Adventures on the Upper Nile (American Museum of Natural History, 1927)

This short clip is excerpted from Adventures on the Upper Nile, “a pictorial record of the O’Donnell-Clark African Expedition into the Southern Sudan…for the purpose of securing specimens of the rare giant eland.”  The film exemplifies the rhythms of ethnographic cinema: stretches of empty, unproductive duration (waiting, watching, etc.) punctuated by spectacular, but equally unproductive events.  In Adventures, these events include animal death/dismemberment, ritual dance, and environmental contingencies.  In this particular scene, the boat encounters a series of fires along the shore.  But, here, too, the event extends, repeats, stretches out.  It is an almost lyrical, meditative encounter, one which brings film material as such to the fore.  Here, we are told, birds dive towards the flames for insects.  We strain to see this interspecies interaction, but the birds and insects mingle with the deteriorated image, with its burns, scratches, and holes.


Teddy Roosevelt, Library of Congress, 1909.  This photograph was taken during Roosevelt’s first post-presidency safari to Africa.  A film of the expedition, Roosevelt in Africa, was made and released in 1910.

In her reading of Nanook of the North (1922), Fatimah Tobing Rony describes the work of Robert Flaherty as “taxidermy.”[1]  The taxidermic image, like the taxidermied body, “seeks to make that which is dead look as if it were living,” (101).  The taxidermist—often euphemistically referred to as a “naturalist”—must kill his/her subject, so that it can be brought back to life, a stilled representation of its former self.  This rich conceptual paradigm—moving image as taxidermic preservation—not only suggests that the image of the Inuit family oscillates between movement and stillness, life and death, but also aligns the very process of filmmaking with an act of violence and mutilation.  The camera captures, kills, and stills.  The understanding of ethnography-as-taxidermy likewise challenges the indexicality of the film image.  Continue reading