am I an outside observer? If I am an observer who am I? Is there anyone else observing from this angle and distance? What are they seeing and thinking?" Marshall’s shooting style evolved to reflect his position within the society he was filming, that of participant more than outside observer.

Films like "N/um Tchai" — which was one of a series of short "sequence" films — were attempts to address shortcomings evident in his first film, "The Hunters" (1957). In this earlier telling of the story of a giraffe hunt by a group of Ju’/hoasi, Marshall realized he had romanticized his subject, and in doing so, obscured the reality of Ju’/hoan life. In "The Hunters," he portrayed the Ju’/hoasi as a timeless people, engaged in a struggle against nature. In fact, at the time Marshall filmed them, they were living primarily on gathered food and struggling to find enough to eat. In response to his recognition of this and other problems with "The Hunters," Marshall sought to produce more objective, less mediated films about the Ju’/hoansi. He created a series of short "sequence" films that gave students insight into alternative cultures without exoticizing or imposing western narrative structures on the subjects. Among his innovations were to structure films in terms of the events depicted. In "A Joking Relationship" (1962), Marshall and anthropological filmmaker Timothy Asch introduced the use of subtitles for indigenous dialogue. Subsequent films and historical events called for yet newer modes.

His early filmmaking pursuits — to document what was then one of the last existing hunter-gatherer ways of life — took a radical turn when under illegal South African rule ethnic homelands were created in South West Africa. Part of Marshall’s brilliance was his ability to invent new documentary forms to meet the political exigencies of the community he had come to care so deeply about. Marshall wrote that "no filmmaker or ethnographer was present on Christmas morning in 1959" when the first administrative post was established by the South African colonial administration at Tshumkwe in Nyae Nyae. Over the next decade many Ju’/hoasi settled in Tshumkwe expecting a better life. Instead, they entered a period of social and economic upheaval. Seen as a threat to the status quo, the government banned Marshall from entering the country from 1958 to 1978. Except for a brief visit by Laurence and Lorna Marshall in 1961, no anthropologists or filmmakers were permitted to observe the transformation that was occurring in Tshumkwe.

"N!ai, The Story of a !Kung Woman" (1980) broadcast as part of the Odyssey series on PBS reflects a turn in Marshall’s work from creating a film record of cultural practices to committed participant filming the struggles of a marginalized minority. "N!ai" presents the utter despair of the now impoverished and dependent community living in Tshumkwe. Through a skillful mix of footage from the 1950s and late 1970s, Marshall presents a powerful view of the dramatic transformation of Ju’/hoansi life, from independent hunter-gatherers, to despised minorities, as told through the impassioned voice of the indigenous narrator, a woman Marshall had known since she was a child. Not only was the community struggling with the loss of their ability to live independently by hunting and gathering, life at Tshumkwe was riddled with violence, disease, and new inequalities created by entry into a cash economy.

The film is particularly effective because Marshall tells the story of the community through the intimate voice of N!ai and her family’s lives over two decades. Once the viewer is situated inside this world, Marshall skillfully builds the larger context of dispossession and life under South African rule. Single shots, such as the disparaging look of a (white) South African administrator towards his Ju’/hoan household help speak multitudes about the fallen position of the Ju’/hoansi in society. In a novel use of direct address, N!ai speaks to Marshall, and by extension to the film’s audience. The effect is that viewers — as representatives of the wider world that has encroached upon what was once a self-sufficient community — implicated as contributors to her people’s plight.

John Marshall is greeted by his namesake, ≠Oma Tsamkxao, outside of Tsumkwe in 1978 (video still from "A Kalahari Family")
[Click to enlarge]

Beginning in the 1980s a group of Ju’/hoansi sought to regain their independent subsistence, but now based on cattle herding and agriculture like the other African peoples around them. Farming in the Kalahari hinges on access to water. With the establishment of the Nyae Nyae Development Fund in the early 1980s, Marshall played a role in helping Ju’/hoansi establish their own gardens and cattle herds. Marshall’s films from this period, such as "Pull Ourselves Up or Die Out" (1984), used footage from the early 1980s and were no-nonsense advocacy videos meant to build support for Ju’/hoan agricultural pursuits. Rather than helping Ju’/hoansi establish a viable means of subsistence, government and environmental agencies were more interested in developing Nyae Nyae as a game reserve with Ju’/hoansi as "authentic hunters and gatherers" for the entertainment of tourists. Beset with limited technological resources, a growing elephant population damaging wind pumps and destroying water pipes, and the government’s agenda, Ju’/hoansi efforts to farm were constantly undermined. Maintaining functioning water pumps has continued to be a struggle for Ju’/hoansi farmers to the present day.

We are very fortunate that Marshall lived to complete "A Kalahari Family" (2002), his 6-hour, 5-episode oeuvre. Marshall introduced dialogical structure in "N!ai, The Story of a !Kung Woman," weaving together the voices of filmmaker and subject. "A Kalahari Family" is particularly remarkable for the multiple voices and positions represented in the film including government administrators, soldiers, representatives of international environmental groups and aid organizations, and tourists. The central voices are those of Marshall and his Ju’/hoansi friends shot over a nearly 50 year period. In the films preceding "A Kalahari Family," Marshall was never a central character. In this most recent work the curtain is drawn and we are privileged with a new perspective. Marshall, his family, and their impact on the Ju’/hoansi (both positive and negative) are front and center. We see the evident affection between filmmaker and subjects, hear his Ju’/hoansi friends speak of Marshall as a young filmmaker, and reflect on their lives many years earlier.

