A note on Christoph von Fürer-Haimendorf’s film collection
Alan Macfarlane – September 2010
In an article in Visual Anthropology, October-December 2010 (23:5) on ‘Early Ethnographic Film in Britain; Reflections on the Work of Christoph von Fürer-Haimendorf,’ I have described some of the achievement of Professor Haimendorf. It may be of interest to explain a little of the background to how I became involved in his film work.
When I converted into anthropology at the LSE in 1966, I decided to try to do my second doctorate in the area where I had been a child – Assam. In my second year, it was natural to have Christoph von Fürer-Haimendorf appointed as my supervisor. Haimendorf was aged 59 and had been professor at SOAS for nearly over 15 years when I met him in 1966 to discuss the possibility of working in Assam. I then read his Morals and Merit in June 1967, where he described the various societies he had worked in. The book did not mention the use of film.
My file of letters between myself and Haimendorf not only show that we met and corresponded quite regularly before I went to the field in December 1968, and I gave a paper at his seminar, but also there is a sheet of my queries for him in early 1968 (headed ‘F-H problems’) with practical questions about the transfer to SOAS, the use of the SOAS library, suggestions on reading and people. There are 9 questions and number 7 is as follows:
7. Filming facilities
(a) possibility of grants towards
(b) Problem of import duties.
There are Haimendorf’s answers to these questions. There is a note ‘ask at India house’ – and ‘16mm – 5,000 feet, black and white, buy in England’
It is interesting that he recommended about four hours of black and white film on 16mm. But he did not suggest any particular funds and I was not able to buy any film or equipment before I left. Yet it is clear that there was discussion about filming, and I do remember that he emphasized the importance of a still camera and tape-recorder and helped to procure the loan of a good camera from the London Cornell foundation and I bought a small tape recorder.
The North East India Frontier area was closed because of the Naga insurrection, so, at Haimendorf’s suggestion, I went to Nepal and the Gurungs rather than Assam and the Garos. Towards the end of my fieldwork, I bought a small 8mm camera in Kathmandu and did some filming, but neither in our few letters exchanged from the field, nor in subsequent letters as I wrote up my thesis, is there any mention of film by either of us.
The next memory I have is of Haimendorf coming to Cambridge when I was now a Lecturer in the Department of Social Anthropology, probably around 1977, to show his colour Sherpa film to the student society. I seem to remember my mixed feelings on watching this – it all seemed rather old style anthropology – but the filming was excellent. This was, I think, the first time I realized that Haimendorf was a talented cameraman but I cannot recall asking whether he had filmed elsewhere.
In 1983, the new U-matic cameras made it possible to do lengthy video interviews in relaxed surroundings. I decided to do my first interview using this new technology at my home and to ask Haimendorf to be interviewed. The three-hour interview took place on Friday 17th June. I did not know at the time that it would be the first of over 70 interviews of anthropologists I would make in the next twenty-five years.
Towards the end of the interview I asked Haimendorf about his recording methods and he explained that he had used movie cameras from about 1940 and thought they were important to document a culture.
A week later, on 23 June, Haimendorf wrote to me as follows.
Thank you so much for your letter… I was on the point of writing to thank you for all your hospitality. I greatly enjoyed the day at your enchanting farm and I was happy to meet your wife and all your collaborators, and I am pleased that you were satisfied with the interviews. If you feel that any part could be improved I would not mind at all to have a repeat performance of the relevant part. I have also been thinking about the use of my films, some (of) which are in colour and some black and white. Short sequences from these films might enliven the interview even more than slides. I could provide film for Konyak Nagas (colour), Chenchus and Reddis (black/white), Sherpas (colour and black/white), Thakalis and Mustang (colour). For this we would probably need another whole day, perhaps in the second half of September when I am back from Austria and your term has not yet started. …I hope that you will both visit us in London.’
Haimendorf suggested meeting at the Association of Social Anthropologists meeting in Cambridge on July 5, but from a letter of July 7 it is clear that we did not do so.
I wrote on July 6.
