I recently came across a YouTube channel, the Travel Film Archive, with over 300 short videos featuring archival footage from around the world, from the city streets of Trinidad, 1938, to the Ituri Forest in Africa, 1929; from the New York subway, 1905, to the Sahara Desert, 1953, or Sri Lanka, 1932. Much of the footage is silent, with only title frames to describe the location or action, but some is accompanied by documentary style voiceover. One James A. Fitzpatrick, something like the Rick Steves of his day, is a frequent narrator.
The footage itself, along with the commentary, is a fascinating glimpse into the past, a window on how people lived 60 or 90 years ago. We see bits of fading or vanished cultural practices in their local context, from a time when they were still real: Native Americans in Idaho in full feathered regalia, participating in a drumming ceremony; Australian Aborigines painted in white stripes, throwing boomerangs; Alpine Germans carving wood and staging the Passionsspiele; young Tahitian women dressed to pass as their French colonizers; life in a Sinhalese village, when coconut was king and people remained happily unfettered by excessive clothing.
Though the commentary will strike the modern viewer as naive, amusing, or poorly informed about the world (perhaps even offensive), one can't also help but be impressed by the boldness of those who endured the foreign climates and conditions, huge heavy cameras in tow, to learn something about other peoples and produce what's clearly meant to be a mind-expanding educational experience for the millions back home, who would never in their lifetimes have opportunity for such adventure themselves. The power of such films to transport us and bring us the mysteries of the world today is damped by the ubiquity of images and information. But I imagine that in their day, these gems must have gone some way toward enriching the lives and minds of their viewers.
The collection also provides a window on how Westerners (mostly Americans, here, it seems) thought of Others in those days, how little they saw as they looked on so earnestly. What struck me generally, as I watched and sampled many videos, was the way that things have changed as much as they have remained the same.
The full range of videos is definitely worth perusing. Here are a few random highlights that may be of interest to readers of this blog: