Intrepid Shadows

Al Clah

Alfred Clah was an artist from a community outside of Pine Springs. As Sol Worth and John Adair never did a formal life history interview with Clah, we don’t know as much about his early life as we know about the other students. Similarly, there are no images of or by Clah included in the Worth Papers. We do know that at the time of the project, he was a 19 year old student at the Institute of American Indian Art at Santa Fe. There, he studied painting and sculpting, and he had watched around a hundred documentary films.

In an interview with Worth about Intrepid Shadows, Clah explained his identity as an artist,

Well, engineer, he just repeat things over and over, buildings and like that mechanics. But artist, he, his mind’s working. He wants to see this other things, he want to do these things. He doesn’t actually have to touch it, he just have to do it with spirit, uh, recapturing the image, on his pad. There he touch the world, like I touch, I mean, like, I make a portrait of you, there I touched the man’s face, throw it out. This is the face, I can’t say it, can’t describe this, you know, I can’t touch it. If I want to make a drawing of this, sure I touch it. By drawing I learn more the mass and the form, solid…Examines closely…I would never know this until I want to start taking apart and draw everything that…and I would, see this, and unscrew this, unscrew that, take that out, look in there. Things happen down there and I never saw it before. Then I could take the pencil and try to draw. Then I would understand more about the…reel (1).

Intrepid Shadows (15:00)

Johnny Nelson prods the “spider web” which Al Clah made for his film. Frame capture from “Intrepid Shadows.”

The Yeibechai mask Al Clah created for his film. Note the filmstrip motif. Screen capture from “Intrepid Shadows.”

Spinning hoop. Frame capture from “Intrepid Shadows.”

Description exerpted from Through Navajo Eyes (271-2).

“The film opens with a long series of shots showing the varieties of landscape around our schoolhouse. We see rocks, earth, trees, sky, in a variety of shapes but mostly in still or static shots. The shadows are very small or short. When we have familiarized ourselves with the things that comprise the “world” we see [Johnny Nelson] come walking into the landscape. He picks up a stick, kneels down, and begins to poke at a huge spider web.”

“At this point the tone of the film changes. Suddenly a hand appears rolling an old metal hoop. The hoop is cut in intermittently throughout the rest of the film, rolling as if propelled by unseen hands through the variations in the landscape. A Yeibechai mask appears in the film at this point, wandering and walking through the landscape seemingly looking for something.”

“The Yeibechai wanders behind trees, seen always through bushes, looking at the sky, looking in all directions, and is inter-cut in an extremely complex manner with continuing scenes of the landscape and of the legs and body of a person dressed in white.”

“As the Yeibechai mask wanders, the camera work depicting the landscape begins to change from static to complex circular, spiral, and almost indescribable movements. As the hoop, and then a rolling ball, and then the pages of a notebook turn and move faster and faster, so do the movements of the camera as they seemingly search along trees and rocks and bushes for whatever the Yeibechai is searching for.”

“Now the shadows in the film are long and some of the scenes are deliberately dark. Suddenly we see what is very clearly the shadow of the camera man walking through the landscape trying to lengthen itself, and merging with the various parts of the landscape, the rocks, the bushes, and the trees, until at the very end the shadow of the man is almost a hundred feet long.”

“There follows the last shot in the film, a long shot showing the shadow of the hoop whirling and twirling for almost fifteen seconds; suddenly in the corner of the frame the hoop itself appears, and as the spinning, which can now be seen as the hoop and its shadow, grows slower, both come into the frame so that at the very end we see the hoop spinning and the shadow that it makes. The film is ended abruptly.”


Why “Intrepid Shadows?”

Out of all the students, Clah was one of the most explicit about the symbolic meaning of his film. He wrote a poem which was intended as a soundtrack of the movie, which he read to the class,



wheeling around, and round, and round

Rusty shadows pushing outward and bursting into spin

leaving nothing but motion and time.

The wheel belt traveling into circle

letting its shadows marking it black highway between its weels.

Around, and around the wheel and the belt spins,

the intrepid shadows spinning.

The winds, nursing the treetops with little break-up puzzles of black shadows

dancing underneath its root

Dance, and dance of little pebbles

Bath, and not bath

as the black shadows dance.

I see big rocks

partially black

partially white

making my eyes recall the countless painted of grays and ochre whites

the archaic dance on the surface.


