A Super-8 Film from 1974 Finds Its People

November 27, 2017

Last summer, through a lucky set of connections, including introduction to the Museum’s new South Asia Curator Kathleen (Kathy) Morrison, the Museum was able to reunite the anthropologist Christine Padoch with a single camera roll of super 8 film that she shot in 1974 in Malaysian Borneo. Senior Archivist Alex Pezzati located the film rolls quickly, in the yet unprocessed records of Bill Davenport. When Christine soon after came to visit the Museum, Kathy, Christine, and I were able to look at the tiny Super 8 Davenport films through a (typically) rickety viewer. We were able to identify the only one she made, and then had it digitized thanks to the generosity of lab technician Rick Lombardi.

Kathy & Christine take a break from trying to see the tiny film. (Photo by Author.)
A hand holding the diminuative S8 film reel
Super 8 film and rickety viewer typical of S8 gear. (Photo by Author.)

The film contains a record of a Gawai Kenyalang ceremony, made in Nanga Jela, a renowned village/longhouse on the beautiful Engkari River in the Malaysian state of Sarawak on the island of Borneo that was later flooded to create a hydroelectric dam.

The Gawai Kenyalang ceremony, or Hornbill Feast, is a major ritual once associated with warfare that is celebrated when a villager has a dream directing him to stage the ceremony. At the very end of the ritual a tall pole with the carved effigy of the Rhinoceros Hornbill is erected.

“The people of Nanga Jela are Iban, the largest ethnic group in Sarawak” notes Christine, who lived there for several years in the mid 1970s, learning about Iban agriculture and how people related to the forest.

“Why the Rhinoceros Hornbill, or Kenyalang, is the bird represented in the wooden effigy that is honored and raised high during the Gawai Kenyalang is obscure. In Iban traditions the Kenyalang is not the ‘king’ of birds; the Lang, or Brahminy Kite, a bird of prey and the earthly form of ancestral hero Lang Singalang Burong, holds that rank. Nor is the Kenyalang one of the seven important ‘omen birds’ of the Iban. The Hornbill or Kenyalang, however, welcomes Lang Singalang Burong to this most important of ‘gawai’ rituals or ceremonies.

A Kenyalang is carved from a special tree and the Gawai Kenyalang itself may only be held in response to appropriate dreams or omens that come to a very senior Iban. Once, this person would have been a particularly celebrated warrior and the ceremony held to commemorate major victories or accomplishments in war. More recently, the individual owning the Kenyalang is still a person of considerable accomplishment, but no longer victorious in war. And the Kenyalang raised on the pole does not, as in past times, point toward a vanquished enemy, but still serves as a sign of leadership and honorable deeds.”

What follows is a short clip from the film:

People of Nanga Jela are now spread far and wide, with some in a resettlement site near the dam that destroyed their village, and others as far as the United Kingdom and oil rigs in the sea. By connecting via social media and email, Christine, together with several Iban colleagues, have virtually reunited people with many of her original slide images and now the single known film record of their community living space (the long house) and the Kenyalang ceremony–in a sense, a living record of a place which no longer exists.

A more detailed account of this story and what has happened since will appear in the Fall 2018 edition of Expedition magazine. In the meantime, you can read an earlier article by Christine Padoch published in Expedition in 1988.

  • Here is a note that we later received from Itin Langit, formerly of Nanga Jela:

Dear Christine, Kate, Kathy and Rick,

I am Christine’s friend and originated from Nanga Jela Village/Longhouse. On behalf of Nanga Jela Village’s folk, I would like to thank you so much for forwarding to us the Gawai Kenyalang video. It is not an easy work to identify, capitalize and retrieve back the video which was taken about 43 years ago by Christine. At that time I was 10 year old boy and should be appeared in the video because I was present at that ceremony occasion. Many of the people in the video I still could identify and recall, but most of them now have passed away (so sad). 

At the moment I believe only few Nanga Jela folks have seen the video. I am sure later on many would be able to see it and give their feedback.

Once again, billion thanks to all of you for the great video. 

Thank you.


Itin Langit.