Series using film and photography to examine the 1930s looks at Harry Wright's colour films of the indigenous peoples of Africa and Central America.
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In the 1930s,
cinema burst into colour.
New technologies enabled film-makers to produce images that captured
the hues of nature in all their splendour and richness.
But processes like Kodachrome were expensive.
For the most part, only professionals from the movie industry could use it.
Yet some people did have the means to indulge their enthusiasm for film,
and they produced remarkable recordings of the world in colour.
The footage is fascinating.
Fascinating to see what was happening in the thirties,
what materials and colours they were using.
It's a wealth of information.
Many of these early colour films captured the experiences
of the jet set on their travels around the globe,
but others were put to more educational purposes.
In the thirties, the American industrialist Harry Wright
used the new technology to make an extraordinary series
of ethnographic films, documenting the lives of
indigenous peoples all over the world.
I work in the history of ethnographic film
and I've never seen anything quite like this.
Before the Second World War, Wright preserved in colour
cultures at crucial junctures in their history,
as traditional ways of life
came under the threat of an increasingly globalised world.
Once the roads come, once the schools come,
this is a vanishing world.
In 1942, Harry Wright demonstrated
his passion for film-making by experimenting with special effects.
By then, he was wealthy enough
to make sound recordings that could be married to his new colour films.
But he hadn't always had the funds to conjure up whatever he wanted.
Born in Bedford, Virginia, in 1876, Harry Wright was the eldest son
of a wealthy family of tobacco growers.
But while still in his teens, the family fortune was lost in
a devastating bank collapse.
After their dissolute father committed suicide,
the Wrights' privileged upbringing came to an abrupt end.
As the new head of the family, Harry was determined that
the sins of the father would not be repeated by the first-born son.
His father had been an alcoholic
and he had promised he'd never drink.
And everyone in his family promised that they would
never drink and everyone in his family never drank in front of him.
But at the turn of the century, Wright saw an opportunity
to achieve financial salvation.
South - down Mexico way.
Then all of a sudden here he was.
Mexico in 1900 was very wild and woolly,
very different from what it is now,
with vast areas that had been unexplored
and I think his imagination went wild and he just loved
Mexico dearly, he loved everything about it.
It ignited him, I think, in a very deep way.
Mexico was largely rural and agricultural,
and its people were very poor.
Most of the land was owned by the aristocracy,
whose estates controlled over half the country.
But at this time,
foreigners were encouraged to invest in Mexico's emerging industries.
For entrepreneurs like Harry Wright, it was a chance to get rich quickly.
He made a fortune buying and selling scrap metal for an American company
and then afterwards he started his own business
and he became a millionaire.
Success elevated Harry Wright into
Mexico's most powerful circles,
and soon he gained access to the President, Porfirio Diaz,
who had run the country for more than 30 years.
But by then, power was slipping from the dictator's grasp.
In 1910, the Mexican people began a revolution,
in which a million people died.
Diaz was forced into exile, aided and abetted by Harry Wright himself.
On 26th May, 1911,
Mexico's revolutionaries were baying for Diaz's blood.
But Diaz eluded them by taking flight, not in his own car,
but in one borrowed from Harry Wright and his wife Edna.
He had to go through the revolutionary period
and then the post-revolutionary period
that was also quite turbulent politically.
And in order to survive as an industrialist he had to
have very good connections.
So Harry cultivated powerful new friends in the luxurious surroundings
of Mexico City's most exclusive sporting venue.
The country club was a very pretty place. It was very popular.
All the rich people of various nationalities went there to play
golf, to bowl, to swim and to dance.
Based in the Churubusco neighbourhood,
the Mexico City Country Club had been badly damaged during the revolution.
But Harry paid for its renovation, an act of generosity which ensured
that he would go on to be the club's president for 25 years.
Harry Wright was also the founder
and the president of the Mexican Golf Association.
He brought the very, very best players of the world.
It was a privilege for them to be invited by Harry Wright to Mexico.
From the late twenties onwards, Wright oversaw the highlight
of the country club's social calendar,
the annual black and white ball,
where young ladies from rival
Mexican golf clubs bid to become the queen of Churubusco.
The first memory I have of the black and white ball is
when I was about, I don't know, four and a half, or five.
I do remember looking
at the princesses as they came up on the stage.
This was THE social affair of the year and everybody
wanted to get in and be part of it.
There were 20, 25 princesses and they competed
for a place and I imagine it's like
the Miss Universe of today.
For the daughters of Mexico City's elite and its expatriate families
from Europe and America, being hand-picked
as a princess by Harry Wright would become a moment to cherish.
I met Harry because I was a friend of his nephew.
I was in my last year of high school.
I was simply notified one day that I was a princess.
Really! I was supposed to represent
the Nueva Rosita Golf Club. I didn't even know where Nueva Rosita was.
