Skip to main content.

Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
Website Search Box

Department of Anthropology

hsfa image

The Human Studies Film Archives is an internationally recognized center devoted to collecting, preserving, documenting and disseminating a broad range of ethnographic and anthropological moving image materials. In addition to archiving film and video materials, the HSFA strives to obtain related documentation including audio tapes, stills, manuscripts and other associated texts, field notes, camera and sound logs, and production logs. Whenever possible, synchronous audio commentaries (annotations) are obtained from the creator or other person associated with the material or from an individual with knowledge of the contents. This supplemental data expands the richness of the collections, providing the context from which these images can be endlessly explored.

The HSFA collections are in two parts: the archival collection and the study collection. Preservation (as well as access) is a key concern for the archival collection, which is composed of a wide range of physical materials. The study collection, on the other hand, is comprised of edited film prints and videos which are, to our knowledge, protected elsewhere. Preservation is therefore not an active concern for the study collection, although, if we learn that a title is in fact "endangered," we strive to locate the best surviving copies for preservation. Reference copies exist on many but not all of the titles in the archival collection and for all titles in the study collection. (As with other archival organizations, the HSFA produces reference copies as quickly as possible but production is subject to funds, staff time, and various archival considerations.) The HSFA focuses on ethnographic and anthropological films and videos as well as those of ethnographic interest. The collections are, however, of multidisciplinary interest, linked by some element of "actuality" and depiction of cultures or cultural artifacts. Much of the collections also share the qualities of "orphan films," a term coined in the new film preservation report from the Library of Congress, Redefining Film Preservation: A National Plan; Recommendations of the Librarian of Congress in consultation with the National Film Preservation Board. This report defines orphan films as "...newsreel and actuality footage of social importance held in nonprofit and government organizations; films that have fallen into the public domain; independently produced avant- garde and experimental films; socially significant home movies, particularly those documenting ethnic and minority communities; ... educational ... films of historical and cultural interest; independent fiction and documentary films made and distributed outside the commercial mainstream ... and commercially produced works whose owners are unwilling or unable to provide long-term preservation." Accepting this definition and taking it a step further, the HSFA is an orphanage whose brilliant charges are awaiting discovery.

Among some of the more surprising films in the collections are amateur films which are often far richer than might be expected. Among HSFA's amateur moving images are those produced by scientists during fieldwork or by their associates or visitors. These images may have been used in the classroom, further studied for scientific work, excerpted for presentations, or used to entertain colleagues, friends and family. Often we find that these films have been rarely seen, are unique images of various cultural groups, represent little-known work of scientists, and visually document some aspect of scientific process. Other amateur films were made by people (mostly Americans) living or travelling abroad who filmed their surroundings. Those who lived abroad often captured more intimate images not easily accessible to the transient traveler who, most likely, stuck to familiar tourist routes. As the travel component of these films has grown, it has become possible to compare the films, viewing how "the exotic other" displayed themselves for the tourist, locating routes most travelled, and studying the tourists' viewpoints. New avenues of investigation stemming from the ability to comparatively study amateur travel films (particularly from the first half of this century) will continue to emerge as the collection develops.

Travelogues produced by both professional and amateur travel-lecturers for theatrical release, as well as for school, club and church distribution and presentations and for the home market, have also proven to be far more intriguing than might be expected. Some do, of course, capture only superficial tourist interests, but others, particularly from the earlier part of the century, document a surprising richness of cultural and historical activities. Of particular note are pre-thirties travelogues by Burton Holmes, of which the HSFA has several examples. These are beautifully photographed and focus on cultural activities as well as the better known touristic sights. Travelogues have been little researched; their makers are virtually unknown and the exhibition practices and audiences are little understood. Knowledge of the history of these films will provide a greater understanding of the impact of these films on America's interest in "the other," giving a basis for other forms of research.

Outtake film collections from documentary and ethnographic film projects are among the largest single "films" or "videos" in the HSFA collections. These outtake collections contain a wealth of documentation and present the thorniest archival problems--but that is for another article. The outtake collections are paired with the edited films, which will facilitate generations of modes of inquiry not yet devised. Highlights include the seminal work of many well known ethnographic filmmakers, including John Marshall (450,000 feet of film, primarily of the !Kung San in the Nyae Nyae region of the Kalahari, shot during the fifties and in 1978), Timothy Asch (97,000 feet of film shot of the Yanomamo of the Amazon Basin of southern Venezuela and northern Brazil, in association with anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon), David MacDougall (two African film projects, one of the Jie of Uganda in 1968 and the other of the Turkana of Kenya in 1974) and Robert Gardner (22,000 feet of film of the world's oldest surviving ritual, the Agnicayana, filmed in Kerala, India, in association with anthropologist Frits Staal).

Other large film and video groupings include "research film records" which were produced as a means to document and study indigenous and little changed cultures. Most of these records were produced either by the former National Anthropological Film Center, or in association with the National Institutes of Health, or independently by anthropologists. Extensive and significant coverage includes the Newari in the Kathmandu Valley, Nepal; Tibetans in Ladakh and southern India; Canela Indians, a Ge speaking tribe, in northeastern Brazil; Micronesians on primarily Woleai and Ifalik Atolls; various groups in Papua New Guinea; the Pashtoon Nomads of northern Afghanistan; and various African groups in southwestern Africa.

