Sep 20, 2019

Climate strikes back.

With the 2020 Orphan Film Symposium being devoted to Water, Climate, and Migration, the Global Climate Strikes on the Fridays of September 20 & 27, 2019 are of course relevant to how we are now conceiving of audiovisual recordings of these phenomena.

The 1929 Fox Movietone News outtakes catalogued as If the Antarctic Icecaps Should Melt?  connect neglect media artifacts to the global moment in a potent and uncanny way. Here's a sample of the 10 minutes.

The University of South Carolina MIRC DVR provides the original Fox librarian's notation:  "'Scientists say gigantic frozen sea at South Pole could flood the world.' Cameraman visualizes what would happen if a tidal wave deluged New York. Statue of Liberty gets her toes wet. Even Times Square is submerged."

More on that footage at a later time -- and in 2020 a screening of full piece at the symposium.

For now we simply want to note the student-led Global Climate Strike.

At NYU Cinema Studies yesterday students, staff, and faculty agreed to participate, with the regular school schedule supplanted by time for the noon march from nearby Foley Square to the rally in Battery Park. The city itself has declared public schools will allow students to strike. And of course our NYC neighbors at the United Nations host the March 27 Climate Action Summit during the U.N. General Assembly, while the latest Dutch Klimaatstaking convenes in The Hague. In Amsterdam the September 20 event meets at Dam Square. The University of Amsterdam has endorsed the work of its Students for Climate as well as the 2018 open letter from scientists calling upon universities to do more to combat "human-caused climate change."

Student-led actions on the issue are not new of course. But the now of 2019 feels different, from mass media coverage of teen activist Greta Thunberg's transatlantic voyage to protests in the street to personal daily experiences with our local climates.

In addition to gathering to discuss issues and actions, we now also face dilemmas about how to gather. International conferences and festivals accustomed to assembling people from distant places are having to rethink participation. We have not solved anything, but recognizing the desire by many to reduce long-distance travel the call for proposals to the 2020 Eye International Conference and NYU Orphan Film Symposium welcomes alternative formats of presentation: "We can consider a limited number of (live) video presentations for those who either don’t fly or who want to fly less." Whether with old-fashioned Skype sessions or new interactive media presentation forms (3D holographic projection?), for better or worse, we are learning technological alternatives to bodily gatherings. When we can meet in person, so much the better.

Meanwhile, we continue our work mindfully (pardon the buzz word) and creatively -- and, we hope, with some pleasure.

Toward that end: Here's another example of the richness of orphan films that allow us to consider how the past informs our present.

From the Eye collection, a piece assigned the title Journaal (1926[?]) an unknown Dutch compilation of international newsreel items, including stories about water, climate, and migration: Snowstorm in Manhattan.  A costumed Native American posing on a city street (attributed with a Dutch dialogue intertitle with a film historical allusion: "Where did my white brother Karl May go?"). Swimmer Hélène Sude [who?] in an aquarium with a seal. Roald Amundsen after his flight above the North Pole. Opening the Sennar Dam on the Blue Nile in Sudan.

Instagram & Twitter: @Orphan_Films 

Sep 12, 2019

Call for Proposals: the 2020 Orphan Film Symposium, in Amsterdam

Call for Proposals (due by Nov. 19, 2019)

The 12th Orphan Film Symposium
-- Water, Climate, & Migration --
hosted by
the 6th Eye International Conference
23-27 May 2020
The biennial NYU Orphan Film Symposium returns to Eye Filmmuseum in Amsterdam, 23-27 May 2020, combining forces with the annual Eye International Conference to explore contemporary archival and academic debates. As always, both events assemble film heritage professionals, scholars, archivists, media artists, curators, collectors, filmmakers, and restorers, and others devoted to saving, studying, and screening neglected audiovisual media. Presenters selected from this open call for proposals will offer three full days and nights of talks and special screenings of rare and restored films.
This edition focuses on the urgent but perennial subjects of water, climate, and migration, by examining how neglected works have recorded, represented, and imagined these phenomena throughout the history of moving images.

We invite proposals to present talks and screenings that address one or more of these intertwined concepts. The symposium seeks a range of historical and theoretical perspectives. Proposals might address questions such as these:

Water. Why water? Because Amsterdam! Because everywhere. Water is essential to life itself but also has destructive, even traumatic power, through its flooding forces -- or its scarcity. Societies are shaped by their interrelationships with water -- the Netherlands being a most conspicuous and visible example.  For filmmakers, media artists, and documentarians, H20 has always been a subject with aesthetic attraction as well. What neglected films illustrate the significance of water in its many forms? 

