A New Exhibition for the University of Pennsylvania’s Year of Sound, Opens at the Penn Museum August 18, 2013Exhibition Puts a Spotlight on the World’s First Sound-Synced Expeditionary Film From the Penn Museum’s Archival Film Collection
The world’s first sound-synced expeditionary film, shot during a 1931 Penn Museum expedition to a remote Amazonian jungle, forms the centerpiece of Hollywood in the Amazon, a special exhibition developed as part of the University of Pennsylvania’s 2013-14 Year of Sound. The exhibition runs August 18, 2013 through July 27, 2014 in the Penn Museum’s third floor Special Exhibitions gallery.In 1931, an expedition from the Penn Museum introduced a revolutionary new research method in the remote Amazonian jungles of Brazil. Transporting state-of-the-art equipment by sea, air, and river, the team arrived in territory occupied by the Bororo people and recorded an expeditionary film, Matto Grosso, the Great Brazilian Wilderness, incorporating live sound. It was the first time non-Western people were seen and heard on sound-synced film.A collaboration between Academy award-winning cinematographer Floyd Crosby (father of musician David Crosby), wealthy industrialist E. R. Fenimore Johnson (whose father founded Victor Talking Machine Company), big game hunter Sasha Siemel, and Penn Museum anthropologist Vincenzo Petrullo, the groundbreaking film is presented in its 49-minute entirety.The small gallery exhibition tells the colorful story of the remote expedition, fraught with physical trials for anthropologists and filmmakers alike. Several artifacts from the Bororo people, collected during the expedition, enrich the story. Translations of the Bororo speakers, obtained from Bororo people in 2011, provide another aspect to the tale.
About the Film and the Museum’s Archival Film Collection:
The 1931 film Matto Grosso, the Great Brazilian Wilderness was originally intended to provide a new kind of record of people, flora, and fauna. “As with many early attempts at documentary films, the end result is more of a mirror reflection of the people making the film,” noted Penn Museum film archivist Kate Pourshariati, adding “some of the quaint narrative devices employed are rightly viewed with skepticism.”
After some early theatrical screenings, the film was relegated to relative obscurity in the Archives until 2008 when, under a grant from the National Film Preservation Foundation, the film and its sound were restored. The Museum plans a DVD release of the film for wider distribution.
Matto Grosso, the Great Brazilian Wilderness is one of many archival films in the Museum’s collection, which includes hundreds of ethnographic, travel and other films and clips. Thanks to a collaboration with the Internet Archive, the majority of the Museum’s rare and often fragile early archival footage, once largely inaccessible, was digitized in 2008, and makes up much of the Penn Museum’s popular YouTube channel, which surpassed a million viewers in May 2013.
Ms. Pourshariati also curates an occasional Penn Museum film series, Live from the Archives!, as well as an annual Second Sunday Culture Film Series—bringing audiences and experts together to watch and share conversations about old and contemporary ethnographic films.
While working on the film restoration project, Ms. Pourshariati, with help from Penn Museum Consulting Scholar Greg Urban, was able to connect with Brazilian anthropologist Dr. Sylvia Caiuby Novaes, and through her, to Bororo people today. They watched (and apparently enjoyed) the film, in one case providing an actual name of one now-deceased Bororo shaman, and providing translations of the Bororo dialogue. These translations can be used as optional English subtitles in the Museum’s planned new DVD release of the film.
Speaking to the value of this archival film and others, Ms. Pourshariati said, “The age of large individually sponsored expeditions has come to an end, and even very remote parts of the world have been traveled. Filmmakers from international source communities now produce their own documentaries, giving essential indigenous perspectives to the expanding universe of knowledge.
“Still, these early films have great value. In museums and archives, we are now arriving at a quite thrilling time in which the generations of collected materials can be shared back with these source communities, offering inside perspectives on materials long hidden from view.”