DER Documentary

N/um Tchai: The Ceremonial Dance of the !Kung Bushmen

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From the !Kung series
by John Marshall
black and white, 20 min, 1969

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This film is also available as part of the !Kung Short Films 2-disc set.

Tchai is the word used by Ju/'hoansi to describe getting together to dance and sing; n/um can be translated as medicine, or supernatural potency. In the 1950's, when this film was shot, Ju/'hoansi gathered for "medicine dances" often, usually at night, and sometimes such dances lasted until dawn. In this film, women sit on the ground, clapping and singing and occasionally dancing a round or two, while men circle around them, singing and stamping rhythms with their feet. The songs are wordless but named: "rain," "sun," "honey," "giraffe," and other "strong things." The strength of the songs is their n/um, or medicine, thought to be a gift from the great god. N/um is also in the fire, and even more so in the "owners of medicine," or healers. Most Ju/'hoan men would practice as healers at some point in their lives, and in this film we see several men in various stages of trance. A light trance gradually deepens, as the medicine grows "hot," and eventually some men will shriek and run about, falling on hot coals, entering the state Ju/'hoansi call "half-death."

The film opens with a brief introduction to the role of n/um tchai in healing and in warding off evil, followed by scenes from one all-night dance. The dance begins with a social gathering and becomes increasingly intense as the night wears on, finally concluding at dawn.

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