Definitely it was a privilege, it was a privilege
to be the princess of the black and white ball.
The climax of the contest arrived when Harry Wright
decided which of the competing princesses would be crowned as queen.
How do you like giving up the crown?
-I don't like it at all.
-But aren't you glad to give it to Elena?
How do you like getting it, Elena?
-How do I like who?
-Getting the crown.
I like it very much.
I was aware that my father was larger than life.
You know, that he was a force to be contended with.
I do know that he liked to have things very much his own way
and that he occasionally gave shares to the country club to friends,
so that they would be encouraged to vote with him.
This is my favourite niece just before she's being sacrificed
for this little old piece of glass.
Well, I used to watch
people come in the room, and I think people were in awe of him.
He was a celebrity.
Tell you my joke
about the Bigger family.
There's Papa Bigger, Mama Bigger, and Baby Bigger.
Which is the biggest of the Biggers?
-Don't anybody know, so I'll have to tell you it's the baby,
cos it's a little Bigger.
Harry loved film. Harry adored film.
He loved the whole process of how film was made and narrated.
This man had a passion for the moving image.
In the 1920s, Harry and his wife had travelled the world with his camera,
mainly shooting black and white films along the way.
He added to his growing collection by acquiring films from an organisation
called the Amateur Cinema League.
The Amateur Cinema League started in the States
and they really helped popularise the use of film-making equipment.
But Harry Wright created the Cinema Club De Mexico
as a sort of Mexican branch of the Amateur Cinema League.
So he provided a place where they could meet
and exchange ideas and information.
Members of the Amateur Cinema League produced films for cinemas,
such as the famous Graumann's Chinese Theatre in Los Angeles,
where they were shown as supporting entertainment for the main feature.
For audiences used to black and white movies,
such colour films were a revelation.
You know, in those days when you went to the movies
you had the feature film and then you had shorts.
And these shorts were very frequently documentaries.
So there was quite a large market for films of this type.
These sort of three or ten minute segments.
Because if you look at the twenties and thirties,
you have this belief in the camera can be used to educate people.
The League Of Nations proclaims
film is the most powerful media available.
It's this idea that you can use the camera to educate.
The films made by these amateurs
documented their journeys around the world.
As an ardent travelling film-maker himself,
Harry Wright was fascinated by these travelogues
and collected as many as he could get.
Films shot in Africa in particular caught his imagination.
In the twenties and the thirties,
tourism was really taking off in Africa
because the cruise ships visited
ports and they had some shore excursions,
these sites became popular tourist attractions.
For example, Morocco, Marrakech, the market place, the carnival-esque
kind of scenes you would see with the snake charmers
and acrobats, those were market scenes created for tourists.
Zanzibar was an important port for cruise ships
and also had a kind of
Orientalist quality and people could experience a different
kind of Africa in Zanzibar.
Victoria Falls for example,
by the thirties it had already been constructed as a tourist site.
There was a picnic table there,
there was a view for photographers.
These became constructed as tourist spots in the twenties and thirties
and you see these spots again and again in travel films.
Some film-makers ventured deep into the African interior
in a bid to film cultures that many believed were doomed to disappear.
People believe that Western civilisation is going to
reign supreme and all these tribal customs and cultures
are going to become extinct.
And so there's this belief that
if you can film this, this is going to become valuable.
The more valuable your film footage is
the higher your social prestige is.
It replaces big game hunting with a gun.
You start using the camera instead.
And it's a natural sort of...
movement from shooting game to shooting people.
Many of these filmmakers were associated with men's clubs
like, the Explorers' Group, the Explorers' Club, the Harvard Club,
the Cosmos Club.
They were the intrepid adventurers of their time,
the explorers' explorer.
One of the most intriguing of these filmmakers,
Paul Hoefler, had already shot in Africa using black and white film.
But in the mid-1930s, he used the latest technology to produce
African Tribes, one of the earliest ethnographic films
to be shot on the continent in colour.
The African Tribes series is very interesting.
I haven't seen a sort of edited produced colour,
pseudo-ethnographic film that early.
Seeing Hoefler in colour was quite spectacular.
What I found interesting when he starts doing colour
is he goes to his old haunts
and he's essentially repeating stereotypes
and he's recycling a lot of his previous ideas.
These people are the Mbuti Efe people of the Ituri Forest in what is today
the Democratic Republic of Congo.
But at the time, Hoefler conformed to Western stereotypes
by referring to them as pygmies.
-We sent them a message to the pygmy chief Asanga,
ruler of the Ifi, to tell them that their old friend Hoefler
-had returned to the forest.
Having read his personal diaries,
he's very clearly into saying, "Well, what does the market want?"
He's market driven. He's not into telling it like he sees it.
He's saying, "What are people going to pay to see?"
The pygmies spend most of their lives dancing
and work themselves into a high pitch of excitement by weird chants
and the booming of wooden drums.
