DER Documentary

The Nuer

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by Hilary Harris and Robert Gardner
for The Film Study Center at Harvard University
color, 73 min, 1971

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"Portrays the Nuer, Nilotic herdsmen of the Nile basin. Shows how their daily lives revolve about their cattle, and depicts the psychological bonds between them. Includes extensive use of Nuer music and poetry."
"A poetic film concentrating on evocative images of life among a group of Nuer living in Ethiopia. Creates a strong and memorable impression of the people, their cattle, their artifacts, and their land. On occasion, an English narration is used to give a more anthropological account of events, especially; a bride price dispute, a ghost marriage, a revitalistic ceremony intended to combat a smallpox epidemic, and the climax of the film, a gar initiation where two boys receive the forehead incisions of manhood."

The Nuer call themselves Naath. Only their immediate neighbors, the Dinka, Shilluk and Arabs, call them Nuer. Most foreigners, which includes those with whom the Nuer neither fought nor traded, are called Bar which means 'almost entirely cattleless'. Those foreigners who live even more remotely and include Europeans are called Jur which means 'entirely cattleless', a most unthinkable state indeed.

The people of Ciengach, where the film was made, are the Eastern Jikany, one of about a sixteen district tribes of Nuer. In 1945, E.E. Evans Pritchard estimated the total population of Nuer to be around a quarter of a million. Since then the number has undoubtedly dwindled considerably due to warfare, civil strife, sickness, drought and the general abandonment of traditional life-ways.

However, those who still called themselves Naath did so with an extraordinarily vivid image of themselves as superior people living a superior life. Furthermore, it was impossible not to see that their lives were inextricably tied to their herds. Ciengach is a perfected plan for co-posperity of cows and humans.

It cannot be said that filming the Nuer was an easy task, but visually it was always absorbing. They were seldom resentful as was the rule with the Islamicized Afar in the Danakil Desert to the Northeast. On the contrary, the Nuer had a real, even exaggerated, sense of their importance. They considered themselves handsome and displayed their elegance with pride.

Nuer existence has, consistent with life led on a flood plain, an almost tidal rhythm due largely to the movement of cattle into and out of the villages. At almost precisely 10:30 in the morning cows and bulls began to groan, stand up and in other ways indicate that the time had come for them to be released and on their way to graze. Within moments the entire herd was sounding a unified complaint. Men and boys then slipped the tethers from their necks and the flow of cattle began. Five more minutes and the village was virtually silent. The herd had receded toward the river and to whatever grass the younger men could find. So the days passed into twilights of returning herds and men and the nights were filled with stars and an almost intoxicating 'bucolia.'

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