Kung San: Traditional Life
Written by Tomaselli, Keyan   
Author: Tomaselli, Keyan
Date: 1991


1987. 26 minutes. Distributed by Documentary Educational Resources.

TOPICS: Anthropology, Ethnography, Visual Anthropology


The video was edited by social studies teachers in Massachusetts' 4th and 5th grades curriculum from the Marshall film record.

Depictions of `traditional' !Kung life. N!ai speaking direct to camera. Shots of tool-making and tool-making technology. Social life. Children throwing toy assagais into a tree. Musician playing on a single-stringed instrument which is actually his hunting bow.

Traditional Life uses vignettes from the longer `ethnographic event' films of the 1950s, especially, Bitter Melons, !Kung Bushmen Hunting Instrument and Children at Play. A short scene of the giraffe hunt from The Hunters (1958) is used. N!ai from N!ai: Story of a !Kung Woman (1980) is the narrator of Traditional Life which borrows footage and N!ai's voice in which she tells of the disintegration of her group.

Traditional Life reflects the evolutionary anthropological paradigm of the 1950s. The video freezes the San in an evolutionary moment as an isolated group of stone-age people. While N!ai as narrator symbolizes the intersection of the modern with the pre-modern - recalling as she does the way in which life `used to be'-- this sub-text is not available to viewers who have not seen N!ai: Story of a !Kung Woman.

The extracts from Marshall's early films sit uneasily within N!ai's recollections as they sometimes lack sufficient introductory explanation. What was a strength of these `event films' - chronological sequences of spontaneously occurring interactions - is lost in a structured format, except for the children throwing toy assagais which has no narration. The original open-ended character of the event films, thereby loses aspects of their interrogative potential in Traditional Life.

Traditional Life could be very useful as illustration of the way that anthropologists and explorers understood, and continued to describe, non-literate people during much of the 20th Century. A valuable exercise would be to contrast Traditional Life with The !Kung San: Resettlement (1987), another film made by the teachers in terms of paradigm shift, and the overtly political frame of N!ai. N!ai acknowledges influences of modernity and criticizes the South African government with regard to dispossession, militarization, housing and other factors. But the transition between the two-- the San's move from independence to the problems of the modern world -- would have to be clearly explained.

(Written by Keyan G Tomaselli and MSU Evalators, 1991)