I had heard of the Johnsons long before I saw any of their films. When much of the world was still relatively unexplored, this husband and wife pair traveled to the interior of Africa and to remote tropical islands photographing the natives and wildlife. A fair number of their later documentaries survive, but little remains of their early work. Around four minutes of miscellaneous clips thought to be taken from one of their first films, Among the Cannibal Isles of the South Pacific (1918), was all that was believed to survive of the footage that they shot during their exploration of the New Hebrides (present day Vanuatu).
A few years ago, I acquired a print of a silent documentary that was definitely about cannibals and was likely a complete copy of Among the Cannibal Isles of the South Pacific. The trouble was that it’s a 16mm safety print, made probably in 1930, and is in a severely advanced stage of decomposition. When I got it, the first dozen feet were a crumpled mess and so brittle that it would disintegrate if any attempt was made to flatten it. The rest could not be removed from the reel at all – the film base, as it broke down and shrank, became stuck to the emulsion of the film beneath it and the whole reel had essentially fused into a solid block of cellulose diacetate.
By any conventional measure, the film was unsalvageable, but I wasn’t ready to give up. I began soaking the film in naphtha to improve its flexibility. It stayed in its bath for two years before the film base was pliable enough to unwind without breaking. Then began the slow process of separating the film where it had become fused together. This was done manually, with the aid of a thin blade and a lot of patience. A year later and the film was off the reel, and so long as it stayed submerged in naphtha, it was in a stable enough state to be scanned. And scanned it was. Some sections look like you’re watching the film reflected on a shattered funhouse mirror, but not an inch was a total loss.
The film follows Osa and Martin Johnson as they travel through the “Cannibal Isles” (Melanesia is the preferred term nowadays) in search of Nagapate, the chief of the Big Numbers tribe (so the film calls the Big Nambas tribe). They say that two years before, on their previous expedition, they were taken captive by Nagapate’s headhunters and were only saved by the timely arrival of a British patrol boat. Along the way, they meet several other tribes, including pygmies (probably the Kiai) and one where the natives mold the heads of their babies into cone shapes (surely the Small Nambas). Eventually, they find Nagapate, who remembers their previous visit and greets them hospitably. The Big Numbers tribe begin a traditional dance – undoubtedly to frenzy themselves in preparation for a headhunt, the Johnsons say – and the filmmakers take that as their cue to leave. They’ve pre-arranged for the governor of the New Hebridies, Merton King, to meet them in his boat and he arrives right on time.
Robert Flaherty, the Johnsons are not. They’re adventurers in the classical sense, not ethnographers. As a documentary, Cannibal Isles is not overly concerned with the natives’ cultures or traditions and it doesn’t hide the fact that it’s all staged. The Johnsons are more interested in dragging natives (sometimes literally) in front of the camera and presenting them with some bit of Western culture to see how they’ll react to it. Much fun is made of the two men who try to eat a proffered cigarette.
Is it a good film? No, but it is an interesting one. Beneath the surface, there are some fascinating glimpses of Melanesian culture from a time when they actually were headhunters and did still practice ritual cannibalism. Based on that alone, I’m going to have to say…
My rating: I like it.
Available from Harpodeon