The !Kung Bushmen of Africa's Kalahari desert are a people trapped by the myths art has created about them. Their unhappy history, and how it was shaped by a series of documentary films, is the subject of a projected PBS series now in development.
In the early 1950s a young man named John Marshall traveled to the Kalahari in what was then South West Africa and began shooting what eventually would become some 1 million feet of film documenting the way of life of the indigenous desert people called !Kung San, or the Bushmen.
The !Kung at that time were a simple hunter-gatherer people whose way of life had changed little over the centuries. They lived in small bands of 20 to 30 families off the game and wild plants of their remote, inhospitable domain.
Bushman culture depended entirely on access to the region's few natural watering holes, which were widely separated over some 30,000 square miles of desert. The chronic shortage of water and uncertainty over its availability touched all aspects of life and development in the region.
At the same time, the waterless approaches to their ancestral lands and the vastness of the desert served both to protect the Bushmen from stronger tribes to the south and west and to isolate them from the progress of modernity.
Marshall, the scion of a wealthy Boston family, became fascinated by the Bushmen and returned to the Kalahari repeatedly over the years to chronicle the lives of one group of families.
Eventually, the raw film footage accumulated into an extensive body of work; in the 1960s Marshall began editing portions of it into the first of several award-winning documentary films.
Marshall was encouraged in his work by scholars who believed his raw footage constituted a valuable contribution to the burgeoning fields of anthropology and ethnography.
Accordingly, the first films Marshall and his editor, Frank Galvin, created were inspired by the pioneering work of Thomas Flaherty, whose 1922 film "Nanook of the North" set the standard for all documentary filmmaking to follow.
"Nanook" was a starkly realistic portrait of Eskimo life that powerfully captured the beauty, drama and pathos of the harsh Arctic environment.
Yet, from the beginning it was clear that Marshall's was a highly original, individual vision. His camera work was empathic, in the manner of Flaherty, but it also had a mesmerizing quality that left one feeling as if his lens were reading the very thoughts of his subjects.
Marshall developed a style in which the camera took the place of the novelist's omniscient eye. He seemed peculiarly attuned to the !Kung sensibility: His camera work was visually striking yet profoundly unhurried, capable of discovering infinite riches in the smallest detail.
Marshall's first film, "The Hunters," followed a party of warriors in pursuit of giraffe, a prize form of game among Bushmen. "The Hunters" was followed by "N/um Tchai," which documented the Bushmen's sacred medicine dance, and "Bitter Melons," which evoked their myths and folkways.
These early films all had a magical quality, a quality of innocence that called to mind Edenic man before the Fall and humanity's punishment: suffering.
Yet the !Kung were in no way immune to the tumultuous upheavals of the modern world. Early white settlers had ruthlessly exterminated thousands of Bushmen and driven the rest into the remote Kalahari.
Rival tribes plundered the Bushmen's lands; other Bushmen were forced into slavery by farmers.
By the 1960s, South African industry had begun exploiting the mineral wealth of the region.
The white government of South West Africa, a puppet controlled by Pretoria, launched a brutal campaign of suppression against the anti-colonialist South West African People's Organization.
And so the !Kung were dispossessed of their ancestral lands by the war, by powerful mining interests and by rival tribes.
After South West Africa gained its independence in 1979 and was renamed Namibia, the new black-led government continued the policy of expropriating Bushmen lands.
Dispossession reduced the Bushmen to dependence on government handouts and make-work jobs. Dependency led to impoverishment and collective physical, moral and spiritual decline.
Marshall's later films increasingly confronted the racism, governmental corruption and misguided aid policies that were destroying the !Kung community. But by then it was nearly too late.
The Bushmen realized that their only hope of survival lay in developing a family farming economy based on modern tools and methods.
Yet by the 1980s they had become so enmeshed in the myth of Edenic simplicity that international aid organizations were actually more interested in dressing Bushmen up as tourist attractions than in helping them manage the region's water resources.
The 1980 film "The Gods Must Be Crazy" painted the Bushmen as heirs to a blessed existence untroubled by the woes of modern life.
In one vignette from Marshall's projected series, an angry !Kung elder denounces stereotypes such as these that have brought his people to the verge of extinction:
"Let me tell you something," he says as he stands in front of a truck a group of Bushmen have hired to drill wells on their land. "One kind of film lies, another tells the truth.
"Today films that show us wearing [animal] skins and living in the bush are lies.
"Films that tell the truth show us with cattle and farms, and our own waters and our own plans."
Pub Date: 10/06/96