In 1911, as part of his massive undertaking, famed Northwest photographer Edward S. Curtis travelled to Vancouver Island, British Columbia, to visit the Kwakwaka'wakw. By the next year, ...
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In 1911, as part of his massive undertaking, famed Northwest photographer Edward S. Curtis travelled to Vancouver Island, British Columbia, to visit the Kwakwaka'wakw. By the next year, needing money for his project and to add to his research and still photography work, Curtis decided that the best way to record the traditional way of life and ceremonies of the Kwakwaka'wakw was to make one of the first feature motion pictures. Curtis had already shot footage in 1906 of the Hopi Snake dance, which he had previously showed during his talks, but this was to be on a grander scale. It took three years of preparation for this one film including the weaving of the costumes; building of the war canoes, housefronts, poles; and the carving of masks. Assisting on the film was George Hunt, a Kwakwaka'wakw who had served as an interpreter for the famous anthropologist Franz Boas nearly twenty years before. Hunt helped contribute substantial portions of the film's story as well. Selected for the ...
Okay, first off, check the date - "In the Land of the Head Hunters" is a reconstructed and remastered print of a film made in 1914, by Edward S. Curtis, known mostly now as a photographer and ethnographer. As such, it is entirely of its time - i.e., racist, sexist and certainly specious in its depiction of a First Nations people. But valuable for all of that. The story line, for what it's worth, concerns a young son of a tribal chief who does his manhood rituals, falls in love and marries the daughter of another tribe's chieftain; this upsets the Sorceror, brother of yet another tribal chief who wanted the girl for himself - mayhem ensues, mostly in canoes but also on land, until eventually the good guy prevails. It's simplistic and definitely racist
the people are portrayed as quaintly primitive, the women are
completely subservient to the men, and the main occupation of the tribes involves war and cutting off the heads of enemies.
Given that this is actually set in the Pacific Northwest, between Washington State, USA, and British Columbia, Canada, the whole head- hunting aspect is completely off. Not to mention the "primitive" label
these peoples were highly sophisticated, just not in a form
recognized (at the time) by Europeans. But the positives in this film are quite striking too. First of all, the actors are all actual members of the Kwakwaka'wakw Nation, from Vancouver Island, and the costumes, totem poles and especially the special dances are all authentic. The story, by white director Curtis, is worthless; as a bit of filmed historical information, however, the movie is quite valuable. Many scenes were lost over the past 100 years, and the restorers opted to insert still photographs (also by Curtis, of the same people) to bridge the gaps, which doesn't work all that well dramatically, but is again useful as an historical artifact; they also were able to restore the original orchestral soundtrack, which adds drama to this silent movie. Certainly not for everyone, but film historians and anthropologists might find something of value here.
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