Climate. How can the study of moving images inform our understanding of earth’s climate over time? of perceptions and collective imagination of climate? What films have tackled this subject directly? indirectly? How might media be used as evidence of historical climate change? Moreover, how are the practices and conceptions of preservation itself being reexamined in a time of climate change? What of the environmental impact on and of archives? And how does a growing awareness of living in an Anthropocene epoch alter our experience of watching historical audiovisual recordings of planet Earth, its atmosphere, landscapes, oceans, shores, cities, farms, flora, and fauna?

Migration – human, animal, other – remains a topic of news, policy making, political debate, scientific study, social analysis, and historical research. Humanitarian crises of migration are prevalent in current discourse but have been so throughout the history of mass media. What previously overlooked films and media recordings help us understand issues of migration and our engagement with them?

We of course also welcome proposals that address perspectives not mentioned here.

We also invite a variety of presentation formats: traditional illustrated conference papers; introductions to single films; performances, demonstrations, and interventions; and recent media productions using archival or found footage. We can consider a limited number of (live) video presentations for those who either don’t fly or who want to fly less.

Presenters selected from this open call will discuss and screen rediscovered or recently preserved films from collections and archives around the world. The event showcases a diverse array of rare orphan films – silent, experimental, nontheatrical, sponsored, independent, scientific, documentary, educational, newsreel, fragmentary, amateur, industrial, personal, incomplete, and other moving images from outside of mainstream cinema.

Presentations of 10 to 30 minutes will constitute most of the programming. We can also accept proposals for longer time slots if the running time of a compelling screening or the nature of a collaborative presentation warrant more than half an hour. Evening screenings (with short introductions) may allow for longer films, including features. We also may discuss with presenters appropriate alteration of a format or duration when this makes curatorial sense for the program as a whole.

How to apply
Proposals (500 words or less) for presentations should summarize the argument or rationale and identify AV materials by title, format, and duration. Include a short bio (50 words). E-mail a .docx attachment to Subject header: PROPOSAL for Orphans 2020.

Proposals received by 19 November 2019 will receive full consideration.

Travel Grant Program
Eye has established a travel grant program for speakers of the Eye International Conference. The grants, up to 500 euro each, can be used to partially offset registration and travel costs. To apply, please submit a brief essay (no more than 500 words) addressing the financial need for the award, as well as how attendance at the conference will contribute to your professional development. Email your application by 19 November to using the term “Travel Grant” in the subject header. The travel grant program is only open to speakers of the Eye International Conference 2020.

The Orphan Film Symposium begins with an evening screening on Saturday, May 23 (preceded by “Meet the Archive,” an afternoon public program highlighting recent projects from the Eye Collection). Three full days and evenings of symposium presentations and screenings, Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday.  “Orphans 12” attendees are also invited to special activities at the Eye Collection Centre on Wednesday 27 May.

This event is organized by Eye in collaboration with the Orphan Film Symposium, a project of NYU Tisch School of the Arts, Department of Cinema Studies, and its Moving Image Archiving and Preservation Program. + University of Amsterdam (UvA) and the Amsterdam School for Cultural Analysis (ASCA).
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Dan Streible

Sep 1, 2019

Around the World with H. T. C.

In response to my post of August 9, "Underground," archivist-historian and Orphans veteran Paul Spehr commented  about early advocacy for underground storage for film preservation. He began working in the Library of Congress Motion Picture Section in 1958, retiring as assistant chief in 1993.

          "In the early 1960s the LoC was presented with a collection of 35mm negatives of films shot by Herford Cowling for Burton Holmes for showing at the 1933 Chicago World Fair. Cowling had been a very early consultant on standards for storage of motion picture film --- going back to the 1920s and contributing to the establishment of the National Archives film archive in 1934-36. He was a very early advocate of stable cold temperature and RH.
           One of his very early recommendations was use of caves when proper vault space wasn't available. He had access to a cave near Luray Caverns, Virginia and had kept his films there -- and they were in the best condition I ever experienced."
     -- Paul Spehr, Orphan Film Symposium Facebook group, Aug. 10, 2019.

As it happens, Luray Caverns is only 40 miles from the bunkers that now house the Library of Congress National Audio Visual Conservation Center's film vaults in Culpeper, Virginia.

I was ignorant of Cowling's work, but an initial search of databases for his eminently searchable name reveals a remarkable career, both as a filmmaker who traveled the world and a preservation advocate who made a genuine contribution to film archiving. He shot hundreds of thousands of feet of film in the first four decades of his career. Some of it is archived, due to his work for government agencies. Much of it is scattered in private collections and archives. Some is identifiable (but not credited) in compilation films by others. Much of it does not appear to survive.

