In the Land of the Head Hunters (1914)

In the Land of the Head Hunters

AKA “In the Land of the War Canoes”

This film about the Kwakwaka’wakw people of British Columbia is, according to Wikipedia, the oldest surviving film made in Canada. It is not truly a documentary, although it was made by an ethnologist and is a document of some aspects of the lives of Canadian First Nations people. However, it has a storyline written by its (white) director, Edward S Curtis, and which the actors clearly understood to be fictional. All of the actors are genuine Kwakwaka’wakw, so it’s a rather unusual mixture of truth and illusion – just as most documentaries are, I suppose. The story involves a young warrior who falls in love with a girl promised to an evil sorcerer, and how he and his tribe fight the sorcerer and his relations in order to free the young couple to marry. It is interesting to note that neither side consists of classically Western “individuals,” they all depend on their social group to achieve their ends. Also interesting are the clear depictions of rituals, costumes, and carvings such as those on the canoes, all of which are quite exotic compared to what one sees in Hollywood Westerns of the time. The movie was apparently a failure financially, either because audiences weren’t receptive or because of bad distribution. I wonder how descendents of these people feel about this movie today: is it a valuable document or another example of exploitation?

Director: Edward S Curtis

Camera: Edward S Curtis

Cast: Maggie Frank, Stanley Hunt

Run time: 40 Min

You can watch it for free: here.