I recently discovered a gem of a book called Through Navajo Eyes by Sol Worth and John Adair. This is a fascinating book from the early 1970s where the authors taught various Navajo how to make films, and then observe the patterns and styles of their filmmaking. The book in its entirety can actually be read online here.
Five of the six Navajo that they taught had never seen a film, and were only taught film technology (but not about theory of editing). Despite not seeing films (though they knew what they were), the Navajo were found to be amazingly adept filmmakers, particularly in the editing process, and had a remarkable knack for visual memory of shots.
There are many parts of this book that are interesting, particularly in the structure of the films the Navajo made. The authors describe that their films often did not employ a standard narrative progression with a building of tension. Rather, they began with the event being completed, and then the rest of the film worked to get show how they got to that point.
They also do not seem to care about continuity editing to blend shots of actions together into a seeming continuous stream. Jump cuts abounded and were not viewed as unusual. Their films featured a lot of walking (for the sake of walking), and it seemed that the emphasis on motion was more important than the continuity of actions. Thus, if a person was walking in a shot, then suddenly jumped in another shot to a place further down the road, this was not viewed as unusual.
This cutting without continuity appears different than the films made by inner city American teenagers, which the authors also had studied. Continuity editing is described as being implicitly learned by these students, who did it without being taught the theory (but had seen Hollywood movies that use this technique).
With the pervasiveness of movies in today’s world, I’m not sure if doing a similar project in these times would work quite as well. However, the ubiquity of digital film editing software would certainly make it easier for individuals to make films.
Overall, the book is a fascinating study of film and visual narrative, motivated by an interesting premise.
Worth, Sol, and John Adair. 1972. Through Navajo Eyes: An Exploration in Film Communication and Anthropology. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Well it examines the importance of cutural perspective in ethnographic filmmaking, the Navajo later developed an expressive tradition in drawing and watercolor painting.