But colour film could also challenge Western preconceptions of Africa.
Colour film in some ways allowed for the reinvention of Africa.
It definitely dismisses any myths you might have about darkest Africa.
Because now we are really seeing brightest Africa,
we are really seeing cultural diversity,
we are really seeing natural beauty.
Amateur filmmakers, like Hoefler,
considered their work to be both valid and valuable
studies of these cultures.
But mainstream anthropologists
were slow to recognise the significance of this material.
Anthropologists had no time for ethnographic film.
They sort of look down on it and they said this isn't worth anything.
The dominant symbol for anthropology
in the twenties and thirties wasn't the camera
but rather the notebook this idea that you had to spend time
in the field as opposed to the rich tourists who would do a quick pan,
film a lot and move on.
The idea is that if you take films
it takes so much time to set up that you don't get
a real picture of life.
The camera is the mask the tourist wears.
It becomes the impediment to establishing contact.
And so there was this tradition that you shouldn't use film because
it created a barrier between your actual observations.
But I suspect that a lot of this simply had to do with status
and that anthropologists couldn't really afford to buy colour film.
The commentaries added to Hoefler's films
express his fascination with the cultures he encounters.
But often his interpretations and conclusions were wide of the mark.
Here we find that the Bamburi women still practise a custom
which originated during the time when slave traders
were the scourge of Africa.
What caused these duck-billed
creatures to adopt this weird lip adornment?
Certainly not to enhance their looks.
At a meeting of the chiefs, it was decided to disfigure the women
and thus destroy their value to the slave traders.
The scene that you see in African Tribes with the Bamburi,
these are Sera's peoples from Chad, central Africa
and the use of the labret
as opposed to plate-lipped, which is how they refer to it in the film,
usually signals a woman's eligibility for marriage.
For example, or her socio-economic status,
the larger the plate, the higher the woman's status.
So the myth that the tribe is trying to make themselves ugly
so they won't become slaves,
is something that has been recycled
since the 18th, 19th century.
Though wealthy Americans like Hoefler could afford to travel in Africa,
for most people, such adventures remained a pipe-dream.
After the Wall Street Crash of 1929, the US had led the world into
the biggest economic slump of modern times.
For much of the 1930s, across great swathes of the northern hemisphere,
around 30% of adult men were unemployed.
America sought a way out by developing what it called
its "Good Neighbour Policy".
The idea was that Washington would invest in neighbouring countries,
on condition that their spending would boost US industry.
The Good Neighbour Policy is the term used to describe the
Roosevelt Administration's foreign policy towards Latin America.
When Roosevelt came to power in 1933,
he said the United States would be a good neighbour,
it was a very vague term.
In the first year of his administration it meant very little,
but as 1933 became 1934, Roosevelt began to look to the Americas
to solve some of the economic problems of the Depression.
The idea was that the United States did not
have competing economic interests with the countries of the Americas.
It needed raw materials, it needed markets for its manufactured goods.
Lowering tariffs would serve US interests.
The United States would import raw materials it needed and would export
manufactured goods. And for the first time, Washington loaned monies
to other countries directly
with the stipulation that the money would be spent in the United States.
Wright's adopted home country of Mexico was among the nations
that benefited most from these loans.
By the 1930s, its President, Lazaro Cardenas - who was an acquaintance of
Harry Wright - was leading the drive to reorganise the national economy.
Among the most startling images in the Wright collection
is an image, some footage of Lazaro Cardenas entering Chiapas
that must have been towards the end of his administration.
The reason it's fascinating is that there's a lot of audio visual images
of Cardenas in the 1930s made by the Mexican state,
but not in colour, so it's a whole different experience.
Mexico's president had promised to give the country's Indians
more autonomy by putting more land under their control.
But other policies undermined Indian traditional culture by imposing
Western values and institutions on the Indian way of life.
There's one film called One Day at the Boarding School of Zinacantan.
That was a project created in the thirties so that
these Indian communities could send
their children to these boarding schools in their region where they
would they would dress in the Western style,
and the film shows it very, very well, because they're given shoes.
It was this idea that they had to be, sort of, integrated into
modern Mexico - progress, education, Spanish, because they didn't
know any Spanish, so they had to
teach them the Spanish language so that they could communicate
with the rest of the country, and they were shown different trades.
By the mid 1930s, footage like this had become an important part
of Harry Wright's burgeoning film archive.
Proudly, Wright showed his films to friends, family and the elite of
Mexico City at his own private cinema - a screening room he called
"The Kraal Theatre", after a small cluster of dwellings
in Southern Africa.
The theatre can accommodate about 250 people, and at the present time
our library consists of around 2,400 foot reels of films,
giving you 500 continuous hours of pictures without repetition.
He had some feature films,
and he had cartoons and documentaries.
