by Sandeep Ray
John Marshall, Boston-based ethnographic filmmaker and human rights worker whose pioneering cinema-verite films put the plight of the Kalahari Bushmen into our collective consciousness died on April 22 at the age of 72. His magnum opus, ‘A Kalahari Family,’ a five-part film series, was completed in 2002 and screened at over 30 film festivals across the world. He received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Society of Visual Anthropology in 2003 for his contributions to filmmaking.
I first met John when I was an undergraduate. He showed our sleepy Monday 9 A.M. documentary film class at Hampshire College a series of short films he had made in the Kalahari region of Southern Africa. Frankly, some of the kids dozed through them but for those of us who watched transfixed, they changed our lives. These were crisp, clear images, at times in color, at times monochrome with impossible intimacy, flowing seamlessly from one scene to the next. They were simple stories — a small girl sitting on a tree flirting with her uncle, a group of children learning to throw spears, a couple of friends trying to catch a frog. John called these ‘sequence’ films. They were the building blocks of larger ideas and if you learned how to shoot and edit a sequence properly, you were well on your way to making films about larger, complex social issues, he explained. “Go shoot a video about those kids playing softball in that park across this building. Shoot patiently and show us why this game is important to them. Or, if that intimidates you, make a short film about your room-mate,” he suggested to a bored student who had just screened a shaky, grainy film, soft in focus with a purportedly underlying deconstructivist theme. He was critical of the work we produced in class, never one to give you a gratuitous pat on the back. But if you got a compliment from him it was better than winning a prize. “Bloody hell, that was a good sequence”, and one would be beaming for a day.
One summer evening in 1994, a year after I had graduated college, John rang me and asked if I wanted to work with him. I took the next bus to Boston and met him in his overflowing editing studio in Watertown. After a quick and warm welcome he said, “…well the problem is that we have Tsamko dancing on the street because, well, you know this is 1990 and SWAPO has just won the election but we need to have something to set the scene up better and the interview I have with Sam (President of Namibia) looks crappy… what should we do?” That was so typically John. Getting right to the point, assuming that you were on the same thought page as he was, and expecting a similar caliber of analysis from an intern as he would from someone with a PhD in Media Studies. The logic of film to him was straightforward. If something worked the guy on the street would recognize it. And if it didn’t, it just didn’t, and no amount of spin could fix it. ‘Film is dumb,’ he was fond of saying. ‘It’s like grammar, almost anyone gets whether it works or not.’ And, thus, like many before me, I began my three-year apprenticeship with him. We sat and edited together (actually, John often paceda around) and honestly, a lot of it was agonizing. We had to navigate through hundreds of hours of footage, ever arriving in large boxes from the Smithsonian, where his work was archived. And if that wasn’t enough, he would go to Africa and send back 107 new tapes in well- padded containers with customs tags on them. And I had to log them and then try to string the scenes together. John would often watch the rushes standing at the back of the edit room, smoking a cigarette (he had a small fan on the floor beside the door that he explained was, ‘to blow the damm smoke out’). He cursed, moped, sulked and even kicked, until he felt that something was good enough. He would often take apart an entire months work in a couple of minutes and start all over again. His wife Alexandria once commiserated with me, “if you guys don’t get an Emmy remember that you’ve already won a Lexie”. But he was never whimsical in his judgments. When we screened a roughcut he would want everyone to watch it, inviting even the part-time office accountant (and once the UPS delivery guy). He was just as nervous of their comments as those coming from a veteran documentary producer. John’s self-criticism was always founded in that intractable logic “if it doesn’t work it doesn’t work” or more simply, “this is crappy”. But when he was happy with his cut, he had a smile across his face that would rival one on the face of a kid who has just heard the school bell signaling the start of summer vacation. It felt great to be around him when he was in a good mood. He could light up an entire football stadium.
One day, while watching a scene in the edit room, John started laughing. So hard that the computer monitor shook. We were editing a scene where John (in frame) was trying to convince a very irritated white South African farmer that his Ju/hoan farm manager be let go so he could return to his own community and start a farming program. “Just look at that,” he said, “look at that scene — two white men with huge bellies, me and that Boer farmer who looks almost like me, in the middle of a sandstorm in Africa trying to decide the fate of this thin Ju/hoan guy. The sheer absurdity of it man…” and the monitor started shaking again. John was clear about his deal with Africa and the Ju/hoansi. He had followed his father (a wealthy retired businessman who had founded Raytheon Corporation) to Southwest Africa as a teenager. He had been asked to film and, once the archive had started growing and he had spent a considerable number of years there, he was just drawn in. What started off as a family adventure of sorts had, by sheer association, turned into a lifetime of work. “It would behoove one to keep working and filming, I couldn’t just walk away with the footage and leave behind the people.” He never thought of himself as a filmmaker messiah who was born on this planet to represent the Ju/hoansi. The scope of his work was truly colossal by any standards, rivaled only perhaps by Leni Riefenstahl’s documentation of the 1936 Berlin Olympics that was bankrolled by the Third Reich. He had shot over a million feet of film and had had given the Smithsonian stewardship of his archive. He was clearly aware of the privilege he had of shooting as much as he needed to. He was quoted in a book written about him as saying, “In order to be a documentary filmmaker you need to have either a topless ego or bottomless funds” (The Cinema of John Marshall, Harwood Academic Publishers 1993). Once, after a few drinks he confided to me, “…well, I suppose I had a bit of both”. John made several dozen films from 1951 through 1978, becoming famous pretty quickly. But eventually he would spend the bulk of his time doing development in the Nyae Nyae region in the country that is recognized today as Namibia. He started a farmer’s cooperative (The Nyae Nyae Development Foundation) and over the next 25 years pushed incessantly for farming projects to become the focus of the development work. He continued his documentary coverage but left the filming mainly to a couple of close South African crewmembers. He spent years driving around the desert with a geo-hydrologist looking for water or with Ju/hoan searching for their displaced relatives in order to strengthen their numbers for the farming initiatives. A small video crew would typically follow these sojourns.