Thank you for your two letters. I was sorry not to see you at the ASA conference, but received your message from both Adrian and Patricia Bidinger. It was most kind of you to offer to let us use parts of your movie films on the Apa Tanis, Sherpas et. al. We would very much like to do this and I agree absolutely that inserted in your interviews they would be excellent. We would also like to make copies of some of your slides as some of those, inserted in the film, would also be excellent.’
I then suggested contacting Haimendorf after 15 September and visiting London when we ‘could then bring back some films/slides for filming here. They would be rather bulky for you to bring up by train. When copied they could then be returned and we could perhaps add to our commentaries on them.’
On 24 September our Diary states ‘Went to London to collect films from Christoph von Fürer-Haimendorf. Immensely elegant house and lovely lunch. Collected 36 long films and 800 slides with full permission to use as we liked. Betty and Christoph very charming.’
The first cache of films included many of his longer films from around the world and the dates on the films help to establish some of his major periods of filming. Among these were the following.
Apa Tanis – 1962; Land of the Gurkhas 1957
The Deccan - Hyderabad
The Chenchus were originally filmed in 1941; other ‘Tribes of the Deccan’ such as Bondos, Reddis, Gadabas etc, mainly in 1941-1948.
Apa Tanis and neighbouring societies – 1944-45
Nepal: Thak Kola (colour) 1962; Mustang 1976; Jumla 1966; Muktinatt 1966; Kathmandu 1966; Dang Moina 1966; Magar – Moina – Jumla 1966; W.Nepal 1966;
Sherpas 1953, 1957, 1971
Two days later I wrote to thank Haimendorf and Betty for their hospitality. I specifically wrote:
‘Thank you also, very much indeed, for letting us borrow the absolutely marvellous films. I have now had a brief chance to list them and I am deeply impressed by the quantity and quality of the material. For your information, I enclose a copy of the list I am making. I have numbered all the boxes and have abstracted the information on these sheets from what is written on labels etc. If any of it is wrong, I would be most grateful if you could tell me.’
I then asked three questions about the films, but added ‘I do not want you to have to climb around and search through all those tins in your cupboard. I wondered whether it would be possible for us to help? There is clearly such marvellous material here that at some point, with your permission, we should really obtain a safety copy, and make a proper catalogue (and get you to comment on) all of it. So perhaps at a later date I could come and collect another lot. Obviously, with film of this archival importance, every scrap should be preserved and chronicled.’
I made a similar comment about the importance of the slides and asked whether it would be possible to copy these as well. I then continued, ‘As you know, our plan is to make a security copy of your material on videotape of a high quality. We can then make a copy on VHS for you, which you might be prepared to make comments on in your own home (talking into a tape recorder). We would like to use sections from the interview with you and from your films and slides in the teaching films (schools and universities) which we are making with the Rivers Video Unit. I trust that this is in order (you, fortunately, kept the copyright) with you and that we can work out a royalty payment to you if we make any substantial profits from films using your material. Looking at the quantity of the material we have brought back it may be necessary to get some additional assistance for copying and to employ someone to help. We have only limited funds in the Rivers Project (the Nuffield finally gave us one quarter of what we asked for) and there is a great deal of material. If it turns out to be necessary, would you be agreeable to our approaching a funding body – someone like Wenner-Gren or SSRC – for some assistance in copying and working on this material? If we got that, and you felt it was alright, we might also be able to help with sorting out/copying some of your fascinating diaries and notebooks – if you felt that would be helpful.
Anyway, all these plans are for the future. In the meantime, we are really most grateful for the loan of the present material, with permission to copy it for the Department here.’
Haimendorf wrote back two days late on 28 September.
Thank you for your letter of the 26. We both enjoyed your visit and if your plans for using my film material can be carried out it will certainly have been only the first of a series of meetings.
I would have no objection to approaches to other fund-giving institutions, such as Wenner-Gren, but in these days of recession and shortages the chances are probably not very good, and the processing of applications would be a heavy burden on you. However let us see how we progress with the material which you have already with you.
There is, of course, quite a lot more, e.g. Colour 16mm film Negative from which the BBC made the ‘Men who hunted heads’. But alone the printing of this would be expensive.
After you have seen more of the films which you have taken this time we could decide what gaps have to be filled and with a view of filling them once again at the rest of the material. There are not only the cans in my house but also some films which the Bavarian Television sent me back. Some of these are – as far as I remember – in my room at SOAS. I shall look out for them when I go there this week.
