Letter to the Editor
28 September 2006
Barry Bergman, in his Sept. 21 article "Schlock today, dissertation tomorrow," did an excellent job of explaining the importance of the Berkeley campus Media Resources Center. But I wish to clarify statements made in the article about the work of Martin and Osa Johnson, some of whose films are included in the MRC's archives.
Their commercial movies do reflect the period and biases of the 1920s and 1930s, and certainly can be criticized from our modern perspective. However, it is important to look at their work in total rather than just a couple of their commercial movies. The Johnsons, who shot about a million feet of film, spent years of their lives working in the South Pacific, Borneo, and east and central Africa. They pioneered documentary-film techniques and inspired generations of filmmakers and field zoologists.
In particular I disagree with the statement that the Johnsons produced "'exploitation ethnographies,' partially staged pseudo-documentaries...." Perhaps this statement can be applied to other filmmakers of the time who largely filmed captive or zoo animals and spent little time in the field. The Johnsons' films, however, are a significant historic and ethnographic record.
Further, movie titles like Congorilla and Baboona reflect studio pressures that, for good or bad, influenced their work. Documentary films (then and now) are affected by the same funding, editorial, and audience challenges that impact all films.
For more information, please visit www.safarimuseum.com.
Conrad Froehlich, Director
The Martin and Osa Johnson Safari Museum