Not a hoax! “Matto Grosso” and “The Kid”

February 7, 2011

Missing sibling film re-united with Matto Grosso: The Great Brazilian Wilderness (1931)

Three weeks ago you were introduced to Tari, the cute Bororo boy who appears in one of the Penn Museum’s films.  He also had a starring role in his own short film, which was only recently rediscovered.  You will be able to see this film during the Penn Museum Scholars lecture series, next Wednesday, February 9, at 12:30 pm.

Here is the story of the discovery of the film:

The Penn Museum’s Archives was honored in early November, 2010 to host a group of international film and sound archivists for a reception to celebrate the restoration of one of the Museum’s most interesting films, Matto Grosso: The Great Brazilian Wilderness, (1931).

The great significance of Matto Grosso in film production history is that it is likely the first documentary, and definitely one of the earliest, to have used synchronized sound-on-film recording in the field.  The team recorded the voices of São Lourenço Bororo onsite, which is certainly the first recording of a non-European, indigenous language, on film.  RCA’s variable area Photophone system was used for the sound recording on site.

In the exhibit of photographs that Alex Pezzati, Senior Archivist, and Kate Pourshariati, Film Archivist, laid out for the event, was included a post-script about a second small film produced by the expedition, apparently long lost, featuring Tari, a Bororo boy.  From production stills and newspaper accounts, we learned that the film was to be titled The Kid.  However, intensive searching for this prodigal film yielded no information.  The only known film from around that time called The Kid was made by Charlie Chaplin, and was clearly not our film.

Shot from "The Kid" motion picture: Tuca and Tari. Mato Grosso, Brazil, 1931. Penn Museum image #27454

Touring around the exhibit with our friend and colleague, Pam Wintle, Director of the Human Studies Film Archives, Smithsonian Institution, we had a eureka moment, the film archivist’s equivalent of uncovering a long buried archaeological site.  A look of profound chagrin crossed Pam’s face as she read our captions about The Kid – a character-driven movie in the style of Robert Flaherty’s classic Nanook of the North – which tells the story of a kid in an Amazonian village in Brazil.  Pam said “I hope you will not be upset with me; I think we might have your film. Can we turn on a computer?”  Five minutes later amidst much whooping and carrying on, it was clear that the HSFA had in their collections a film titled The Hoax (1932) (see here their catalog entry) apparently renamed sometime in the post production process.

Shots from "The Kid" motion picture: group around fire, Tari holding lizard. Mato Grosso, Brazil, 1931. Penn Museum image 27452

by Kate Pourshariati and Alessandro Pezzati