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DER 50: The Cinema of Patience: Reflecting on N!ai, the Story of a !Kung Woman

A still from the film N!ai: The Story of a !Kung Woman

On October 11th 2018, as part of DER’s 50th Anniversary celebrations, the Peabody Museum of Archaeology & Ethnology at Harvard University hosted an film screening and panel discussion titled “The Cinema of Patience: Reflecting on N!ai, the Story of a !Kung Woman.”

N!ai was directed by John Marshall and Adrienne Miesmer and was first released in 1980 and broadcast on PBS’s Odyssey series. In the film, N!ai, a !Kung woman, tells her life story. Aided by N!ai’s charismatic and poignant storytelling and thirty years of footage shot by Marshall, the film shows how apartheid damaged the traditional lifestyle of the !Kung people and infringed on their freedom, cultural identity, health, and general welfare.

After a screening of the film, a panel of experts gathered for a discussion. The panel consisted of Michael Ambrosino, the creator of the PBS series NOVA and Odyssey, Ilisa Barbash, a filmmaker, Curator of Visual Anthropology at the Peabody Museum, and author of Where the Roads All End, about the Marshalls’ photographic and anthropological work in the Kalahari Desert, Sue Cabezas, the former Executive Director of DER and a producer on N!ai, and Ross McElwee, a filmmaker and professor at Harvard University and a cameraperson on N!ai. Alice Apley, the Executive Director of DER, moderated the panel.

The panelists all offered unique insights into John’s personality and creative process and reflected on the film’s legacy as a humanistic depiction of the effects of apartheid from a !Kung woman’s perspective. For example, Ilisa Barbash pointed out N!ai’s significance within the context of the ethnographic film canon. She discussed how the film allows a woman, N!ai, to share her story openly and honestly in a way which was rare in ethnographic film. This was inspirational for her personally and has been inspirational for other women studying ethnographic filmmaking as well.

Barbash also noted that this is an important film anthropologically because, “it addresses the trend in the 1980s of reflexivity in anthropology, where anthropologists stopped acting as if they had no impact on the people that they were researching, but in fact needed to acknowledge their own positions vis-a-vis the subjects… And you can see it through this film because of the direct address to the camera that N!ai has. We’re not pretending that she’s not being filmed. We know this. And the camera is head-on, as Ross says, engaging with her.” This direct address to the camera allows N!ai to tell her own story, and the eye-level placement of the camera is a very respectful and intimate approach to framing a subject.

Aside from the historical and aesthetic importance of the film as a document of the impact of apartheid on !Kung culture, the panelists also discussed their personal experiences working on the film and working with John. Sue Cabezas discussed her working relationship with John and reflected on his passion for filmmaking and love for N!ai’s family and community. Ross McElwee told a story about his first day working on N!ai as a camera operator and reaffirmed Cabezas’s personal insights by saying that John “was nowhere nearly as comfortable here [in Cambridge] as I had seen him in the Kalahari. And I think that was his family down there. That really was his family.”


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