John Marshall and co-director Claire Ritchie's doc represents some five decades of work to produce a true record of the much-exploited Ju/'hoansi people of Namibia, more commonly known in the West as African "bushmen." Pic works strongly both as a stand-alone work and as part of its larger whole. PBS airings are likeliest means of distribution.

An urgent, remarkable piece of ethnographic filmmaking, John Marshall and co-director Claire Ritchie’s “A Kalahari Family Part 5: Death by Myth” represents some five decades of work by Marshall to produce a true record of the much-exploited Ju/’hoansi people of Namibia, more commonly known in the West as African “bushmen.” As with the various installments of Michael Apted’s long-running “Up” series, pic works strongly both as a stand-alone work and as part of its larger whole. PBS airings and specialized theatrical bookings are likeliest means of distribution, as was the case with earlier chapters.

By now, Marshall (who first traveled to Africa with his filmmaker parents in 1951) has become not just the teller of this story, but a vital part of it — an honorary Ju/’hoansi crusading to bridge the ideological gap between Ju/’hoansi and the outside, predominately white world. Pic is fascinating not just for its intricate depiction of a rarely-glimpsed culture, but as an increasingly uncommon example of a filmmaker using the medium to affect positive social change.

As the title suggests, Marshall’s primary investigation is into the myth of the Ju/’hoansi as loincloth-clad hunter-gatherers who have no use for modern civilization. It’s a myth long propagated by documentaries and such fiction films as the 1980s box office smash “The Gods Must Be Crazy” (whose bushman star, as shown here, was actually a cook at a Ju/’hoansi elementary school).

Marshall compellingly and passionately argues that the myth is not merely false, but destructive to the fragile Ju/’hoansi community, already nearly devastated from the decades of poverty and the dispossession of tribal lands witnessed under South Africa’s former colonial rule. While the Ju/’hoansi were at one time such hunter-gatherers, they long ago ceased being able to support themselves in that manner, and Marshall’s films are filled with seemingly incongruous images of Ju/’hoansi playing solitaire, driving cars and dancing to rock music.When Marshall last filmed his subjects, in the late 1980s, the looming promise of South African independence and the organization of several dozen Ju/’hoansi farming cooperatives seemed to signal that the winds of prosperity — or at least subsistence — might at last be blowing in their direction.

Now, several years later, during the period 1992-2000, where “Death by Myth” picks up, such is not the case. All manner of natural disasters have taken their toll on the community’s farming efforts, while the influx of international aid dollars that followed Namibia’s independence has largely been funneled away from Ju/’hoansi self-sufficiency. Indeed, Marshall is appalled to find that the charitable foundation started by his father for the development of the Ju/’hoansi has become deluded by the fantasy that they are supposed to remain true to their savage roots, and has been using its considerable aid dollars to explore options for turning Ju/’hoansi land into game preserves, filming locations and tourist attractions.

uch efforts are supported by many of the Ju/’hoansi themselves, who Marshall depicts as having become psychologically oppressed by a century of self-appointed experts determining what is and isn’t best for them –much like the American Indians before them.

Marshall and Ritchie’s film reverberates with such pungent, unsentimental observations, cut through with the agonizing notion that Marshall himself, for all his concerted efforts to help the Ju/’hoansi, may in some way have contributed to their continued decline by, among other misgivings, not maintaining more direct involvement in his father’s foundation.

By the end of Part 5, Marshall’s initial optimism regarding Ju/’hoansi prosperity has turned to a more desperate hope: that these people merely continue to survive. Ultimately, “Part 5″ is the equivalent of a frantic message-in-a-bottle, scrawled onto celluloid and cast over the wall of the Ju/’hoansi’s sociological prison in the hope it may inspire others to take action.

A Kalahari Family Part 5: Death by Myth

Production

A Kalafilm production. (International sales: Documentary Educational Resources, Watertown, Mass.) Executive producers, John Marshall, Lorna Marshall. Directed by John Marshall, Claire Ritchie.

Crew

Camera (color, DV/16mm), Marshall, Peter Baker, Lloyd Ross, Pitchie Rommelaere, Craig Matthew, Ross McElwee, Richard Pakleppa, John Bishop, Cliff Bestall; editor, Marshall; music, G/ao "//Uashi"/Ui, Rommelaere, Kxao of Kapupahedi, Nicholas England; sound, Rommelaere, Marshall, ≠Oma Tsamkxao, Baker, Ross, Petra Dammrose, Tanya Hagen. Reviewed on videocassette at Vancouver Film Festival (Nonfiction Features), Sept., 28, 2003. Running time: 86 MIN. Narrator: Rena Baskin
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