Directed by Al Clah, Susie Benally, Alta Kahn, Maxine Tsosie, Mary J. Tsosie, John Nelson, and Mike Anderson
Inducted to the National Film Registry in 2002
Navajo Film Themselves is a collection of seven short silent films. They were produced as part of a university research project. Two professors (one of communications, Sol Worth, and one of anthropology, John Adair), along with one of Worth’s former students (Richard Chalfen), wanted to learn how films made by individuals from the Navajo culture might differ from films of other cultures. Specifically, they were interested in what individuals within the Navajo culture would choose to document about themselves given the choice to document anything they wanted. In the past, when one culture would study another, it was typically the culture doing the studying that chose what to document. The researchers wanted agency to play a key role by allowing Navajo individuals to choose what they felt to be worth recording. They also emphasized that one purpose of this research was to preserve aspects of the culture, so that future generations of Navajo could know what Navajo culture was like at the time.
To do this, they taught a group of young adult Navajo students how to use filming equipment, and allowed them to make films about whatever they wanted. These seven films are what the students produced, and the researchers wrote a book entitled “Through Navajo Eyes” that discussed the experience.
This project wasn’t without its problems. Sol Worth became frustrated that many of the students weren’t filming “correctly.” He seemed to be more concerned about learning how to teach technology use to aid communication between cultures rather than focusing on what could be learned about the Navajo culture based on their choice of filmmaking style. Indeed, there was tension between Worth and one of the Navajo students, Al Chah, because Chah was more interested in making an artistic-style film than a traditional documentary.
The seven films that make up Navajo Film Themselves are:
The Intrepid Shadows (directed by Al Clah) is an art piece that depicts the movement of shadows, wheels, and a ceremonial mask. Like the other films in this series, it was recorded as a silent film, though Clah wrote a poem that was meant to accompany the film as a narration.
A Navajo Weaver (directed by Susie Benally) captures the process of weaving a blanket—from tending the sheep, shearing the wool, cleaning and prepping the wool, making it into yarn and dyeing it, and finally the actual weaving process.
Second Weaver (directed by Alta Kahn) is similar to the previous film, and it depicts the process of weaving a woman’s belt.
The Spirit of Navajos (directed by Mary Jane and Maxine Tsosie) shows a medicine man preparing for a conducting a ceremony which includes a sand painting.
Shallow Well Project (directed by Johnny Nelson) depicts the building of a well.
Navajo Silversmith (directed by Johnny Nelson) shows a silversmith collecting silver from a mine, creating a mold, and then using the mold to create small silver figurines.
Old Antelope Lake (directed by Mike Anderson) first depicts the scenery surrounding a lake, and then it shows a boy collecting water from the lake and using it to wash some clothes.
Navajo Film Themselves is only available on DVD. I was able to find it in my university library. If you wish to watch it, you can check to see if your local library has it, of if they can get it through interlibrary loan. Otherwise, it’s available to purchase on this website: https://www.shopvisionmaker.org//product.asp?s=visionmaker&pf_id=NFTS%2D66%2DH&dept_id=23427
Information sources and additional resources
- Official website: https://www.penn.museum/sites/navajofilmthemselves/
- Wikipedia page for Navajo Film Themselves: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Navajo_Film_Themselves