I shall certainly be happy to cooperate in any project of putting the films together as teaching aids etc….
Your are both always welcome to look at more slides and films when you have one through the material at present with you.’
The next day, Haimendorf wrote again.
My recollection that there are a lot of films in a cupboard at SOAS was correct, and I think that some of them will be useful. Some are marked Buddhist ritual and festivals, and these relate to Tukche, Muktinath and other parts of Mustang and are copies of a film shown on German Television. There are also many large cans returned by the BBC and marked “Yak Journey”. These are from a programme including films from Jumla and Dolpo and should be useful. There are also films on Ceylon which were shown on German Television. If and when you come to London by car on a weekday we could head then to SOAS, for there are too many to take by myself to Clarendon Road. All this is by no means urgent.’
I wrote back on 30 September to say that ‘We were very excited to hear that not only are there the films at Clarendon Road which we did not take but another cache at SOAS.’ I agreed that we would collect these directly from SOAS at a later date, when we had looked through what we had. ‘I would very much like to see all this material one day – if I live long enough!’
On the 4 October our diary mentions that ‘Pat Bidinger came after lunch and we spent time organising the Haimendorf film viewing. Saw two short films – superb stuff. She will list them and comment on them before we put them onto video tape.’
Detailed sets of comments by Patricia Bidinger were made during the next few months and I have these at hand. They formed the basis for our selection of which films should be transferred to VHS tape.
Eleven days later on 15 October the diary records ‘Went to London to collect films from Haimendorf. Met him at SOAS, then took him to lunch and returned to his house to get more films. Collected about 50 reels.’ So the original 35 had been supplemented by another 50 reels.
In May of 1984 the diary mentions ‘Also got money from Smuts for Haimendorf films’. On 26 September I wrote a long letter to Haimendorf to explain what I was doing.
‘I am in fact mainly writing about another matter which I think I mentioned to you when we viewed copies of your films. You kindly agreed that we could use copies of the films in teaching here in Cambridge and I mentioned that I had made a series of ten films on kinship and marriage for our M.Phil. students which incorporated some snippets, perhaps a minute or two per film, of illustrative material from your various films. It has occurred to us that there might be a wider market in universities and museums and possibly sixth forms for such films and, in line with the proposal from the Rivers Video Project which I think you read (to the Nuffield) we are exploring this. Both the educational advisor for Cambridge and Cambridge University Press are very interested in the idea. If this proceeds, we would naturally like to use some of your film material, which we would again copy, with due acknowledgements. As you know, the aim is not only to bring anthropology to the attention of a much wider audience, and hence encourage students in schools and elsewhere to take up the subject, but also, possibly, to generate some funds so that postgraduates can do field research and film-making. Our practice is that half of the profits (net), in this case the royalties we might obtain, go back into the Rivers Video Project for further work, the other half to the director/producer. It is not certain (CUP have never done anything like this before and have no idea of the market) that a large amount, or even any, money will be made. But if there were reasonable sales, and we were to use your films to a considerable extent as illustrative material in this and other films, it is only right that you should derive some profit from this, if you so wished. I am afraid it is unlikely to be much, but I wondered whether this would be agreeable to you. In this case, a proportion of the half that goes to the director/producer would go to you, the amount being proportional to the amount of your film used. We would only be using the film, not the sound track.
Naturally, if you wished to see any of the films before they were distributed to make sure that your material had not been misused in any way, we could arrange this.
On 4 October Haimendorf wrote back about this.
Thank you for your letter. I am glad to hear that there is a new development in your film project. It seems an excellent idea to utilize the various films you have collected including my own material for the production of teaching aids. I believe that in USA there is a market for such material and you are welcome to use my films as much as you think fit. As the enterprise develops I could perhaps help with the commentary which will undoubtedly be an important part of the scheme.’
On 30 October, our Diary states that ‘Spent the day in London with Haimendorf…Looked through films and Haimendorf commented. All we saw were without soundtracks and all on Nepal.’ There are in fact ten 90-minute sound tapes, some from June of that year, in which Haimendorf comments on some of the Nepalese films. We spent another day watching films in London on 6 November.