It was probably the largest collection in Mexico of 16mm film.
Everybody who came to Mexico from the US that was important,
eventually had to meet Harry Wright.
And Harry Wright always invited them to the Kraal.
If you've visited us before, we feel highly complimented
that you're interested enough to return.
Every Sunday afternoon he would invite people from the club,
or friends, or relatives to the screenings,
and they were long programmes
and he would keep showing things.
We hope that our humble entertainment has not bored you.
We would be delighted to continue this performance indefinitely.
We sat there... It went on and on and on and on
He showed a lot of films... And, I think I might have fallen asleep.
Somebody would mention something and he'd say, "I have a film on that".
Slowly people would find excuses to leave the room and actually perhaps
crawl out of the room and my mother would say,
"You know you have to stop. You can't keep showing this to people
"They want to go to sleep.
"They have to go to work tomorrow.
"They have other things to do besides watching your films."
Among the most spectacular of all the films that Harry showed
in the Kraal theatre were what he called
his Ethnographic Series of Unknown Mexican Indians,
shot by the intrepid photographer and explorer Ed Myers.
Myers had been director of sports at Harry Wright's Country Club,
but he had ventured into some of the country's most dangerous
and politically-volatile areas.
In 1938, Ed travelled for three months through the Huichol region
in central Mexico, taking photographs and collecting objects along the way.
After he left, seven Huichol people
who were associated with Ed Myers were murdered.
Despite this, Myers was undeterred.
He somehow convinced Harry
that they should film these Indian tribes
that were located in very remote areas
that very few people knew about
and I think Harry thought it was really great.
I don't think he was really aware of the surviving Indian communities
that were really very poor and marginalised in Mexico at the time.
Well, I think it was kind of like a continuation of his desire to travel
and to go to exotic places, but he was too old to do that.
Ed Myers, I think was, sort of like his surrogate, you know.
He used Ed Myers to have a sort of adventure.
And he financed several expeditions that Ed made
to the states of Oaxaca, Guerrero, Chiapas and the north of Puebla.
In 1939, Ed Myers began filming for the first of what would become
a series of 15 short films.
For the edification and amusement of visitors to his Kraal Theatre,
Harry Wright added graphics, music and commentary.
At last, Wright was producing his own ethnographic documentaries on Mexico,
the country he had fallen in love with.
His series on the indigenous peoples of Mexico would become
the crowning achievement of his film-making career.
The various colours on this map of Mexico indicate the location
of the 150-odd Indian tribes.
Some of these, such as the Seris, have not yet reached the Stone Age.
They called their series Unknown Indian Tribes
and they're bringing to the outside world
images that have never been seen before.
Today, there remain but 51 of the original 150 Indian races.
Those that live in the mountains and the more inaccessible regions
retain their early culture and have changed little since Cortes.
The Unknown Tribes of Mexico series
combines elements of the exploration,
ethnographic and Hollywood feature film.
Even if they do say that reptiles have very
little feeling, it certainly gives one the creeps
to watch the death struggles of this one.
He's tried to bring out certain qualities or certain aspects
of each of the groups that makes them different,
so it doesn't look like all of the Indians are the same,
which they're not.
And he focuses on different things - a marriage ritual here, a fiesta,
dances, daily life...
So it gives you a broad image of what was going on in the areas.
In a beautiful valley in the mountainous areas of Chiapas,
lies the beautiful village of Huistan.
Just by luck, we heard of a rain fiesta that was
to be given at this picturesque spot.
It was the end of the dry season and corn-planting time
but the ground was so hard, the natives couldn't break the surface.
The fiesta was to be given to hurry up the rains
which would soften the ground and thus make planting possible.
The first Huistechos we encountered were on their way to the fiesta.
No crusader or knight of the middle ages ever looked more Spectacular
than these humble Huistechos in their holiday attire.
We see these amazing red flags that are carried in one village.
Then we see these amazing hats and the colourful embroidery.
And all of this is crucial to the documentation of costume.
For this project, which is really about garnering information
and then marketing it - colour is crucial. Colour is what seduces us.
In the 1930s, much of rural Mexico was inaccessible by rail or road.
To reach many indigenous communities, Myers faced an arduous journey.
Explorer Ed Myers crossed a 10,000 foot range of mountains
and travelled 11 days by horseback from the nearest railroads
to reach these carefree happy natives.
Myers produced profoundly intimate images of everyday life and culture,
managing to overcome traditional resistance
to intrusions by outsiders.
The good looking one on the left
couldn't refrain from giggling in front of the camera.
-There were no areas of completely free access
in Chiapas, which both then and even now is difficult to penetrate.
The villages in the highlands like San Juan Chamula
or Zinacantan, where he goes, it is most likely that when
Ed was there, it would have been even more difficult to gain access.
However, we see that he has no problem, that the villagers are
peaceful and let him film their ceremonies and film close-ups
of the faces of the women and children.
