The Great Dance : myth, history and identity in documentary film representation of the Bushmen, 1925-2000

Doctoral Thesis


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University of Cape Town

This thesis utilises a sample of major documentary films on the Bushmen of Southern Africa as primary sources in investigating change over time in the interpretation and visualisation of Bushmen peoples over seventy-five years from 1925 to 2000. The primary sources of this thesis are seven documentary films on the subject of Bushmen people in southern Africa. These films are as follows The Bushmen (1925), made by the Denver African Expedition to southern Africa; the BBC film Lost World of Kalahari (1956) by Laurens van der Post; The Hunters (1958) by John Marshall; the 1974 National Geographic Society film Bushmen of the Kalahari; John Marshall's 1980 film N!ai: The Story of a !Kung Woman; and the South African films People of the Great Sandface (1984) by Paul John Myburgh and The Great Dance (2000) by Craig and Damon Foster. All of these films reflect, to varying degrees, a complex interplay between generic images of Bushmen as pristine primitives and the visible evidence of many Bushmen peoples rapid decline into poverty in Southern Africa, a process which had been ongoing throughout the twentieth century. The aim of the thesis has been to explore the utilisation of film as a primary source for historical research, but focussing specifically on a subject related to the southern African historical context. The films under analysis have been critically appraised as evidence of the values and attitudes of the people and period that have produced them, and for evidence about the Bushmen at the time of filming. Furthermore, each film has been considered as a film in history, for how it influences academic or popular discourses on the Bushmen, and finally as filmic 'historiography' that communicates historical knowledge. This thesis, then, utilises a knowledge and understanding of film language, as well as the history and development of documentary film, to assess and consider the way in which knowledge is communicated through the medium of film. This study has attempted to investigate the popular and academic indictment of documentary film as progenitor and/ or reinforcing agent of crude, reified mythologies about Bushmen culture in southern Africa. It is shown here that the way major documentary films have interpreted and positioned Bushmen people reveals the degree to which documentary films are acute reflections of their historical contexts, particularly in relation to the complicated webs of discourse that define popular and academic responses to particular subjects, such as 'Bushmen', at particular historical moments. Critical, visually literate analysis of documentaries can reveal the patterns of these discourses, which in turn reflect layers of ideology that change over time. A secondary finding of this thesis has been that documentary film might constitute a source of oral history for historians, when the subjects of a documentary film express ideas and attitudes that reflect self-identity. It is proposed that the approach to analysis of documentary film that has been utilised throughout this study is a means of 'extracting' the oral testimony from its ideological positioning within the world of the film. The historian might evaluate the usefulness of a subject's oral testimony in relation to the ideological orientation of the film as a whole, to decide whether it is worthwhile being considered as das Ding an sich or should be seen purely as a reflection of values and attitudes of the filmmaker, or something in between. It is shown in this thesis that documentary film constitutes an important archive of oral testimony for historians who are properly versed in reading film language.