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Home » Culture Shock

Restoring the Head Hunters

Submitted by on June 9, 2011 – 3:04 pmNo Comment

By Brad Evans

Sometime in the 1940s, an old silent movie on deteriorating 35mm nitrate film ended up in the hands of a private collector in Danville, Illinois. An aficionado of circus memorabilia, old movies, and all things “Indian,” Hugo Zeiter received many of his hundreds of films from a friend who collected them from a dumpster outside a Chicago movie house.

This one was a melodramatic silent movie, acted by a Pacific Northwest indigenous cast, and it was interlaced with what seemed like documentary footage of their elaborate masks, canoes, and ceremonial dances. It reminded Zeiter of something he had seen in the National Geographic, and so he wrote to Chicago’s Field Museum about it.

Upon examination, the Field’s anthropologists thought it of “great merit as a scientific record” and took it in—a rare find. Their guess was that it had been made around 1905. But the friable nitrate was a fire hazard, and toxic to boot, so they took the step of transferring the film onto 16mm black and white safety stock. The silent-era feature film had been saved, but at the cost of becoming a rather unusual source of documentary footage. Rescued from the movie house dumpster, it had become an object of ethnography in the natural history museum.

Culminating in the fall of 2008, a collaborative effort reversed the direction of that move, bringing the film back to life as an early work of popular cinema.

Sitting Bear, 1908. Photo by Edward Curtis.

Premiering in Los Angeles at the Getty, In the Land of the Head Hunters, a full-length feature now that we now know was directed by Edward S. Curtis, the famous photographer, with the Kwakwaka’wakw First Nations of British Columbia, was back in the theater. It was accompanied by a full orchestra playing a score that had been originally composed for the film in 1914. Its original color tinting had been recreated, its melodramatic intertitles restored, and several crucial scenes found in fragments on a nitrate reel in the UCLA Film and TV Archive reincorporated. At last, it made sense as a “real movie,” with recognizable characters and a plot that was clearly a product of its time. The newly restored Head Hunters went on to be screened in sold-out shows in Seattle, at the same theater at which it had debuted in 1914, in Vancouver to a house packed by members of the Northwest coast indigenous community, at the Smithsonian in DC, as the premier event of the Margaret Mead Festival at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, and at the Field Museum in Chicago.

The restoration itself is of great significance to film and cultural historians, who have long struggled to place it alongside other silent features of the period. But the project team did not want to leave it there. We wanted to reframe the history of the film’s original distribution and subsequent collection from a contemporary Kwakwaka’wakw perspective.

To this end, the west coast screenings were concluded by a full performance of an indigenous cultural group known as the Gwa’wina Dancers made up in large part of descendents of the original movie cast. Dancing in full regalia, they performed and explained the significance of cultural elements represented in the film, noting in particular that when Curtis made the movie most of the dances had been banned by the Canadian government in an attempt to force assimilation. As such, the screenings drew attention to the project’s goal: not merely to recover a piece of history from 1914, but to revitalize the long history of cultural encounter and survival documented by its subsequent distribution, collection, and restoration.

To see clips from the performances by the Gwa’wina Dancers and learn more about restoration project, visit www.curtisfilm.rutgers.edu.

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