This would have been unthinkable for the time but Myers was able to do
it, probably because he arrived with a permit from the Mexican state.
Myers' footage offers a rare and precious glimpse of life
in many remote Mexican communities.
But the commentaries added later often interpret
the traditions of indigenous people in misleading or superficial ways.
Harry Wright was fascinated by customs and cultures,
but his reading of them was occasionally eccentric
and sometimes naive.
The voice-overs really are the key, because they really kind of
try to encapsulate
what you think you're seeing or what they want you to see.
The pretty girls are not allowed to dance.
Only the widows are granted this privilege by the village elders.
By morning, many of the widows will have captured new husbands.
Had the good-looking young maidens been permitted to dance,
the widows wouldn't have had a chance.
He's always interjecting and trying to relate what he's seeing,
"translating" it into terms that an outsider might understand.
Whereas, an ethnographer or somebody more academic
would not try to do that.
It is a large,
warm, Oriental sort of moon that blankets the low foothills
in the south-west corner of the state of Oaxaca, wherein
live the 8,000 remaining members of that bizarre people, the Amusgos.
Their customs are of a texture and type with embroidered designs
strongly suggesting that mother country
was once the land of the Pharaohs.
A typical Amusgo maiden.
Here is an opportunity to study the features.
It exoticizes these people more.
Their origins are a mystery.
No-one knows where they came from, this sort of thing.
It builds up the excitement. You've got to sell these films.
You want the audience to like these films.
To boost their appeal, Wright's films included lurid descriptions
of some cultural events, notably its coverage of
a traditional sporting contest among the Tzeltal people of Chiapas.
The Tzeltals have a cruel, bloodthirsty game.
A live rooster is procured.
The object of the game is to decapitate the rooster with
an adept yank and twist of the hand while riding at full speed.
Returning with a dripping head, the winner of the first contest
proudly holds up his gory prize.
It's always going for the most strange and the most bizarre
and the most exotic cultural practices that they can find.
Sterility in a woman is considered a crime and a husband is supposed
to beat a childless wife until she becomes fertile.
Wright's films also record more mundane aspects of indigenous life
documenting for posterity, methods used in the production of textiles,
techniques that had been employed for generations.
If by some magical process
a person could be carried back 500 or 1,000 years before
the arrival of the first white man,
he would see just such scenes as this.
In the thirties, ethnographers often collected the arts and crafts
produced by indigenous peoples.
Ed Myers supplied objects to some of the world's most important
ethnographic collections, including those at the Smithsonian Museum,
the American Museum Natural History and, allegedly, the British Museum.
Myers supplied utensils, jewellery
and clothing, which Ed found especially difficult to acquire.
In this one film, Rain Fiestas Of The Tzeltals,
a lot of interesting issues about costume come up.
The narrator talks of difficulties in collecting these objects.
'As they are highly prized,
'it was only after days of bargaining and much persuasion
'that we were able to purchase the pair pictured here.'
These costumes are hard to make.
They take a lot of time and they're very important personally.
It's bizarre. You wouldn't walk up to somebody in Manhattan
and offer to buy the dress off their back, right.
But, somehow, you can go to these other primitive people there
in some strange village
and do the same thing and buy the clothes off their back.
The objects that Myers
amassed survive in collections around the world.
But his coloured films are a truly unique record
of the customs and rituals of the indigenous peoples of Mexico.
Among the most spectacular were fiesta dances, in which the people
paid homage to nature in the hope of being rewarded with a good harvest.
Both the Amusgo Indians and the Mixtecs have this dance
where men interact with animals, with the wild animals
and domesticated animals, and they ask them permission
to plant the land and to respect the corn.
The jaguar climbs up the tree and then he walks around on four legs
and he plays with the children.
And so the jaguar becomes a very important element
because he's a friend and a foe at the same time.
Myers believed he was filming a traditional Aztec dance,
but a close examination of the footage
suggests that the ritual isn't quite as authentic as it appears.
It's the Aztec war dance
and these guys come down the path and do their war dance.
Well, the costumes have nothing to do with anything an Aztec ever wore.
They're wearing turkey feathers and plumage from God knows where.
And their head-dresses, if you look closely,
have red, white and green in them,
which is the colours of the Mexican flag
which is a total invention probably of the 19th century.
We have no scripts of Aztec dances.
We don't have any footwork diagrams
so that we know exactly how they dance.
We hardly have any visual images of dances.
So nobody knows what these dances were like.
But there was such a desire to find something truer, unspoiled,
going back to this ancient past that they tended to often not see
when there was actually change.
While capturing performances, Myers sometimes directed
protagonists in an attempt to make scenes more appealing.
This is evident in the film he shot of the spectacular
ancient ruins of Mitla in Oaxaca, an unlikely venue for a Zapotec dance.
