DER Filmmaker – Hubert Smith

Hubert Leigh Smith

United States
  • Hubert Smith, director of the Bolivian Faces of Change series and The Living Maya series, was born in Detroit, Michigan in 1938. He now lives in Jacksonville, Oregon with his daughter, Natasha. His wife, Linda, pre-deceased him in 2009.

    At the University of Michigan he studied Speech-Radio-Television and was awarded that Department’s top honor on graduation in 1960. Shortly thereafter, he was hired as producer-director for WOSU-TV, the Ohio State University station. In 1963 he went over to that university’s Department of Motion Pictures under the pioneering, Robert W. Wagner. Wagner had built up a considerable presence, much more elaborate than most college film departments. Smith worked on various projects, many complex in nature and most unscripted. He brought the first Éclair NPR (Noiseless Portable Reflex) in to the unit and used it off-tripod on his documentary of an elderly African-American woman learning to walk after a double-amputation [Mrs. Mixon, 1968].

    He left Ohio State in 1969 with an M.A. degree in Speech and Business and traveled extensively in Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula, finding to his astonishment that millions of Yucatec Maya still pursued a traditional lifestyle there. He returned frequently, bring a spring-driven Bell and Howell 16mm camera to record village activities. Shortly, however, he was brought to the University of California at Los Angeles to direct several films which were part of a federal program to explain and mitigate adolescent drug use and family dysfunction. These were all done with the hand-held 16mm camera, operated skillfully by Neil Reichline of that city. Smith used participant observation, a style under development in the 60s. He and Reichline entered subjects’ homes before they rose and stayed with them until night — filming as possible but interacting little with them.

    It was during this time he was invited to attend conferences of The American Anthropological Association because the Mrs. Mixon film was appreciated by a growing number of persons in the field of Visual Anthropology, most notably pioneered by Margaret Mead and her husband Gregory Bateson. “You’re behaving like an anthropologist,“ he was told and he embraced that notion because the idea of having colleagues who actually thought seriously about observation was so welcome. He was next invited to film a series of documentaries about the Aymara Indians of Bolivia by Norman Miller, PhD and The American Universities Field Staff.

    Shortly thereafter he applied for support from The National Endowment for the Humanities to document an entire year in a single Yucatec Maya community. He and cinematographer Peter Smokler, lived in the town of Chican (mouth of the well) — an area known a the zona maizera (corn zone) where swidden agriculture and attendant religious beliefs remained ingrained. The project was intended to be ”reflexive,“ a term some believed to mean the filmmakers’ influence would be evident to the final audience. Smith believes this angle was only partially successful. Nevertheless, the final PBS series, The Living Maya and a large attendant research archive housed at the Smithsonian Institution provide a valuable chronicle of the largest Maya language group circa 1977.

    Smith continues to work on a series of videos which chronicle a sign language used by persons in the study village and elsewhere in Yucatan. Researchers from Gallaudet College affirmed the sign system’s uniqueness and utility in the late 1980s.

    After a spell making educational documentaries (Mexico, Britain, Germany) Smith turned to teaching writing at Rogue Community College in Southern Oregon. He also opened and ran two micro-breweries, achieving 4 Great American Beer Festival medals and becoming national Beer Judge.