Our History

For over fifty years, DER has been a leader at the intersection of documentary filmmaking and social science research, and is an internationally recognized center for documentary anthropology and ethnographic film. DER was founded in 1968 by pioneering ethnographic filmmakers John Marshall and Timothy Asch to support their efforts in creating films for documenting, researching and learning about human behavior. The organization’s initial activities were focused on the support and distribution of Marshall and Asch’s ground-breaking productions, and quickly grew to encompass a larger universe of films and filmmakers. DER now serves as stewards for an extensive collection of classic ethnographic films made between the 1950s and 1980s, and a growing collection of the best contemporary films that explore human lives and cultural traditions around the globe. Today, we continue to nurture films and filmmakers which draw their inspiration from and build on this significant documentary history.

der’s early years

The origins of DER can be traced to Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, which, along with the Smithsonian Institution, sponsored the Marshall Family’s expeditions to the Kalahari in the 1950s. John Marshall edited The Hunters, his first film, at Harvard’s nascent Film Study Center in a collaboration with Robert Gardner.  In the late 1950s, at the recommendation of Margaret Mead, Tim Asch joined Marshall and Gardner as editor of the Ju/’hoansi (also known as the !Kung) “bushmen” footage. Differences in filmmaking styles began to emerge and, in the early 1960s, Marshall and Asch left the Film Study Center. DER continues to have close ties with the Peabody Museum, Film Study Center, and other centers and programs at Harvard. The Peabody holds the extensive Marshall Family expedition photography collection, and The Harvard Film Archive is home to DER’s collection of 16mm distribution prints and film outtakes.

Originally called the Center for Documentary Anthropology, DER was founded in the basement of the Cambridge, Massachusetts home of home of John and his mother, Lorna Marshall. The organization soon moved its headquarters to Somerville, and eventually to Watertown in 1979. By this time, John Marshall had completed a series of short “sequence” films cut from the Ju/hoansi footage, which became the !Kung Shorts. DER was founded, in part, to distribute these short experimental films to classrooms and educators, as the existing film distributors had no model for this type of work. Soon thereafter DER became the institutional home for the production of the Yanomamo film project led by anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon and filmmaker Time Asch. This was quickly followed by support and distribution of Sarah Elder and Leonard Kamerling’s Alaskan Eskimo series, Jean Rouch’s films, and other like-minded projects.

our founders: JOhn Marshall

DER remained Marshall’s production space until his passing in 2005. Beginning in the 1960s, Marshall was banned from travel to Namibia, and so turned his skills in careful observation and patient filmmaking to projects at home.  After serving as cameraperson on Fredrick Wiseman’s Titicut Follies, he went on to make the Pittsburgh Police series, which brought the sequence approach to documenting community policing. The series was a forerunner of today’s reality TV shows and a model for Cops. His subsequent works include If It Fits, about the declining shoe industry in Haverhill, Massachusetts, and Vermont Kids, which documents children’s play, made with researcher Roger Hart.

In the early 1970s, Marshall was able to reconnect with his Ju/hoansi “family” in Botswana, when he was the subject of a National Geographic program that focused on his work there.  A few years later, he  was once again able to enter South West Africa (today, Namibia).  Upon returning to the Kalahari, he was confronted with the massive changes to the community wrought by the imposition of apartheid rule, and turned his efforts – through both hands-on development work and his filmmaking – to activism on behalf of the Ju/hoansi. This work was the subject of a series of activist videos made in the 1980s and ultimately informed his 2001 release of A Kalahari Family.  The latter is a  five-part, six-hour series exploring the changing subsistence, politics, development and issues of representation that emerged over the 50 years during which Marshall was engaged in the lives of the Ju/’hoansi

our founders: TIMOTHY ASCH

TImothy Asch was introduced to John Marshall by Margaret Mead,  whom he had reached out to when his interest in still photography turned to anthropological film. Asch had already trained as a still photographer, including apprenticeships with Minor White, Edward Weston and Ansel Adams.  While working with Marshall on the editing of the Ju/hoansi sequence films, he began a collaboration with Napoleon Chagnon on a series of films about the Yanomami, an indigenous tribe living in Brazil and Venezuela. They made two filming trips to the Amazon in 1968 and 1971 and released a comprehensive series of feature-length and short, sequence films documenting various aspects of Chagnon’s research on kinship relationship, aggression, myth and shamanism, as well as films detailing aspects of daily life, domestic relationships and subsistence activities.  Asch taught at New York University, Brandeis University and Harvard University and was a Research Fellow at the Australian National University. IN 1982, he joined the University of Southern California to teach in the Visual Anthropology masters program. He became Director of the Center for Visual Anthropology until his passing in 1994.

Asch produced a remarkable body of work on cultures and communities around the world and is known for promoting a model of filmmaker-anthropologist collaboration. The Jero Tapakan series was made in collaboration with anthropologist Linda Connor and with Tim’s wife, Patsy Asch. The eponymously named series focuses on a Balinese spirit medium, and is significant for the ways the film’s subject is engaged in the making of the films. Asch’s other works include films in Afghanistan, Uganda, and eastern Indonesia, each in close collaborations with anthropological researchers who specialized in the areas documented.

creating the genre: Cinéma vérité and observational film

In the latter half of the 20th century, DER emerged as an institutional center at the forefront of a new genre of documentary filmmaking. Along with colleagues such as Robert Gardner, Jean Rouch, and Ricky Leacock, Marshall and Asch were part of a generation that embraced filmmaking as both cultural inquiry and documentary recording. They brought poetic, activist, and reflexive elements into their filmmaking, and promoted the use of film in research and in the classroom. This was enabled by the development of sync sound and portable cameras in the late 1950s and 1960s, which could be taken into the field and operated by one- and two-person crews, effectively spawning a new era of observational filmmaking.

