Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 25 August 2019

Long-lost silent film to be screened at Louvre Abu Dhabi this weekend

Residents have a rare opportunity to see Edward C Curtis's classic 'In the Land of the Head Hunters'

A still from the set of the 1914 film 'In the Land of the Head Hunters'.
A still from the set of the 1914 film 'In the Land of the Head Hunters'.

A piece of cinema history is coming to Louvre Abu Dhabi this weekend, with a rare screening of Edward S Curtis’s long-lost, silent classic In the Land of the Headhunters.

Curtis’ 1914 film can lay claim to a number of historical records. The film, which fictionalised the lives of the Kwakwaka'wakw natives of British Columbia’s Central Coast, was the first film ever to be acted entirely by a Native American cast. It was the first film to be made in British Columbia, and is the oldest surviving feature film made in Canada. In 1999, it was selected for preservation by the US National Film Registry for being “historically, culturally and aesthetically significant”.

The film almost never made it in front of a modern audience at all, however. The film opened in New York and Seattle in December 1914, along with a live score influenced by traditional Kwakwaka'wakw music by John J Braham. In another record for the film, Braham’s score, which sat untitled and unclaimed for many years in the Getty Research Institute, is believed to be the oldest surviving original motion picture score in the world.

Despite critical praise on release, however, the film was a commercial failure and quickly forgotten.

Almost four decades later, in 1947, a single, damaged, and incomplete print of the film was found in a skip in Illinois, and found its way to the Chicago Field Museum. It was while here that art historian Bill Holm and museum curator George Quimby undertook reconstruction of the film. The pair rewrote all of the narrative title interludes, added a soundtrack of Kwakwaka'wakw music, song and dialogue, and changed the film’s title to In the Land of the War Canoes to attempt to lessen the film’s sensationalism. The overall effect of the changes, according to the NFR, was to “frame the film as an ethnographic documentary,” which was never Curtis’s intention.

Hence, with more new footage having come to light and the mystery Getty score having been identified in 2008, the National Film Registry undertook its own restoration programme, in an attempt to create something closer to Curtis’ original vision.

The NFR says in its notes on completion of the restoration in 2014: “This entailed restoring to the film its original title, intertitles, missing scenes, musical score, colour tinting, and advertising ephemera, in all their romantic sensationalism, spectacular framing, and promotional overstatement.”

Brad Evans and Aaron Glass, two of the experts who oversaw the restoration process, add in their comments: “It is our hope that the latest version of In the Land of the Head Hunters will serve as a document of the history of intercultural cinema, and of a particular strategy adopted by the Kwakwaka’wakw for cultural survival—that of actively participating in the making (and the sequential remaking) of a modern motion picture.”

In the Land of the Head Hunters screens at Louvre Abu Dhabi on Thursday, April 25 and April 26 at 8pm. Tickets are free from www.louvreabudhabi.ae

*This article was amended on Thursday April 25 to reflect the fact that Rodolphe Burger will no longer be providing live musical accompaniment to the screening. If you've already purchased tickets, contact the Louvre for refund details.

Updated: April 25, 2019 06:21 PM