During this time I was extremely busy with other things. So it was not until 1985 that I really managed to start to plan a little of what we might do with the film material. I drew out a plan called ‘Project India’ which would, among other things, build on Haimendorf’s collection. The details are as follows:
Project India, 19 January 1985 [‘Great Thoughts Book’]
Starting to think about our trip to India. It would be nice to see this within a wider context of anthropological/teaching interests.
‘Haimendorf’s materials/resources ‘Reconstructing Historical/ Anthropological Communities’
16mm films: colour/ black and white
Black and white slides/photographs
Books by F-H
Objects in Museums: Cambridge and Vienna
Tape recordings - music
Materials collected in re-studies
Extra materials collected by AM/SH
Biography of F-H
Study of social change in Hyderabad/Assam/Nepal
Film of life of F-H
Documentation/saving his materials: an archive of his materials
Museum display in Arch and Anth. Museum
Teaching films for schools/Universities.
Peoples of the World Series Peoples and Problems (5 x 30 mins)
Hunter-Gatherers – Chenchus
Swidden cultivators – Nagas/Reddis
Peasants without money – Apa Tanis
Peasants – settled – Gonds
Upland pastoralists – Sherpas
‘Mixed’ uplanders – Gurungs
Traders and townsmen – Newars
Upland peoples – Thak Kola and Mustang.
(various other schemes are laid out beside this)
Problems and how societies face them (5 x 30 mins)
1. Making a living - population/resources/ecology/technology (Boserup, Malthus etc.) (Population and Resources A.M.)
2. Reproducing the society - marriage/kinship and family (Modes of Reproduction A.M.)
3. Facing death and disease - death/after- life/witchcraft/religion (Witchcraft A.M.)
4. Controlling conflict and violence - law/violence/war etc. (Justice A.M.)
5. Communicating - language/art/dancing/leisure etc.
Each of the above could be a very specific, trial, text and video just to see how worked, and each could spread into a series – 5 series and possibly one on the anthropological method and approach.
The project would be a different kind of historical anthropology to the kind I've previously engaged in. Before, I applied anthropological theories to purely historical data i.e. of past/documents. Here I would be looking at anthropological data, gathered over a period of about 50 years (1935-1985), to see what could be made of it. It is possible that, if things went well, the period could be extended to 80 years, i.e. if I continued Haimendorf’s tradition for my 43-73rd year!
His material is, in a way, just like historical material and yet the societies still exist in a way that did not occur with the historical materials. If one considers the investment in F.H.'s material so far...
Possible funding. It was envisaged that the costs would be £20,000 (they are itemized and include a ‘Consultancy fee’ of £1000 for F-H.)
The possible funders imagined were the Nuffield, ESRC and Wenner-Gren.
There were further revisions of the scheme and on 25 February, ‘Having looked through Haimendorf’s materials again, one could start as follows: (another scheme of types of society and types of problem is sketched out, and a page later further modifications are made.)
A further heading of a new section is:
Reconstructing Historical Communities
‘Applying techniques of reconstruction to non-western societies, and specifically to those societies which were studied by two of the leading ethnographers of tribal India and Nepal. Through this reconstruction, to reconstruct not only the societies, but a way of life now practically vanished.’
Then are listed not only seven of Haimendorf’s fieldwork areas, but also six of those of Verrier Elwin.
Then term intervened, but in the last week the Diary notes:
On 10 of March the diary mentions ‘A nice day getting excited, Sarah about Haimendorf’s diaries, Alan about the possibility of travel/anthropology videodisc. Six days later on 16 March, the diary mentions: ‘Term, at last, ended and now my mind turning to other things – like making a trial videodisc on Haimendorf/Nagas etc.’
On the 19 March in the Thoughts book it states:
‘Today my first free day after end of all commitments at Dept. Lectures over committees over and all ready to start on thinking more deeply about India and anthropology etc – if not too exhausted! Haven’t really had more than a single day’s break from work since 1st July, when I started the re-write of Modes (the Marriage and Love book) on 7.7.84. So nearly nine months hard grind.
