DER Founder and Filmmaker - John Marshall

John K. Marshall

United States
  • John Marshall, filmmaker and activist, is best known for his lifetime involvement with the Ju/’hoansi (!Kung Bushmen) of Nyae Nyae in Namibia’s Kalahari Desert. John first picked up a camera in 1949, at the age of 17, during the first of several expeditions to the Kalahari organized by his father, Laurence Marshall, the founding president of the Raytheon Corporation. The whole Marshall family – including John’s mother, Lorna, and sister, Elizabeth Marshall Thomas – became engaged in a multi-disciplinary study of the Ju/’hoansi. John applied himself whole-heartedly to the task of filming. Between 1950-1958, he shot over 300,000 feet of 16mm film (157 hours). His first film, The Hunters (1957), was an almost instant classic of ethnographic film.

    Much more than John’s abilities with a camera had developed during those years. He formed a close bond with many of his Ju/’hoan subjects, particularly with ≠oma “Stumpy” Tsamko. ≠oma had welcomed the Marshall family to his band’s waterhole at /Gatucha, giving them Ju/’hoan names so that they would not be strangers. He gave John his own name, taught him social customs, hunting, and language, and became a life-long friend. Amongst Ju/’hoansi, John was known as ≠oma Xhosi, ≠oma “Longface”. Such a relationship was not viewed kindly by the South West African government, however; in 1958 John was denied a visa extension and forced to leave the country.

    During the 1960’s and 1970’s, John became well-established as a cinema vérité filmmaker. He shot and co-directed Titicut Follies (1967) with Fred Wiseman. In 1968-1969, he shot, edited and directed the ground-breaking Pittsburgh Police series of short films. Other projects, such as If It Fits and Vermont Kids, also employed John’s distinct, intimate camerawork to tell stories from the subjects points of view.

    Throughout these years, John continued to work with his extensive footage of Ju/’hoansi. He completed 15 short films, as well as the award-winning Bitter Melons. John partnered with filmmaker Tim Asch in founding Documentary Educational Resources (DER), to distribute and support the creation of ethnographic and educational film.

    In 1978 John was allowed to return to Nyae Nyae to shoot N!ai, the Story of a !Kung Woman. Finding his Ju/’hoan friends beset by illness, poverty, and growing social ills, John turned his attentions to development and advocacy work. Virtually abandoning his filmmaking career, John started a foundation to assist Ju/’hoansi and spent most of the 1980’s helping them establish water access, subsistence farming, and a local government. He began using film as an advocacy tool, and released several urgent, issue-focused videos to raise awareness of the Ju/’hoan struggle for self-determination.

    John continued his documentary record of Ju/’hoansi, directing his final shoot in 2000. A Kalahari Family(2002), his epic six-hour series, tells the story of the Ju/’hoansi from 1950-2000 and charts John’s evolution from filmmaker to activist. John continued his advocacy work until shortly before his death in 2005. His legacy – both in film and in the Ju/’hoan community – lives on.

  • Related Resources
    Guide to the John Marshall Ju/’hoan Bushman Film and Video Collection, 1950 – 2000 at the Smithsonian (PDF)
    Smithsonian’s web exhibition on the John Marshall Ju/’hoan Bushman Film and Video Collection
    Official entry on the UNESCO Memory of the World Register (inscribed 2009)

    Incomplete / Unreleased:
    Study of Violence
    Wallace Rally
    You Are The Problem, a film about a conference on Black Power

The !Kung Series

The !Kung Series

1969-1972, Namibia
An Argument about Marriage (1969)

An Argument About a Marriage

1969, Namibia
Baobab Play (1974)

Baobab Play

1974, Namibia
Bitter Melons (1971)

Bitter Melons

1971, Namibia
Children Throw Toy Assegais (1972)

Children Throw Toy Assegais

1972, Namibia
A Curing Ceremony (1969)

A Curing Ceremony

1969, Namibia
Debe's Tantrum (1972)

Debe's Tantrum

1972, Namibia
First Film (1951 /1955)

First Film

1951/1995, Namibia
A Group of Women (1961)

A Group of Women

1961, Namibia

The Hunters

1957, Namibia
A Joking Relationship (1962)

A Joking Relationship

1962, Namibia
A Kalahari Family series (2002)

A Kalahari Family

1951-2001, Namibia
!Kung Bushmen Hunting Equipment (1972)

!Kung Bushmen Hunting Equipment

1972, Namibia
The !Kung San: Resettlement (1988)

The !Kung San: Resettlement

1988, Namibia
!Kung Short Films (2009)

!Kung Short Films

2009, Namibia
The !Kung San: Traditional Life (1987)

The !Kung San: Traditional Life

1987, Namibia
The Lion Game (1970)

The Lion Game

1970, Namibia
The Meat Fight (1974)

The Meat Fight

1974, Namibia
Men Bathing (1973)

Men Bathing

1973, Namibia
N!ai, The Story of a !Kung Woman (1980)

N!ai, The Story of a !Kung Woman

1980, Namibia
Melon Tossing Game (1970)

N!owa T'ama: The Melon Tossing Game

1970, Namibia
N/um Tchai: The Ceremonial Dance of the !Kung Bushmen (1969)

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

1969, Namibia
Playing with Scorpions (1972)

Playing with Scorpions

1972, Namibia
Pull Ourselves Up or Die Out (1980-1984)

Pull Ourselves Up or Die Out

1980-1984, Namibia
A Rite of Passage (1972)

A Rite of Passage

1972, Namibia
Tug-Of-War - Bushmen (1974)

Tug-Of-War - Bushmen

1974, Namibia
The Wasp Nest (1972)

The Wasp Nest

1972, Namibia
Pittsburgh Police Series (1971-1973)

Pittsburgh Police Series

1971-1973, United States
901/904 (1972)


1972, United States
After the Game (1973)

After the Game

1973, United States
A Forty Dollar Misunderstanding (1973)

A Forty Dollar Misunderstanding

1973, United States
The 4th and 5th and the Exclusionary Rule (1973)

The 4th and 5th and the Exclusionary Rule

1973, United States
Henry is Drunk (1973)

Henry is Drunk

1973, United States
The Informant (1973)

The Informant

1973, United States
Inside/Outside Station Nine (1970)

Inside/Outside Station Nine

1970, United States
Investigation of a Hit and Run with Legal Discussion (1972)

Investigation of a Hit and Run with Legal Discussion

1972, United States
Manifold Controversy (1973)

Manifold Controversy

1973, United States
Nothing Hurt But My Pride (1973)

Nothing Hurt But My Pride

1973, United States
Three Domestics (1971)

Three Domestics

1971, United States
Twenty-One Dollars or Twenty-One Days (1973)

Twenty-One Dollars or Twenty-One Days

1973, United States
Two Brothers (1973)

Two Brothers

1973, United States

Vagrant Woman

1971, United States
Wrong Kid (1973)

Wrong Kid

1973, United States

You Wasn't Loitering

1973, United States

Youth and the Man of Property

1973, United States
If It Fits (1978)

If It Fits

1978, United States
Vermont Kids (1975)

Vermont Kids

1975, United States