A Kwakwaka'wakw Narrative


In the Land of the Head Hunters, Edward S. Curtis, 1914

by Oliver Farry

In the Land of the Head Hunters,
dir. Edward S. Curtis, 65 minutes

One of the best films of 2013 was released in 1914. Edward S. Curtis, well known for his documentary photographs of the dying traditions of the native peoples of North America, turned to motion pictures for this quasi-documentary set among the Kwakwaka’wakw of Vancouver Island. The film has, Curtis’ fame as a photographer notwithstanding, remained in obscurity since its brief initial release. A previous restoration in 1974 pieced together the reels of the original ‘photoplay’ and it has today been revamped further, with a techno-ambient score by Rodolphe Burger (of which more anon).

In the Land of the Head Hunters, made with real tribespeople and conceived in a slightly fictional register, is a simple enough film. It’s divided into two parts, the first of which sees Motana (Stanley Hunt), the son of a Kwakwaka’wakw chief, proving his capability for leadership by undergoing a series of spiritual and martial disciplines. He woos a young woman, Naida (Margaret Frank), who is also coveted by a monstrous sorcerer. Having rebuffed and killed the sorcerer in the first part, Motana then has to face a furiously vengeful raid from the dead man’s brother in the film’s second half.

Curtis’ film, made while narrative cinema was still very much in its infancy and the old Native American cultures in the process of dying out, is a curiosity in that it gives centre stage to peoples who were to face genocide a second time in the twentieth century, through the ideological slanders of the Hollywood Western. In the Land of the Head Hunters was the first film – and one of the last, too – to be made with an entirely native cast. Curtis’ style may have been academic – relying almost entirely on static set-ups – but he had an unerring eye for the details and rhythms of Kwakwaka’wakw life. The elaborate costumes and various dances of the tribe – marital, military, ceremonial – are brilliantly captured on camera and, the greatest irony of all, look ineffably contemporary, so embedded in the mainstream of popular culture non-Western dance has become. For this reason, Burger’s score, however admirable in itself it might be, over-eggs the film somewhat. There was no doubt a temptation to harness the wonderful dancing onscreen with some spirited musical accompaniment but the effect is intrusive. You feel that it is all being underlined a bit too crudely. (Interestingly, the US release features a more conventional score from The Turning Point Ensemble, though there might be a case made for watching the film in pure silence, without any musical distraction.)

Though short enough (just over an hour), In the Land of the Head Hunters has a lot in it, and in addition to an inevitably tragic air indelibly associated with a vanishing, vanquished culture (Canadian anti-potlatch laws were if anything even more crippling than American anti-Indian legislation), you have the shock of the unexpected new. Curtis’ film is an echo from the past that looks remarkably fresh and dynamic. With our cleaving to technological teleology we tend to assume that the past must needs equal the primitive. This film, like many another from the era, shows that that is not necessarily the case. Robert Flaherty later adapted Curtis’ narrative mode for his anthropological films Nanook of the North, Man of Aran and Tabu but none of them have quite the same visceral charge as In the Land of the Head Hunters, which might well be the most authentic portrayal of Native American life ever committed to film.

Piece crossposted with Oliver Farry’s website.