On 19 April I wrote:
I am delighted that we shall be able to meet again on the afternoon of Saturday 4 May. We shall arrive at between 2-3 if we may. I am particularly working on the Konyak Nagas and wonder whether you could therefore assemble anything you have on them in the way of a. black and white photographs/negatives b. Colour photographs c. Diaries of 1936-7, 1962, 1971. d. Fieldnotes – though I think these may be in SOAS e. Tape recordings of 1962/197, which you mention in Return to the Naked Nagas f. Any movie film - black and white or colour, negative or positive, off-cuts or ordinary film. The BBC ‘Man Who Hunted Heads’ colour film of 1971 is a copy – clearly the longer original colour films and off-cuts must be somewhere. Do you have them? g. Any printed work – your articles on Nagas and any articles by others you think would be relevant.
Anything that we could take to Cambridge to copy/put into computer would obviously be particularly useful.’
On 26 April Haimendorf replied:
Thank you for your letter of the 19. I shall have some of the items ready but not all. There is a lot of 16mm film material – largely in Negative colour – which the BBC did not use and returned to me. On the other hand I have no tape recordings and I believe that those must have been left with the BBC in which case they are probably no longer in existence or at least not traceable. I have the Naga diary of 1971 but none of 1962.’ There are further comments about photographs, books and other matters as well.
On Saturday 4 May the Diary states ‘Went up to London and spent four hours talking to Betty and Christoph. Collected some magnificent photographs and moving film of Nagas…’
The next day ‘Looked at some of the marvellous photos’, and through the week I watched films with Julian Jacobs at the Audio Visual Aids Unit. The diaries for the next months catalogue the progress of what would become the book, the website, the videodisc and the Museum exhibition on the Nagas, which incorporated all that we could find of Christoph’s work on the Nagas. In producing this, I spent many hours editing down the three hours of Naga film to the 30 minutes which would fit on a videodisc. So I came to observe his filming techniques in intimate detail, frame by frame, and my admiration for his skill only increased with detailed acquaintance.
On 30 May I wrote to Haimendorf to say that I was sending ‘the 6 most likely cassettes of Thak Kola/Dolpo and hope that you will be able to find a player for them.’
Haimendorf visited us on Monday 8 July and the diary states ‘Christoph came today to annotate his films. Arrived at 11.00 so a late start after coffee with Pat and Ernest. Lunched at the Old Schools. 5.30 met a reincarnated Lama wife and child – Ato…. Later for supper in King’s – Pat B. with us…’ The following day, ‘Second day of film viewing – Martin had coffee with us. Lunched with Paul Sant Cassia and then went to look at Naga items in the museum. Christoph left at 5.40 pm. ‘
Haimendorf wrote on 16 July to say how much he had enjoyed the trip. He also wrote, ‘The miracle of the technology you use to preserve visual and written data still puzzles me, and I also wonder whether in hundreds of years anybody will be interested in my films, slides and diaries, but I suppose the Sumerians would have been equally amazed if anybody had told them that 3,000 years later people would excavate and decipher their clay tablets. I shall, of course, set aside, to identify the black and white photographs, some time in early October.’
On 31st July in the Thoughts Book there is an ambitious plan for ‘Possible films about the Nagas: 10 mins each’ There is a list of 25 possible films, such as ‘Who are the Nagas’ and ‘How the Nagas have been studied’ and ‘Dancing: for pleasure and war’ and other subjects. A priority list at the bottom included: ‘Studying Nagas’, ‘FH’s Nagas’ and four other subjects.
On 18 October, Haimendorf wrote again, ‘Thank you for your letter. If I have any chance, I shall certainly try to get for you some tape recordings of Naga music, or to discover at least any possible source of such recordings, such as the tape archives of All-India Radio.’
I visited Haimendorf on a number of occasions in 1986 and he visited us to collect materials, and there are several letters in that year from Haimendorf, as well as letters between Julian Jacobs and Haimendorf and Betty. Particularly important was that with strong persuasion from Haimendorf, the SOAS archive permitted us to borrow his German diaries of the Naga fieldwork for a limited period and we had them all translated in due course by Ruth Barnes. They are outstandingly interesting, especially when placed with the photographs, which Sarah spent many weeks photographing on a half-frame camera and ordering and putting into context. All this is on the videodisc.
