Sarah Elder is an award winning ethnographic film director who has worked in Alaska for 25 years collaborating with Alaska Native people. Her documentary career is concerned with the ethics and the challenges of filming across cultural boundaries. In the 1970’s, with her colleague Leonard Kamerling, Elder pioneered an approach to ethnographic film and developed a community collaborative method wherein the people who are filmed share in the filmmaking decisions and direct the film’s themes, events and topics filmed.
Elder is currently Professor of Documentary Film in the Department of Media Study at the University at Buffalo, State University of New York. From 1973-1998, Elder co-founded and co-directed the Alaska Native Heritage Film Center at the University of Alaska Museum, Fairbanks. She received her BA from Sarah Lawrence College (1969) and her MFA in film from Brandies University (1972). She apprenticed at Documentary Educational Resources working with Tim Asch on his Yanomamo Series and with John Marshall on the Ju/’hoansi (Bushmen) film series. She also studied at MIT with Richard Leacock, one of America’s pioneers in cinema verite. Her films are in Yup’ik, Inupiaq and Aleut languages with English subtitles.
Working in remote Alaskan indigenous villages, Elder’s base has been in Fairbanks, Alaska for more than 25 years. Now teaching in Buffalo, she continues to do research and media production in Alaska and keeps a small log cabin in a birch forest outside Fairbanks.Elder’s film have won numerous awards and distinctions including four First Prizes at the American Film Festival, Third Prize from the Festival of Ethnographic Films in Nuoro, Italy, Best of Festival from the International Arctic Festival and three Golden Cine Eagles. Her films have been selected by the Parliament of the World’s Religion: Pathways to Peace Film Series, the Hawaii Film Festival, Anthropos, the Margaret Mead and Best of the Mead. They have showcased at the Museum of Modern Art, Cinemateque Francaise, the Freiburg Film Forum, Musee de L’Homme, Arte TV, the Smithsonian Institution, the Minneapolis Museum of Fine Arts, the American Museum of Natural History, the Santa Fe Center for Contemporary Arts and the Field Museum.
In 1995 the Lumiere Institute in Lyon, France honored Elder as a distinguished filmmaker inviting her to show her body of work and speak for the 100 year anniversary of the Lumiere Brothers’ invention of cinema. Her films have won two Awards of Excellence from the American Anthropology Association, and for many years she has served on the board of the Society for Visual Anthropology of the American Anthropological Association. She has received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Ford Foundation, the Alaska State Council on the Arts, Aperture Magazine, Atlantic Richfield Corporation and others.