Marshall’s inclusion of his story is not self-indulgence on the part of the filmmaker, but necessary information for understanding Ju’/hoan history which has been shaped by the complex machinery of national development and global economies. Not only had the family’s tire tracks into the desert opened up the region to contact with neighboring Africans, and subsequently South African people, but the work of Marshall and other filmmakers, most notably Jamie Uys’ "The Gods Must Be Crazy" (1980), promoted western fantasies of primitive hunting-gathering lives. In Marshall’s essay, "Filming & Learning," he wrote, "fantasies projected onto Ju’/hoansi by writers and filmmakers were among the worst threats the people faced in their struggle to develop their farms and keep their land. Documentary films showing Ju’/hoansi dressed in skins playing hunters and gatherers in the 1980s reinforced the fantasies and served as propaganda for official and commercial interests seeking to establish the game reserve."

In the final episode of "A Kalahari Family," titled "Death by Myth," the power of the "Bushman myth" takes center stage. Throughout the series Marhsall focused on his transformation from filmmaker and anthropologist, to participant and activist. In this episode, Tsamkxao — the son of ≠Oma, who had invited the Marshalls into the lives of his family and community back in 1951 — says, "There are two kinds of films. Films that show us in skins are lies. Films that tell the truth show us with cattle, with farms, with our own water, making our own plans."

"A Kalahari Family" presents this incredible story of a young man turned filmmaker, and of a group of people whose lives have undergone dramatic change. But it is also a window onto the history of ethnographic and documentary filmmaking, in which repurposed shots from earlier films continue to reveal the stories of earlier encounters and moments in film history. All told, Marshall produced over 20 films on the Ju’/hoansi. His films have had a profound impact on documentary and ethnographic filmmaking. Faye Ginsburg, Professor of Anthropology and Director of the Center for Media, Culture & History at New York University sums up his influence, "John Marshall had the keen eye, compassion, and sense of story that allowed him to shift the post-war paradigm of ethnographic film. Ever restless and inventive, he was constantly throwing over the model he himself had invented — from the observational to the dialogical — refining and experimenting, with dialogue and respect for the lives of the people of the Kalahari as the moral and epistemological compass for all his work." Ginsberg adds, "’A Kalahari Family’ will stand as an inspiration and a monument to future generations."

Although Marshall’s deepest commitment was to the Ju’/hoansi, he also played a role in the evolution of cinéma vérité. Marshall was the cameraman on Frederick Wiseman’s "Titicut Follies," the scathing expose of Bridewater State Hospital released in 1967. He worked with documentary filmmakers D.A. Pennebaker and Richard Leacock, and shot the civil war in Cyprus for NBC. In 1969 and 1970 Marshall created the Pittsburgh Police Film Series, a number of short vérité films developed for training and educational purposes. Although produced as discussion starters for training on ethical and legal issues, the Pittsburgh Police Film Series established the gritty realism that became the foundation of today’s reality cop shows.

Marshall’s films are distributed by Documentary Educational Resources (DER), which he co-founded with Timothy Asch in 1968. Cynthia Close, Executive Director of DER, explains the origins, "[John] wanted to make short sequence films that showed slices of real life to be used in a classroom setting so that kids could experience first hand cultures very different from their own. At that time, there were no other distributors doing that so they started DER to distribute their own films to schools." For people interested in going beyond the finished films, there is the extensive film record. Marshall ultimately produced over two million feet of 16mm film footage. In addition, thousands of hours of video document the Ju’/hoansi strife-filled saga. The record spans the material and cultural practices of the independent Ju’/hoansi through their struggles to gain a foothold in the modern Namibian economy. Close describes the archive as, "unparalleled in the history of film and in the history of documenting humanity" and it is now held by the Human Studies Film Archives at the Smithsonian Institution.

Anthropologists have sought to define ethnographic film as distinct from social documentary. One of the criteria often promoted is a long period of time spent with the people whose stories are being told. In 2003 Marshall was given a lifetime achievement award by the Society for Visual Anthropology. His 50-year history working with the Ju’/hoansi is remarkable, even for ethnographic filmmakers. Marshall’s example of involvement with his subjects continues through DER’s support of filmmakers who similarly have made long-term commitments to the people that they film.

In "A Kalahari Family," Marshall’s story of his efforts on behalf of the Ju’/hoansi ends in 2000. We asked Close whether Marshall had continued his advocacy on behalf of the Ju’/hoansi, for whom securing water for cattle and crops is an ongoing struggle. She replied, "Yes, he was working on trying to get water pumps fixed until the very end."

For more information, visit Documentary Educational Resources:

A Kalahari Family (2002) 

Pull Ourselves Up or Die (1984)

N!ai, The Story of a !Kung Woman (1980)

N/um Tchai: The Ceremonial Dance of the !Kung Bushmen (1969) 

A Joking Relationship (1962) 

The Hunters (1957) 

The Harmless People 

Human Studies Film Archive 

For more information, visit Documentary Educational Resources: A Kalahari Family (2002)  Pull Ourselves Up or Die (1984) N!ai, The Story of a !Kung Woman (1980)  N/um Tchai: The Ceremonial Dance of the !Kung Bushmen (1969)  A Joking Relationship (1962)  The Hunters (1957)  The Harmless People  Human Studies Film Archive