Unlike many purists who distanced themselves from the video boom that started in the late eighties, John embraced it. Video projects were considered by many to be the unloved stepchildren of filmmakers who had run out of money, or an inexpensive new tool that enabled too many unqualified people to litter shelves with bogus projects. John had always felt that the best way to make films was to patiently follow a character until you had enough footage that you got under their skin. Now while that was expensive with film stock, one could surely do that with video he reasoned. “All it is, is just a moving window,” he said, “It’s a moving window that captures the world depending on where you place it.” He marveled at the lightweight portable nature of new camcorders and microphones. He had spent a good portion of his youth lugging equipment across the Kalahari to enable him to film with the kind of intimacy he wanted. For someone who came across as bumbling, unfocused and irascible he produced work that was lucid, closely observed and very patiently filmed over months and years. He typically didn’t use a tripod and was amazingly steady and smooth in his pans and zooms. “They called me fluid head for reasons more than one” he had quipped when someone marveled at the stateliness of his footage. Whether he was filming the Ju/hoan in Africa, policemen in Pittsburgh, members of an insane asylum (in the classic Titicut Follies with Fred Wiseman) or following the election campaign of the mayor of Haverhill, Massachusetts, John remained steady and quiet, taking it all in. He never understood how anyone could make a documentary in any other way. He was very down on the quality of most programs on TV despite the relative ease of filming. For him an era where documentaries airing on television have six figure budgets but rarely spend more than a week at a location, almost never build individual characters and rely on a narrator to tell us the story from start to end was understandably depressing. “You have to leave the theater feeling that you’ve met someone,” he was very fond of saying.
John kept distance from television and the whole industry in general. But people sought him out from time to time. In 1974 National Geographic made a film about his work in Nyae Nyae. He wasn’t most thrilled, “Almost had to take them to court. They wanted to make a skin flick about exotic African women.” I would often field calls from producers who had heard of his legendary camera skills. The best story I remember is the time John picked up the phone in the edit room and said, “..yes ..yes ..,sure, okay then, (impatiently now) yeah next week is fine” He put down the phone and said, “Some guy called, said he was an actor, Val Klimer, Kilmer… something. Wants to come over and see some cuts.” Stacey our young office assistant, almost fainted. Someone asked, “Where will you put him up John?” “I dunno. A room at the Watertown Howard Johnson?” We made him rent Batman Forever. “Useless film but decent acting.” said John. Mr. Hollywood came and camped out on John’s couch for a week. He followed John around calling him “guru”, that sort of thing. I suppose he wanted John to be a consultant of some sort on a project but he rarely did that. Unless, say the UN asked him. John was well known, a famous filmmaker, son of the founder of one of America’s biggest companies, but he had the appearance and the approachability of a man who ran the neighborhood hardware store. I once accompanied him on a trip to buy shelves and a man came up to him and said, “Could you show me where you keep the number seven washers please?” For most of the years that I knew him, he wore a pair of faded khaki white pants and a light colored shirt. “Easy to keep the continuity of your scenes”, I joked. When he wore a suit once to a screening at Harvard University we stared at him.
John was the best storyteller I ever knew. While he was often short tempered and impatient at work, he would regale us after hours with many recollections from a life filled with an incredible number of experiences. At his last big appearance in New York in 2002, at the Margaret Mead Film Festival he spoke with the wit of a stand-up comedian and the aplomb of a senator. But he talked about difficult things, about how many people he knew as a young man in Nyae Nyae had died because of racist policies, mostly on the part of the South African government and, at times, even by well meaning Western human rights workers. His account of his life among the Ju/hoan Bushman of Naye Naye and his observations on all the factors that impinged on their steady decimation is brilliantly documented in the heart breaking five-part, “A Kalahari Family,” a film series that has been recognized the world over as a seminal piece of filmmaking. But PBS in its bewildering obtuseness has not aired the series as yet (it was either too long, or too short).
John valiantly quit cigarettes when he was 68. But all those years of smoking had probably overwhelmed the cells in his lungs and so he’s not with us anymore. That’s sad. Worse still, there will be no more John Marshall films. Bloody hell. We’ll miss him.
John Marshall films are distributed by Documentary Educational Resources in Watertown, MA. On the web at www.der.org.
Sandeep Ray is a documentary filmmaker living in Boston, Massachusetts.