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 ...
In 1914, famed photographer Edward Curtis (1868-1952) produced this melodramatic, silent film. The first feature-length film to exclusively star Native North Americans (eight years before Robert Flaherty made his documentary "Nanook of the North"), it features non- professional actors from Kwakwaka'wakw (Kwakiutl) communities in British Columbiaa people already famous then for their spectacular visual culture and performances. The film was only screened a few times on both coasts, accompanied by a live musical score composed by John Braham (1848-1919; best known for his work with Gilbert and Sullivan in New York) that was based in part on Curtis's c.1910 wax-cylinder field recordings of songs and chants. A critical success but a financial disappointment, Curtis quickly abandoned it.
The film was largely forgotten for decades until it was restored and re-edited around 1970 by Bill Holm and George Quimby, at which point its name was changed to "In the Land of the War Canoes." This version is marked by a slightly restructured narrative, the addition of new, less sensational inter-titles, and a new Kwakwaka'wakw-produced soundtrack of music, sound effects, and dialog (it is currently released by Milestone Films). Until now, all contemporary scholars have relied upon this re-edited version in their appraisals and analyses of Curtis's film.
Recently, Brad Evans has examined the original, silent cut of the film (via a black and white, 16mm copy at the Field Museum in Chicago, the same that Holm and Quimby used), which retains Curtis's narrative structure and inter-titles (see bibliography below). In addition, the UCLA Film and TV Archive (Los Angeles) has discovered three nitrate reels from the original filmcomplete with extensive tinting and toning as well as a whole scene absent from the Field copywhich have never been examined by film scholars. Meanwhile, Aaron Glass located the original musical score (at the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles), and the original Curtis field recordings (at the Archive of Traditional Music in Bloomington, Indiana). None of this material has been presented publicly since 1915.
A project is now underway to reunite the film with the music commissioned for it (and the Native music which inspired that), and present it at screenings in the summer of 2008 with the involvement of indigenous people who participated in its making. The project promises to restore a number of important, historical elements to better contextualize Curtis's original vision for his film: its title, inter-titles, melodramatic narrative, tinted colors, and music. At the same time, presenting the film today with current Kwakwaka'wakw performers will reframe the film from being a document of the "vanishing races" to being visual evidence of cultural survival during the colonial era.
For more information, see www.curtisfilm.rutgers.edu.
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