This is the story of a film - a film shot over a hundred years ago, lasting for less than a minute, but a visual document whose uniqueness transcends the long age and short duration.
In 1888 the young biologist Alfred Haddon undertook a research trip to the islands in the Torres Strait between New Guinea and the north east coast of Australia, where he became increasingly interested in the islanders themselves rather than marine fauna. Haddon became especially fascinated by the initiation ceremonies of the Malo-Bomai cult on the island of Mer - when boys became men. These rites had been largely suppressed by missionaries who arrived in the islands in 1871.
On his return he devoted his life to the study of anthropology and ten years later, in 1898, he was able to lead the Cambridge University Expedition to the Torres Strait islands. Among the team’s many scientific instruments was a cinematograph, but unfortunately this piece of kit only arrived a couple of days before they had to leave the island of Mer. Haddon had managed to persuade his friends among the elder initiated men to make copies of the long lost masks and recreate the awesome, secret, sacred ceremony. Haddon thought that the film had jammed but, on his return, he found that the footage he did manage to shoot of the dance performed at the climax of the suppressed Malo-Bomai initiation ceremony could, in fact be processed.
So this wonderful document arguably constitutes the first example of anthropological cinema. For the first time, indigenous peoples were ‘captured’ on the cinematograph in their own environment. Largely neglected until recent years, the footage raises questions of authenticity and reconstruction which have determined discussion about ethnographic film ever since.
Michael Eaton, Potlach Productions, 40 minutes, UK 2010.
Michael Eaton is an award-winning dramatist for cinema, television, radio and the theatre who has written TV docu-dramas such as Why Lockerbie, Shoot to Kill and Shipman for ITV and original dramas including Signs and Wonders and Flowers Of The Forest for the BBC. His script for Fellow Traveller won Best Screenplay at the British Film Awards in 1989. He has written four plays for Nottingham Playhouse of which the last was Charlie Peace – His Amazing Life and Astounding Legend, revived in 2018 at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama. He has adapted several works of Charles Dickens for BBC Radio 4 including The Pickwick Papers, George Silverman’s Explanation, The Bride’s Chamber and The Special Correspondent for Posterity written for the Dickens bicentenary of 2012 for which he also co-wrote and narrated, with Adrian Wootton, an Arena documentary Dickens and Film; his theatrical adaptation of Great Expectations premiered at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in 2016. Other original radio plays include Washington 9/11, Out of the Blue, By A Young Officer – Churchill on the North-West Frontier and, with Neil Brand, The Cave of Harmony and Waves Breaking On A Shore. He studied Social Anthropology at King’s College, Cambridge and, thirty-five years later, made The Masks of Mer, a documentary film about the anthropologist Alfred Haddon who made the first ethnographic film in the Torres Straits in 1898 which was also the subject of his BBC Radio 3 drama Head Hunters. He was awarded the M.B.E. for Services to Film in the 1999 New Year’s honours list and was Visiting Professor in the School of Creative Writing at Nottingham Trent University.