Among the edited films--both sound and silent--in the collection are independent documentaries and ethnographic films, instructional media (educational and industrial films), local and network television broadcasts, theatrical and non-theatrical exploration documentaries, and pre-twenties actuality films. There are also a few fiction films and quasi-documentaries suitably placed in the HSFA collections because of their content. Most recent of these is a c. 1910 Selig Polyscope one-reeler (as yet unidentified) which depicts a supposed American Indian raiding party attacking a settler's cabin. (Colonel Selig employed American Indians for his western pictures shot in California). Also, along this line is another early film, YE OLD TIME COON HUNT, which reenacts a coon hunt with white and black men ending with a celebration with black men "shaking the dog," a style of southern black dance. Both films blend actuality (perhaps unintended) with fiction, making them fascinating documents.

Using the Guide

The film and video titles are organized by major geographical areas with individual titles listed chronologically by film number within the appropriate area. In the index, this film number is preceded by a two-letter code that refers the user to the appropriate geographical area:

CA=Central America
ME=Middle East
NA=North America
SA=South America
SC=Special Collections.

The entries can be understood as follows:

Film Numbers, which precede each title, are the accession numbers assigned to each film or video.

Titles represent two major sub-collections within the Film Archives: the archival collection and the study collection. Titles in the study collection are denoted by an * following the title. In general, the Film Archives has no archival materials other than a reference copy on these films or videos. Titles in upper-case are the formal or published title; titles in upper-case with "(outtakes)" following is footage not used in the finished production; titles listed using upper-case only at the beginning of words is the title by which the film or film project was known; and titles in brackets are supplied titles created by the Film Archives.

Year of Creation is the copyright or publication date, if known, or is based on information provided by the creator. If the date is unknown a "c" (circa) is placed before a date based on visual content, the physical film, and documentation. If the date of filming is known to be different from the copyright or published date, that information is included in the description.

Length or Running Time can be fairly exact or approximate. Footage, whether the film is 35mm, 8mm, or 16mm is calculated in 16mm footage. If only footage is listed, the title was acquired on film and if only time is listed, the title was acquired on video. Footage with time listed in parentheses is the running time of the video reference copy which can differ from the standard 24 frames per second if the film was shot at silent speed and transferred to video at silent speed.

Silent or Sound indicates the existence of sound on a film or video recording. In some cases the title can be both silent and sound.

Color or Black and White (B&W) indicates whether the materials are in color and/or b&w.

Film of Video following the "color" or "b&w" characteristic indicates whether there is a film and/or video reference (viewing) copy. If no listing is found there was no reference copy at the time this Guide was published. However, because reference copies are continually being produced it is worth checking with the HSFA staff.

Supplementary Materials indicate the existence of various accompanying materials organized under the following numerical codes:

  1. Associated texts such as publications including books, study guides, film reviews, and articles; theses and dissertations; translations; manuscripts; written annotations; and publicity materials.
  2. Still film such as transparencies, photographs, and negatives.
  3. Sound recordings such as 1/4 inch audio tapes of synchronized sound and "wild" or additional sound including interviews, music, ambient sound and audio cassettes including interviews, music and stories.
  4. Annotations (recorded narratives) provided by person who was responsible for or was closely involved with the filming or a knowledgeable person and/or recorded translations. These audio recordings, produced mostly by the Human Studies Film Archives, are usually synchronous with the images.
  5. Production logs such as shot lists, editor's logs and sound logs.
  6. Field notes such as paper records written in the field including camera logs, field notes, kinship documentation, diaries, and letters.

Descriptions incorporate the geographical name at the time of recording with the contemporary name following in parenthesis. Ethnic group names and spellings may not always be those preferred by group members themselves. The Film Archives asks indulgence while we strive to develop an authority file which addresses these concerns. Each record begins with a standard characteristic of the collection being described which is explained below. (There are a few records which due to their characteristics are uniquely qualified in the opening statement.)

Full Film/Video Record indicates that the whole film or video project exists, usually in the order in which it was shot.

Outtakes indicate the existence of all the film or video project minus that footage used for the finished production.

Edited Film/Video indicates a published title in that the title is or has been distributed.

Television Broadcast indicates an edited program produced specifically for broadcasting on television.

Footage refers primarily to film that is not defined by the above categories. In general the term includes amateur and other film/video that has not been altered substantially.

Creators are noted below the description and include individuals or individual involved in the creation of the film or video title with their professional role in that production, or, in the case of amateur works, professional identity at the time of filmming or video recording. Birth and/or death dates are noted when known.

Indexes direct the user to the titles via the film number within the major geographical areas. These indexes are not exhaustive but represent the level of cataloging completed to date. For example, there is much more dance material in the collection than is listed because fully descriptive and item level cataloging and subject indexing exist for only a small portion of the collections.


Guide to the Human Studies Film Archives is a revised version of the printed edition written by Pamela Wintle and John P. Homiak (Washington: National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, 1995).

Follow the NAAs & HSFAs on social media:

facebook youtubeitunesu


[ TOP ]