And drumming,

And singing of the ancient lore

Are heard in the distant forest.


On the ground I hear the intrepid shadows, 

Dancing (2).

[A recording of Alfred Clah reading this poem, discovered on full coat magnetic film by the Museum Film Archivist, can be found now on the DVD release of the film, as an optional addition].

In a later conversation with Worth, he explained his motivations for making the film:

AC     Oh yes, I had it in my mind all this time during the, when I was making the shots, people asked me why you make this shots and you have to explain it. All this time and I guess I tried anyway to make you understand it, or John understand, that he really got confused. Then I have to do it in a way so that you can understand it. Then I just chose an actor. There you saw it the little sequence that happened on the film.

SW    What do you mean? You mean that you were going to do the film another way, but you thought we wouldn’t understand it?

AC    It was so personal at first, at first, then I lay down during the night to think about it and was up in town and thought about it. Continued, this is continued ’cause it’s on my mind why and this…I was trying to figure out a way to make the whole film be understandable. Then I found the solution in Johnny. Said yeah, this is what I’m going to do. I’m going to do it my way. MY action, my actor.

SW    So actually you had the idea of the intruder and it was really you, and you were making a film about how it feels to be an intruder.

AC    um-hum.

SW    And you felt we didn’t understand that just from the shots you had already shot.

AC    Yeah, I was going to make you an intruder yourself.

SW    You were going to make me the intruder?

AC    The audience, and you to feel this and you…but I thought that was too complicated so I just have to get Johnny…

Later in that conversation, Clah explained more about the idea of the intruder,

The center is, was the story goes that that guy really intrudes, you know, intrudes and maybe he was the…intruder. Maybe why, whether he really did these things and what he got that reaction from the nature and the, what did that boy was there, cause that boy was there as a mysterious image that pushed this wheel out that made the kind of noise because he was there to intrude (3).

He also explained that Intrepid Shadows was a self-portrait:

Its a self-portrait, yeah. There you can begin to understand the self-portrait of an artist. He portrays himself with a new, with a new theme he’s learning. Like I’m learning this film. There’s no other way I can do it with this. And I can do it the other way too. With sketches, self-portrait and other…I can go back and forth uh, paint my families, my home, and paint myself when I was a little kid, what I have done. But it’s going to be just one motion, I have to paint so many paintings to me, portrait, my life, my feeling. Well this is my feeling  (4).

Clah also explained his use of the Yeibichai mask,

I’m not supposed to paint the Yeibichai faces. Sometime I make the mask, the people feel very strong about that. My own teacher says, it’s very strong, don’t over do it, just simplify and don’t put the everything in there. Just a little bit, that’s all. There I intrude the mask, the sacred mask. And people can’t understand this mask is very sacred, very ritual, then they ask me, how come you’re doing this. You know, you shouldn’t be doing this, you shouldn’t even touch these things. So there I thought about why did I do it. I am intruder. Then I find myself the intruder everywhere (5).


Clah was proactive about showing Intrepid Shadows. In 1967, he contacted Worth to ask for a copy of the film, with the intention of showing it to film clubs in Santa Fe. Worth wrote back to say that he had mailed the films. However, the 1969 correspondence between Worth and Clifford P. Wolfsehr, a public libarian in Oregon who got in touch on behalf of Clah, suggests that this copy never reached its owner.

Wolfsehr wrote to Worth to request a copy of the film because Clah wanted to present “a special program” in his community. While the correspondence between them indicates that Worth did send a copy, it is unknown whether or not this copy arrived or whether the program occurred.

Worth Showed Intrepid Shadows at Swarthmore College and at the Flaherty Film Festival in 1966, and in Washington, DC in 1967. No documentation has been discovered which suggests that Clah was informed about these screenings.

In addition, Clah’s 1967 letter to Worth reported that, “Evidently, quite a few people have seen my film, “Intrepid Shadows” in San Francisco. Of course, I was not there last year.” The meaning of this statement is unclear, but it could be inferred that Adair had shown the film at San Francisco state.

The film was also shown in 1980 at a panel discussion at the University of New Mexico, [Elizabeth Weatherford, National Museum of the American Indian].

The film was most recently shown in 2011, at the Navajo Nation Museum in Window Rock, Arizona (6).