Navajo Film Unit Plans, 1966

What follows are excerpts from Sol Worth and Richard Chalfen’s field notes which discuss their plans for the Navajo Film Unit.

Worth considered Johnny Nelson as a potential teacher:

If we are to think of the future of this innovation (whatever description we give it) we must think of those who are going to work it. I am thinking of the possibility of setting up a documentary and educational film unit here in Pine Springs. To make films for the Navajo and for the other tribes, and also to make films under contract for the BIA, USIA, and other educational and government organizations involved in communication.

When Johnny asked about working this weekend I told him that I would like to see how he handles the job of supervising the students for 3 days. I want him to keep track of his own time. Check out the cameras and film, and answer questions and guide the students while we are away over the July 4th weekend.

He said that this is what he wants the chance to do. I told him that…If I was going to recommend him to anybody higher up in Window Rock or in Washington, I had to feel sure that he could do the job…At this point I asked Johnny to evaluate the other students as potential members of a film unit that he would be in charge of under supervision from someone like myself or John Adair (1). 

Later, Worth reported that

“I also asked [Johnny] to tell me how he would conduct a class in filmmaking for Navajos. His major criticism was that there was not enough time. He would take seven months to do the teaching I did. He says he wants more lectures, more classes about the film “idea”. “I noticed that the other students had a hard time understanding the thing that you need an idea before you make shots” (2).

He went on,

I then explained [to JN] what a film unit would have to do, both training and research. Basically what I have in mind is this – A film unit based in an old barn or hogan in Pine Springs consisting of a director (perhaps Dick) on the premises – supervised by Adair and worth – in turn this director would supervise and train a Navajo director (hopefully Johnny Nelson). The unit would consist of 3 or 4 filmmakers. Dick Chalfen and John Nelson and Suzy Benally and Al Claw for example. Plus, to begin with, 4 assistants (apprentices) and 4 assistants who are paid who could become apprentices. This unit to be financed by something like OEO for film costs processing and salaries. NSF or NIMH would pay for the research (Dick, Adair, Worth) and secretarial, travel funds, etc. The BIA and the tribe would pay for equipment and permanent costs.

The unit would start with contracts for films that we use for educational and propaganda “documentary” purposes for the BIA and the tribe. These would be used for education in schools on the reservation. To branch out later with contracts for other tribes and other agencies of government and private sources.

The policy and organization, budgets and aims, to be determined by Worth and Adair bringing in the tribal authorities as soon as possible and with consultation by the director (Chalfen). The apprentice program to be administered by the NFU (Navajo Film Unit). This unit would serve as a research a summer training program for students from both Pennsylvania and San Francisco State in both anthropology and communications. It would be a field laboratory within a functioning cross-cultural communication innovation center and training unit (3).

 Worth considered Susie Benally as a potential teacher

I mentioned that one of the hopes that I had was that this project wouldn’t die when we left. We felt that additional motivation was necessary for Suzy, and so I suggested that if it were at all possible John and I would like to develop a project where the Navajo taught other Navajos to make films, and where the Navajo made films themselves for use by the tribe and the bureau in schools and with the Navajo people.

In effect what I was saying to Susie was that I wanted to see if she were a good enough teacher to teach Navajos in Navajo (5).

After this discussion with Benally, Worth wrote, “I am so delighted that John had this idea” (6).

In a later conversation with Benally, Worth discussed in detail both the idea of Benally as a film teacher and the financial advantages to making professional films. What follow are selections from that conversation.

Sol Worth interviews Susie Benally. B15FF5P1712-2


Sol Worth interviews Susie Benally. B15FF5P1712-19

Sol Worth interviews Susie Benally. B15FF5P1712-20

Sol Worth interviews Susie Benally. B15FF5P1712-21


Next Steps

After laying the groundwork for the Film Unit, researchers refrained from discussing (or at least writing about) it for the next four years. The next available information surfaced in John Adair’s 1970 correspondence with Worth.