Opportunities for federal funding from the 1960s through the 1980s were also instrumental in the production of several classroom and public-oriented ethnographic film projects. For students and researchers, these included the Yanomamo films and Faces of Change series, and for television audiences, producer Michael Ambrosino’s Odyssey series, broadcast nationally in the United States on PBS. DER became involved in many of these projects, whether as producer, fiscal sponsor, distributor or mentor. For instance, in 1975 DER released On the Spring Ice and At the Time of Whaling, the first completed works by Sarah Elder and Leonard Kamerling in their Alaskan Eskimo Films series.  DER served as fiscal sponsor for Ross McElwee’s Sherman’s March, and continues to do so for McElwee’s new contemporary productions. We also work with the rising stars of documentary film, including Elaine McMillion Sheldon and Margot Guernsey.

Learning through film

Marshall and Asch were specifically interested in producing films developed in dialogue with social science research and that would have value for students and researchers. It was this that led Marshall to experiment with cutting short form films from his Kalahari footage for use in the classroom. This choice led to their taking on the work of distribution, as the existing service providers were ill-suited to these short, experimental sequence films. Once they had developed systems for reaching out to classrooms and universities, it only made sense to expand their offerings. DER continues to serve as an “educational distributor” for whom our primary audience includes scholars, students, and lifelong learners.

DER was involved in a number of landmark projects to create 16mm film-based curriculum, from extensive teaching plans to comprehensive study guides. Most notable among these was Man A Course of Study (MACOS), a film and print curriculum developed for teaching anthropology to elementary school students and which utilized the Netsilik Eskimo films, as well as studies of southern African bushmen and of primates. Virtually all of DER’s early films were released with extensive study guides, setting new standards for educational film materials. DER remains committed to promoting the use of film as a valuable teaching tool and recognizes the importance of providing supporting materials such as study guides. We recognize further the crucial importance of providing contextual information to help viewers understand what may appear as radically different cultural practices. In our contemporary world in which images circulate freely online, contextualizing information is even more essential for older works, locating them not as documents of unchanging “primitive” cultures, but as images located in a particular moment of time and produced through a specific encounter between filmmaker, subjects, and communities. We continue to explore new kinds of resources that can be developed to further enrich the use of film for learning.

Preservation and Access

While DER’s main activities focus on the production and distribution of film works, there has been a consistent organizational commitment to preservation. The mid-century explosion of ethnographic film, including the production of landmark projects such as the Ju/’hoansi and Yanomamo projects, were shaped by a concern with so-called “disappearing cultures.” While the language of “vanishing” and “disappearing” cultures problematically promoted the idea that both the peoples and cultures would simply be erased from history, we understand today that cultures and communities persist and identities are constantly reworked.  Nevertheless, the impulse to document on film — what we now understand as passing moments in the flux of changing cultural practices —  and to create a national repository to ensure their long-term protection remains a worthy endeavor.

John Marshall and Timothy Asch were key figures in establishing the first national preservation facility for films documenting human cultural behavior. They participated in the 1970 conference held in Belmont, MD, with other luminaries in the field of ethnographic film to plan the establishment of the new facility. When the Human Studies Film Archive (HSFA) opened, their films were among the founding collection and remain among the most significant ethnographic collections within the HSFA.  Collectively, we believe these works are an invaluable resource for researchers, descendants of the communities which underwent such dramatic change, and for the edification of humanity about the history of human adaptation to diverse environments, the multitude systems of belief and meaning, and processes of social and cultural continuity and change.

We continue to collaborate closely with the Smithsonian’s HSFA and now share over 25 projects for which the Smithsonian provides long-term preservation of the physical materials (including films, tapes, field journals and production logs, among others) in state of the art storage facilities.  DER, in turn, ensures access to the materials for a broad audience. We work together to fulfill the requests made by researchers and exhibitors, to preserve classic works, and to strategize new initiatives for how these historical works can be best understood.

DER Today

In the late 1970s, DER instituted a program of acquisitions to widen the content base of our film library. We acquired a number of series including films on the Alaskan Eskimo, on daily life in Andalusia, Spain, on political and cultural diversity in Kenya and the Sahel region of Africa, and co-produced or administered productions exploring the significance of Balinese trance and healing, examining the diversity of music and dance in New England, and presenting a wide variety of films on American life and heritage. Today, we steward 800+ films, and represent producers from every populated continent on the globe. We continue to seek out the best new titles – ones that contribute to our understanding of human social and cultural diversity, offer unique historical documentation, or explore the challenges of making films about people, with all the ensuing complexity regarding the aesthetics and politics of representation. Through our three interrelated program areas, Curation & Distribution; Collections Management and Preservation; and Filmmaker Services we continue the work of our founders, to produce, promote, and innovate in the use of film in the understanding of human behavior for global citizens today and into the future.

If we do not want to promote myths [about cultural ‘others’] by commission or omission, I think we can use film to show some of the realities of people’s lives….We have to be willing to get close with our cameras to the people we are filming, show what they do, listen to what they say and follow them with our filming long enough so we can learn.” – John Marshall, Filming and Learning, 1993