If trying to film reality has a purpose beyond education, it is to bear timely witness so that if possible some evils can be prevented.
(John Marshall, "Filming and Learning", The Cinema of John Marshall, 1993)
The Adventure Begins
John Marshall was only 18 years old when he first went to Africa in 1950. As a boy, he had loved to read stories of adventure on the "Dark Continent", as Africa was often called. These stories usually featured European or American explorers who encountered "exotic" natives in remote and uncharted territories.
For Laurence Marshall, John's father, the trip to southern Africa had a definite purpose - to try to find people who lived by gathering and hunting - and he gave his son a job - to document the things they saw and the people they met on film. John was a complete amateur; he had never shot film before. Years later, he explained how he learned: "When I started to shoot I used a tripod and followed the directions on the Kodak film boxes: first, distant shot; then middle shot; then close up. I was slow. I had to ask people to stop and start again." (John Marshall, A Kalahari Family, Part One: A Far Country, 2002)
The footage from the first trip is more like a home movie than the work of the professional John would become. John's first camera shot silent 16mm film; it had to be wound by hand before every shot and could only record 30 seconds at a time. Because the film had to be processed back in the United States, John could not see any of his footage until he returned home.
In 1951, the whole Marshall family traveled to an area of South West Africa (now Namibia) called Nyae Nyae, the traditional land of the Ju/'hoansi (!Kung San Bushmen) and part of the Kalahari Desert. The Marshalls befriended a group of Ju/'hoansi who lived near a waterhole at a place called /Gautcha, and began what would become a years-long study of the Ju/'hoan culture and way of life.
Over the next few years, John got to know the Nyae Nyae area very well. He learned to speak the Ju/'hoan language. He became close friends with several Ju/'hoansi and was given a Ju/'hoan name, ≠Oma Xosi (Toma Longface). Although still limited by a wind-up camera, John's shooting improved. Back in Cambridge, Massachusetts, he edited a film called The Hunters. The film features John's narration and tells the story of four men's efforts to hunt and track a giraffe over several arduous days. In its day, The Hunters was a pioneering work; it is now considered a classic of ethnographic film.
Later in life, John was often critical of the film; he felt he had romanticized Ju/'hoan life and told the story of the hunt from his own perspective, rather than from a Ju/'hoan perspective. He said: "It's sort of an American-kid's-eye-view of the hunting and gathering culture." (John Marshall, quoted in Anderson and Benson, The Cinema of John Marshall)
Subtitles and Sounds
By 1958, John's approach to filming had changed considerably. New, motor-driven cameras allowed him to shoot for longer periods of time, and he learned to hold his camera steady while he moved, rather than filming from a stationary tripod. No longer limited by older camera technology, John developed a distinct and intimate filming style. In addition, his knowledge of the language and culture had grown; rather than just filming tangible processes like making arrows, John began to explore intangible issues, like relationships and conflicts, with his camera.
However, all of John's film was silent. With film, unlike video, sound is recorded separately. In the 1950's, it was difficult and cumbersome to record sound for film out in the field. John and his colleagues found innovative ways to record sound and match it to the film later on in the editing room.
This new footage with sound would inspire John andfellow filmmaker Timothy Asch to experiment with a new way of filmmaking. They edited single events into short films with little to no narration, inviting viewers to experience these events for themselves and to draw their own conclusions. Some of the films also had English subtitles, allowing the Ju/'hoansi to speak for themselves on film for the first time.
After his trip in 1958, John Marshall was denied entry to South West Africa for twenty years. At the time, the country had racist and segregationist apartheid laws similar to those enforced in South Africa; John's friendship with Ju/'hoansi was not looked upon kindly in such an environment. In the United States, John pursued a career as a documentary cameraman and filmmaker, but he longed to return to Nyae Nyae to see his friends and continue filming them. Finally, in 1978, John was able to return. He found that life in Nyae Nyae had changed radically. Twenty years earlier, the Ju/'hoan population had been spread out over a very large area; now everyone was confined to a small reservation and lived in a single settlement, Tsumkwe, a government administrative post. A few Ju/'hoansi had menial jobs and some men had joined the army, but most people lived day-to-day on government welfare.
Film technology had also changed since 1958. The most important advance was the development of portable sync sound equipment. With a two-person crew of cameraman and sound recordist, it was now easy to shoot film with sound. This allowed John to record extensive interviews with Ju/'hoansi for the first time and enabled him to make a film N!ai, The Story of a !Kung Woman, told largely from the perspective of the main character, in her own words.
John summed up his approach to filmmaking in a 1993 essay: "My work as a filmmaker starts from one observation: What the people I am filming actually do and say is more interesting and important than what I think about them." ("Filming and Learning", The Cinema of John Marshall).
John was deeply troubled by what he saw in Tsumkwe - extreme poverty, illness, alcoholism, and hunger. Many Ju/'hoansi wanted to leave Tsumwke and find a better life. John felt that maybe he could help, and so began a new career and a new type of filmmaking.
"Yeah, after '78 we went back to make a movie and we saw what was happening. Put down the camera and pick up the shovel. For obvious reasons." (John Marshall, quoted in Anderson and Benson, The Cinema of John Marshall)
In 1981, John and his colleague Claire Ritchie founded the Ju/'hoan Bushman Cattle Fund (later known as the Nyae Nyae Development Foundation of Namibia, or NNDFN) to help Ju/'hoansi establish small subsistence farms in their ancestral n!ores (traditional communal lands) outside Tsumkwe. Believing in the power of film to educate and persuade, John made several "field reports" on videotape throughout the 1980's. These were unpolished and simply made, but they told important stories; these reports may in fact have had a positive impact on government policy toward Ju/'hoansi at the time.
John was now too busy with advocacy work to make films but he felt it was important to document the changes happening in Nyae Nyae, so he hired two-person film crews to shoot major events and bits of daily life from time to time.
A Lifetime of Dedication
Throughout the 1980's and 1990's, Ju/'hoansi became increasingly involved in local, national, and international politics. John and his film crew documented this extensively. By 1991 they had stopped shooting 16mm film in favor of cheaper and more convenient videotape. John and his camerapersons could now shoot for hours on end. In addition to covering long meetings and political events, John began to conduct lengthy interviews with Ju/'hoansi, especially elders, eliciting memories of their former hunting and gathering life, as well as their feelings about current events and political trends in Nyae Nyae.
For over ten years, John worked on his final production, a five-part series called A Kalahari Family that tells the story of how he first met his Ju/'hoan friends in 1951 and all that had happened to them since. The series tells John's story, as well, and even addresses the impact of his family's 1950's expeditions on Ju/'hoansi.
In 2002, John turned 70; A Kalahari Family was completed, and he had thoughts of retiring. Instead, he returned to Nyae Nyae several more times. He wrote another proposal to ensure reliable access to primary water resources below the desert for rural Ju/'hoan villages. And he began editing a tutorial video on cross-cultural filmmaking.
In April 2005, John passed away after a brief battle with lung cancer. His film and video collection was inscribed on UNESCO's Memory of the World Register in July 2009, in recognition of its value as part of our global documentary heritage. John did not set out to create such a unique long-term record; he did not even set out to be a filmmaker. These things evolved out of friendships he formed with people like ≠Oma Tsamko. John wrote of his mentor and namesake, "From ≠Toma (1911-1988), I learned as much about observing as I did about hunting and gathering. ≠Toma taught me how to watch, listen, and suspend judgement...his lessons have been important to me in the way I shoot film." (Filming and Learning, The Cinema of John Marshall, 1993).