He's a fantastic film director because he stages a fabulous scene
for a dance to take place.
The plume dance, which he films in Mitla,
it is unthinkable that a dance like this Zapotec dance
would be performed in this archaeological site.
It was he who made this happen.
'Of the hundreds of dances of Mexico,
'one of the most unusual
'is that given annually at Chiapas de Corzo in the state of Chiapas.'
The difficulty of recording sound on location
forced Wright to add his own music to many sequences.
Guided by the instruments used,
Harry invented soundtracks inspired by the indigenous music
of North America, the Middle East and even medieval England.
'They're very fond of music and a few have crudely made
'stringed instruments. As a whole, their lives are happy and peaceful.'
Sometimes the results were not entirely convincing.
Despite this, Harry Wright's Unknown Indian series is a rare
and valuable record of an ancient yet vulnerable culture.
Before long, filming such scenes would become all but impossible.
He was there at a time when it was like discovering a new world.
'The houses are well built and entirely made of local materials.'
They did succeed in capturing certain things
that are really quite extraordinary to view today.
'If you're too lazy to build your own, you can have one made to order
'for 75 cents.'
In the years after these films were made,
such intimate portrayals of daily life
would become increasingly difficult to capture.
In Ed Myers' films, there are already indications that people
were becoming reluctant to reveal all in front of the camera.
'As a whole, the women were very difficult to photograph.
'Many thought that, through the camera finder, one's vision
'could pierce the flesh
'and take account of what might be happening inside.
'Others believed that they were objects
'of our cannibalistic tendencies and hurried from view.'
Even though, over time, the reason they said that they didn't
want to be filmed or photographed was that they said
that the cameras would steal their soul.
They were upset that people were making money off the images
and they felt that they were being used.
The films also reveal a distinct unwillingness by the people
from the Indian tribes
to explain the significance of their customs and rituals.
'The origin of the dance is so deeply buried in antiquity
'that no-one knows much about its symbolic significance.'
I wonder if, in some cases, people weren't holding back information
from this, theoretically, omniscient outsider.
'Later we found that the horse race was not a race
'as there is no finish and no-one wins. They continue round and round
'all day long. Nobody knows what for or why.
'But all agree that it is the high spot of the whole fiesta.'
Originally, Wright had wanted his films
to be distributed to academic institutions that would put
Ed's scenes from Mexico's Shangri-La to educational purpose.
But they had become Harry's labour of love
and he was determined to make them accessible to everyone.
'If we told you the Indian names of these three sisters,
'not Pedro's daughters, it would merely be confusing.
'So we'll rechristen them Faith, Hope and Charity.
'And this is Faith.
'Language doesn't seem to be much of a handicap in giving this young lady
'her first lesson in photography.
'The camera subject for the first snapshot seems to be a bit shy.'
Like many ethnographic studies
in the period, the film, Mexico Has Its Own Bali Land,
demonstrates a prurient interest in the bodies of women.
At a time when nudity in mainstream Western cinema was censored,
the topless women in Wright's films greatly increased their appeal.
'These girls are entirely unconscious of their semi-nudity
'but like many of us become embarrassed in front of a camera.'
It's the National Geographic effect, you know.
This is maybe the first time you've seen a woman's breasts, you know,
if you're a boy or something.
If they were classified as quote unquote ethnographic,
these were commercially viable
because they passed the censor boards.
'The current price in Bali land
'is about 40 mangoes for two cents.'
I think they're kind of voyeuristic
but at the same time they're an attempt to capture
ethnographic information that is perceived to be on the way out.
Within 25 years, the Mixtec women of Mexico's Bali land
would be forced to cover up by the government.
Nakedness in public was outlawed.
A distinctive part of Mixtec culture had been suppressed.
This is gonna happen in the fifties and sixties as Mexico
becomes much more integrated into the world economy.
As migration, as these people begin to migrate to the cities,
some of them are going to go to the United States and come back.
A Mayan woman who's migrated to Mexico City
and then gone on to Los Angeles and come back,
she's not going to be interested any more
in wearing this traditional huipile that took
a year to make and embroider.
'High in the Puebla mountains, several days on horseback
'from the nearest automobile road, we still find villages inhabited
'solely by Otomi Indians, speaking no Spanish and retaining
'many ancient tribal customs and industries.'
Since Ed Myers visited the town of San Pablito in 1939,
a road has been built which allows visitors easy access to the village,
but also gives the local Otomi people the chance to leave.
This development has had a profound effect on the Otomis' lives.
Migration has been one of the fundamental causes
of the changes in indigenous societies.
Therefore there are many places
that are completely different today as a result of migration,
simply because the men no longer live there.
It is just the older women and children.
The Otomis, the Mazahuans and the Zapotecs migrate to Mexico City
to work in construction.
Or they go to the United States
where they work in hotels or restaurants.