A turning point is caught in a telegram from Pat Bidinger in India on 12 January 1987. ‘Betty von Fürer-Haimendorf died Sunday. Christoph holding up well.’ (Interviewing Pat in 2009, she said that Haimendorf, though obviously distraught, acted in a very calm and sensible manner.)
Something I have only now recalled as I found the tape recordings, is an event recorded on Tuesday and Wednesday May 26-27, 1987. On the 26 it states:
‘Christoph came this morning – spent some time talking about Konyak figures, ie. Mills and Hutton and his impressions. Lunched with Alan then took him to hear Hutton’s tapes… Later showed him VD and checked notebooks for German passages… Took Christoph to dinner in King’s – wine night. He seems happier than he was.’
The next day:
‘Went over to King’s at 9 and sat in Alan’s room discussing his autobiography with Christoph all morning (Although there is no mention of this, Haimendorf’s autobiography, ‘Life Among Indian Tribes: The Autobiography of an Anthropologist’, published by OUP India in 1990 arose partly out of our discussions with him, where we pressed him very strongly to write such a book.) He is very willing to divulge anything – not secretive or retentive so it will be possible to suggest improvements without offending him I think. He left at 3.20 and Alan…’
Haimendorf was away in the summer in Austria and I have a letter on his return on 8 September. He talked of hoping to return to Nagaland again if he could get permission. He mentions writing his autobiography and using some of Betty’s diary extracts. We had read her diaries and thought them excellent.
Next I have just come across another tape dated 19 September, 1987 and written in my hand ‘London. Interview with C von Furer Haimendorf “on Photography” by Anita Herle. There is no reference to this in my diary, so it looks as if Anita went to London to do this.
The last letter in this file is in a somewhat shaky hand on January 26 1991, though I suspect there are other letters and diary references. In my diary of Saturday 17 June 1995 it states that ‘The other sad event, the death of Christoph von Fürer-Haimendorf, for whom I wrote an obituary. A great ethnographer has passed away.’
The obituary was probably the one published in the Guardian on Thursday 29 June. It spoke of his extraordinary abilities, and mentioned that ‘As well as his extraordinarily meticulous and detailed field-notes and diaries, he was one of the only anthropologists of the great interwar generation in Britain to realise the importance of visual documentation. His collection of 10,000 black and white photographs on tribal culture were accompanied by an equal number of colour slides, documenting world which have since changed beyond recognition. From the forties he was also a prolific British ethnographic filmmaker, who shot more than 100 hours of film…. His work is an invaluable insight into tribal worlds. Professor von Fürer-Haimendorf had the sense and energy to record a little of what is now lost.’
On 15 July, 1995 there is a letter from his son Nick thanking us for our work with Haimendorf in the last years, which captures a little of the difficulty as Haimendorf’s mind began to wander in his last few years, yet his charm remained.
I can’t begin to thank you enough for all the help and support you have given to us. Not just over the last month since my father’s death, but throughout the last 5 years of his life when most of his friends and ex-colleagues found visiting him or even enquiring after him too difficult. It takes a special sort of person and real friendship to continue communicating under such circumstances. My father always brightened up when he heard that you had called or your name was mentioned – even though he was not always in the right state of awareness during an actual visit. … We will always remember your and Sarah’s kindness during that time.
Your obituaries in the Guardian and Anthropology Today were very much appreciated not only by us but also by Haimendorf’s brother, Heine, in Vienna who has asked for copies of everything to do with Christoph’s death. …
Thank you for your very kind offer to help with Christoph’s mountain of materials.
However obvious it appeared that his death was inevitable it nevertheless came as quite a shock to all of his family. In spite of his apparent frailty he was in fact physically extremely strong and surprised his doctors – but not us – by his tenacity on life itself. Right to the end he endeared himself to his carers and his nurses.
Again many many thanks for your help and support and we all look forward to seeing you again soon.
In 1996 Mark Turin, made a forty minute film ‘Tribute to the Haimendorfs’ which may be seen on the web. It shows the works of the Haimendorf’s and their life in India and London, through interviews and films.
 For the database of films, photographs, texts and other materials, and a full description, please see: http://www.alanmacfarlane.com/FILES/nagas.html