Artefact of the Month

Narrow-Gauge Motion Picture Cameras in Ethnographic Field Study

November, 2018



A desire on the part of staff at the Hungarian National Museum’s Ethnography Department to record films of a type and quality useful for scientific study emerged early in the institution’s history.  As far back as 1914, the department requested a quotation for the purchase of an Ernemann 35 mm camera, though the acquisition never went through, probably for financial reasons.  The earliest footage in the Museum of Ethnography’s Film Archives was shot by Sándor Gönyey in 1932 using his own 16 mm Keystone camera.  Later, in 1941, László K. Kovács purchased a Bolex 16 mm camera for use by the Erdélyi Tudományos Intézet [Transylvanian Institute of Science] and during the war, used it to shoot a large quantity of ethnographic footage in Transylvania.  Though most of the spools he recorded were destroyed at the end of the conflict, he did manage to save his Bolex, which he continued to use once the war was over.  The folkdance documentaries Kovács filmed during the late 1940s are currently housed in the Museum of Ethnography’s Film Archives.
Because the 16 mm medium enabled producers to shoot moving pictures at a much lower cost than was possible with the wider standard 35 mm film, 16 mm cameras spread very quickly among documentary filmmakers and amateur moving picture enthusiasts.  Cameras of this type were first introduced by Eastman Kodak in 1923, but soon found competition in the form of the Bolex 16 mm of Kiev-born engineer Yakov Bogopolsky.  In 1935, the Swiss Paillard-Bolex company began marketing the H16, a model the company continued to improve upon until as late as the 1970s. 

In addition to its original Paillard-Bolex (manufactured, according to its serial number, in 1953), the  Museum of Ethnography also owned two later H16 Reflex cameras, one of them furnished with an electric motor.  The first spring-drive Bolex cameras used spools of first 15, then 30 metres and allowed for 30 seconds of exposure per winding.  A reel of 30 metres permitted less than three minutes of recording time.  The spring-driven version of the camera weighed 2.5 – 3 kg, with later motorised variants weighing considerably more.  To produce ethnographically authentic footage with such devices required a thorough familiarity with both the limitations of the technology, and the events, locations, and players involved.

One filmmaker who met these criteria was Lajos Boglár, a Hungarian ethnologist and former Museum of Ethnography staff member born in Sao Paolo, who for the duration of his carrier studying South American cultures, considered film documentation an important part of his work.   Boglár had learned the ropes of filmmaking in the 1950s, in the early years of his career.  In 1958, he founded a film group known as the Chaplin Amateur Studio in order to teach himself the required skills in the company of friends. 

His first short films – concise etudes on topics of ethnographic interest, though with certain fictional elements, as well – were produced using a spring-driven Bolex as preliminary runs for his fieldwork in South America.   Boglár also shot practice footage on ethnographic topics in various parts of Hungary:  in the Tiszád woodlands, where he documented the production of a special type of dugout boat, and in Mátraalmás, of interest for its lumber industry and ladies’ carnival customs.   The films in question are all currently found in the Museum’s film archives.

In 1959, Boglár conducted his first real field project among the Nambikwara people of Brazil, producing black-and-white footage using a spring-driven Bolex.  His next trip, which examined the Piaroa of Venezuela, took place in 1967 and 1968.  This time, he was accompanied by ethnomusicologist István Halmos, who produced sound recordings in parallel with the ethnographer’s filmmaking enterprises.  The considerably heavier electric motor-driven camera Boglár took with him for the job enabled him to film longer sequences both in black and white, and in colour.  The result was a pair of films:  The World of the Piaroa (MAFILM Népszerű-tudományos és Oktatófilm Stúdió, 1968, 20 minutes), using the former medium, and The Shaman’s Necklace (Museum of Ethnography, 1968, 18 minutes), using the latter.  Later, Boglár made a number of additional films among the South American Piaroa, the Brazilian Guarani, and the Wayana of French Guiana.

The Museum of Ethnography’s motor-driven Bolex camera remained in use as a museum documentary tool until as late as the 1980s.  All three of the institution’s Bolex motion picture cameras currently reside in its History of Technology Collection.

Judit Dorottya Csorba


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