So shall we say they stop doing traditional activities altogether
or completely adapt their way of earning
to the current ways of the country?
As well as experiencing
a drastic loss of population, the Otomis have suffered
the wholesale disappearance of traditional ways of life.
The distinctive working methods of the Otomi
that Ed Myers recorded in the 1930s have almost completely vanished.
'The liquid obtained from the pounding of the mezcal
'is dumped in to the stream and the whole surface
'becomes a cauldron of foaming greenish suds.
'The fishermen dash wildly downstream
'to get ahead of the polluted water and form a human dam.
'A look-out is posted slightly upstream to advise the fisherman
'of the approach of the poisoned water
'which has supposedly blinded the fish.'
No-one fishes like that any more.
In fact people rarely go to the river to fish
because there aren't any fish, only very, very small ones.
'As each fisherman catches his first fish, he must bite off its tail
'so that he will no longer smell like a human being
'but will smell like a fish.
'This is an essential part of the ceremony.'
A lot of these things have been lost
and they've been lost as part of an attempt,
by the Mexican Government, to modernise these villages.
To bring drinking water, transportation -
to bring them into the modern age.
Harry Wright intended to record the cultures of more than
50 Mexican tribes but he was only able to screen 15 completed films
to those visiting his Kraal Theatre.
Many considered them to be the crowning glory of his collection,
though not everyone appreciated Harry's images
of Mexico's rural hinterlands.
Members of the National Geographic Society, a couple of people
from the American Museum of Natural History,
wrote very enthusiastic things about
what they had seen, which contrasts
with many of the comments
that we get from the Mexicans, if we get any at all.
Because, you know, the sort of thing
that maybe members of the Mexican elite
and politicians and high government officials didn't really want to see.
They were trying to promote this sort of Mexican identity
that was more associated with
a mixture of the Spanish and the Indian blood.
I don't think they played to a Mexican nationalist sensibility.
These people are too remote,
too poor and, as the movies remind us again and again, too primitive.
These films didn't conform to the image that the Mexican Government
hoped to promote. Mexico's political elite
wanted to represent their country
as a progressive and sophisticated nation.
At the same time, Mexico's northern neighbour, the United States,
had its own reasons to advance a positive image of Mexico.
With war in Europe looming and many fearful that the US itself
might be drawn into the conflict, Washington was keen to maintain
cordial relations with its allies in Central and South America.
To support this aim, the US created a special agency called
the Office for the Co-ordinator of Inter-American Affairs.
It was given a film unit,
which tried to improve perceptions of America's allies
and help their economies by boosting tourism to the region.
It was the job of this film unit to produce images showing Mexico
as an unspoilt and idyllic land.
Just the kind of place that Americans would want to spend their money.
They wanted to show a better view of Mexico
to the United States population.
Present us as not, you know,
primitive and barbarous and violent,
which was sort of the image that the Revolution had left
in the minds of many Americans.
Wright certainly was the kind of person the OCIA would look to
in Mexico, because he was a prominent industrialist,
he was well integrated both with the foreign colony
in Mexico City as well as with the Mexican elite.
Harry Wright's own film
about the holiday resort of Acapulco
was exactly the kind of film the Office needed.
They screened it in schools, community centres and churches
all over the United States.
Many films could be recycled.
People could make films to present
this more touristy view of Mexico.
'You'll find Acapulco the ideal vacation spot.
'Some people don't stir from their hammocks,
'and claim they are having the best time of all.
'Acapulco has been called the Mexican Riviera but it really has
'greater charm and unspoiled beauty than the Mediterranean coast.'
Harry Wright's footage of Acapulco
shows that Acapulco has already become
an important tourist destination for European and American elites.
He shows the promise of the beaches of Acapulco for tourism,
mentions some of the new hotels that have recently gone up.
There's an idea there to exoticize Mexico,
in a way that was legibly tied to
exoticization of other places, but in Asia in the American mind.
He links Acapulco to Tahiti, to Hawaii and to Bali,
saying the winds from the South Pacific
wash up on the shores of Acapulco.
One of Wright's associates, Luis Osorno Barona,
produced some of the most attractive films
that were specifically made for the Office.
He contributed to a series of travelogues
featuring different parts of Mexico,
which were dubbed with commentaries by well-known
Hollywood actors of the time.
'Many lookout points have been laid out
'and beautified for the pleasure of visitors and townspeople,
'who desire to contemplate in comfort the dramatic structure
'of the jagged coastline and the seascape
'that lies unfurled to the end of sight.'
Guadalajara, Mexico City, Taxco, Acapulco that are being shown,
are those that people are being drawn to in the late '30s and 1940s.
We get a really amazing sense of how beautiful they were.
There were very few people, very few cars
and it was quiet, tranquil, beautiful.
You could find this idyllic Mexico.
