Monday, September 17, 2007

JOHN KENNEDY MARSHALL: The best documentarian you never heard of

JOHN KENNEDY MARSHALL: The best documentarian you never heard of
By CLARA LONG The Patriot Ledger
John Kennedy Marshall, an early documentary filmmaker who is admired by anthropologists for his single-minded focus on Kalahari Bushmen, is the subject of a brief retrospective presented at this year’s film festival.

Co-director and film professor David Tamés always hoped to convince Marshall, who lived in Belmont, to visit his filmmaking classes.

But Marshall died in 2005 at age 73 after spending five decades filming the everyday lives and struggles of the Nyae Nyae in Bushmanland, Namibia.

Tamés and his wife, Alice Apley, set out to find Marshall in the memories of those he touched. Along the way, they produced a 16-minute ‘‘short’’ film, ‘‘Remembering John Marshall.’’

‘‘The film fills the gap of getting to know him better by interviewing people who worked with him,’’ Tamés said.

Born in Cambridge, Marshall studied anthropology at Harvard and spent his life between Massachusetts and the Namibian desert. In his later years, he became an activist helping the tribes he filmed fight for the right to water and land.

Marshall’s name, Tamés said, does not roll off the tongues of film buffs reciting the documentary pantheon, but it should.
‘‘He’s virtually unknown even among filmmakers,’’ Tamés said.

To those who know his work, Marshall is noted for his patient camera work and meticulously edited sequences. Marshall advanced the cinema verité style of filmmaking, which aspired to extreme naturalism.

‘‘He never made it a point to go to festivals,’’ said Tamés of Marshall. ‘‘He never really called a lot of attention to his work as a filmmaker.’’But Apley and Tamés said Marshall’s films go beyond anthropological studies.
‘‘When I first watched John Marshall’s ... observational film about a Ju’/hoansi trance dance ... I wanted to reach out and wipe the sweat off the dancers’ brows,’’ Apley wrote in a recent article in the online magazine New England Film.

Tames said the PIFF was the only film festival that agreed to show ‘‘Marshall’’ the way he wanted: on a bill with some of Marshall’s own shorts so the audience could gain a better perspective of his subject.

‘‘I also love that the film festival has the ‘Made in Massachusetts’ focus,’’ Tames added. ‘‘It’s easy for a festival to just program a bunch of popular movies, but this is a great place to see unique films in good formats.’’

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