'Soft, warm waves of the Gulf break soothingly against the sandy beaches
'near Mocambo. Their invitation does not go unheeded.
'Visitors from all parts of the world know these charming spots
'where the sun-drenched sand is dappled with palm shadows
'to break the glare.'
By 1944, when the war in the Pacific
was starting to swing in favour of the United States,
up to five million Americans a month
were watching propaganda films funded by the Office.
Meanwhile, in Latin America,
it was planning to improve the image of the United States,
by influencing the content of Spanish-language cinema.
The idea was have a film industry that is pro-US,
make movies that are propaganda films that are seen
as authentically Latin-American entertainment
and the messages are more cleverly constructed.
With Mexico now becoming a centre of film production,
Harry Wright was presented with an opportunity to become
part of an industry he loved.
The Mexican film industry was the third most important
after the mining and the oil in Mexico
and with this flourishing of the film industry
maybe he and his friends
took into consideration that it could be a great business.
Fortunately for Harry, there was a large expanse of unused land
next to his Country Club in the Churubusco district of Mexico City.
And he thought it would be a good idea to build
these very large and modern studios
in this very large plot of land
and he thought the OCIA would give him money.
But Wright was wrong. No money was forthcoming from the Office,
yet eventually the studio was built,
courtesy of an investment from the movie company RKO Pictures.
Built on Harry's land, the Churubusco Studios
would go on to become one of the great creative forces
in Latin-American cinema.
later on the most important studios in Mexico
and the largest in Latin America.
In 1945, when the studio was just beginning to establish itself,
Harry Wright's wife, Edna, passed away.
But a year later Harry had found happiness once again,
by marrying Helen Hudson, a former princess of the Black and White Ball.
Well, I think it was quite the scandal
because my step father,
Harry Wright, was quite a bit older than Mom.
He was, um...
about 39 years older.
My mother looks like a combination of Loretta Young and Lauren Bacall
and my father looks like the German waiter in Casablanca,
you know the little glasses and the pot belly and so, you know,
I actually said to Mom,
"Mom, what were you thinking?"
She said, "I loved him." And I really do think she loved him.
I mean, obviously the fact that he was rich and powerful
made it a little more interesting,
a lot more interesting, but she really did love him.
Harry stopped making ethnographic films for the public,
but couldn't resist making a documentary out of films he shot
during his honeymoon in Hawaii.
'On every trip to the islands, there are dozens of honeymoon couples.
'If you're not already acquainted
'this is Mrs Harry Wright of Mexico City.
'Her husband is not by her side because he's making this movie.'
My mom was reputedly the most beautiful woman in Mexico
and she was young divorcee with a lovely young child.
I was about four-and-half-years old when my mother met Harry.
I was thrilled because he always came with chocolates and he gave me
the most beautiful doll's house that I could almost get in to.
And so with his tummy and everything, I thought
mother had married Santa Claus.
Harry's domestic bliss was completed when his new wife Helen
gave birth to a baby girl in 1947.
Harry Wright was a first-time father, at the age of 70.
On August 25th 1954, Harry Wright died of a heart attack
at his home in the grounds of the country club.
He was 10 days short of this 78th birthday.
During a long, eventful and enterprising life,
Wright transformed the fortunes of his family,
became a force in the cultural and political life of Mexico
and made a significant contribution to international relations
during the Second World War.
But among the most important of Harry Wright's legacies
is his archive of colour films, a rare collection of images
showing intimate scenes in the everyday lives
of ordinary people all over the world.
Kept in storage for decades,
many of his films have not been seen for more than 60 years.
He was one of the only people at that time
that did have the coloured film
and what an incredible thing.
So I take my hat off to him.
The thirties was one of those windows,
maybe a window of opportunity
where there was a lot still to be captured on film
and they must have recognised that this was a really fragile thing
and I think what Harry Wright and Ed Myers did in many of these films
was to capture things that were in fact lost in subsequent decades.
'Imagine our astonishment to discover
'that these powerfully-built men wore embroidered panties.'
If you don't pay much attention
to the very colonial viewpoint that he had in these films,
if you just look at the fact that somebody was interested
in filming these communities, when nobody else was.
The ethnographic series, I think, is really remarkable.
I think that's enough now.
How many more feet you got?
THEY SING: "South Of The Border Down Mexico Way"
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd.
E-mail [email protected]
Four-part series using rare, private and commercial colour film and photographs to give poignant and surprising insights into the 1930s.
One of the most prolific collectors of colour film in the period was the American industrialist Harry Wright. A self-made millionaire with a passion for film, he acquired and commissioned hundreds of films, which he screened for guests at the private cinema he had built in his home in Mexico City.
The programme examines Wright's extraordinary colour films of Africa and Central America, including his so-called Ethnographic Series of Unknown Mexican Indians, a unique visual record of the lives and customs of indigenous peoples living in the remote rural regions of Mexico.