Herford Tynes Cowling (1890-1980) was born in (and died in) Virginia,  traveling the world as a photographer, cinematographer, film director, producer -- and freemason!  The book 10,000 Freemasons (Denslow, 1957) offers this bio: “Was chief photographer for U.S. Reclamation Service in 1906-1916 traveling extensively in U.S., Canada and Mexico. Headed cinematographic expedition to Formosa, Philippines, Indo-China, Siam, Tasmania, and South Sea islands, producing semi-educational [sic] movies in 1917. Was chief cinematographer for Paramount (Burton Holmes Travel Films). He has also been technical advisor for Eastman Kodak, official photographer of Century of Progress in Chicago, technical director for U.S. National Archives, Washington, chief of photographic services, Dept. of Labor. In 1922 was on expedition to East Africa, Uganda, Congo and The Sudan. Made movies in Tibet and was China war correspondent in 1924.”

Burton Holmes and Herford T. Cowling, Japan, 1917 © BHHC;
----  Cowling at the camera, with Holmes in Japan, 1917.
© Burton Holmes Historical Collection.

portrait of Herford Cowling
----  Image from Singapore Film Locations Archive, 

At the 2001 Orphan Film Symposium, Buckey Grimm's talk "Early Preservation Initiatives" included these additional details. In 1932, the Society of Motion Picture Engineers' first Committee on the Preservation of Film included Cowling, Carl Louis Gregory, and Terry Ramsaye. In 1934, the new Motion Picture Division of the U.S. National Archives hired Cowling. "Cowling’s expertise was well documented," Grimm reported. "His career began in 1910 as chief photographer for the Interior Department. In 1916, he made a series of travelogues called See America First for Metro Pictures, then was Technical Director for Eastman Teaching Films. He was a recognized expert in storage and handling of nitrate film." [Later published as  “A History of Early Nitrate Testing and Storage, 1910-1945,” The Moving Image 1.2 (2001).]

After World War II, Colonel Cowling remained in the U.S. Army Air Force, working at the film lab, as "chief of the Division of Photography, Technical Intelligence of Air Material Command at Wright Field, Ohio," no less. (Motion Picture Herald, Nov. 9, 1946.) Twenty years after he gave Spehr the films stored in his Virginia cave, the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, became the very location used as the Library of Congress Motion Picture Conservation Center.

The veteran film expert joined the Society of American Archivists in 1948. He was also a source for Hermine Baumhofer's essay "Motion Pictures Become Federal Records," in The American Archivist (January 1952). She recounts his work with the Interior Department. "Between 1912 and 1915 all areas set aside as national parks were photographed, the filming and editing being done by Mr. Cowling." His See America First series, he told her, consisted of 52 one-reelers released by Metro and Gaumont, "the first Government film to be distributed in this manner" (20). Expect to read much more about such work as film historian Jennifer Peterson publishes her latest research about films from the National Park Service.

What of the materials Cowling gave to the Library of Congress? Its online catalog has entries for books, films, and photographs credited to Cowling. Only four items are listed as part of a "Cowling (Herford Tynes) Collection." As Paul Spehr correctly recalls, these are gifts from Cowling dated ca. 1962, and associated with the 1933-34 Chicago fair, aka the Century of Progress International Exposition.
  • 1934: The World's Fair Black Forest / Burton Holmes Films (Kaufmann & Fabry Co., 1934)  16mm, 144 feet, ca. 4 mins.
  • 1934--Villages of the World's Fair, 16mm, 140 feet
  • A Century of Progress Exposition -- Indian village (Burton Holmes Films in assoc. with Herford T. Cowling, 1933) 16mm, 114 feet; 2 positive prints + duplicate negative.  
The fourth item stands apart: East Indian Island (Eastman Teaching Films, Inc., 1930?); Encyclopædia Britannica Films no. 1077 [ca. 1945]) 16mm, ca. 396 feet, silent b/w; + 35mm, ca. 990 feet, 2 reels, tinted, the latter an exchange copy from the George Eastman House. Stock footage licenser Periscope Film has An East Indian

However there are a couple dozen other films of 1933 the LoC catalog says Cowling made and/or donated. Most are from the Century of Progress Expo, such as The World a Million Years Ago, The Fair at Night, Sally Rand [fan dancer], Faith Bacon the Fan Dancer of Hollywood, The Fair from the Air, and Around the Fair with Burton Holmes no. 1 and no. 2.  Copies of some of the Holmes Century of Progress films that Cowling shot are online. (His name is never on screen.) The Fair at Night  (1933) is on travelfilmarchive's YouTube channel. Three versions of  Wings of a Century are posted from Prelinger Archives, including this 39-minute cut.

Here's the first Around the Fair film (1933). 8 min.

A minute of Sally Rand's nude fan dance is part of Streets of Paris (1933).

The Quarterly Journal of the Library of Congress (Jan. 1964) mentioned only that Cowling donated a "small collection of films made in Africa, India, and Southeast Asia in the 1920's" (62).

Other pieces are incompletely catalogued portions of Cowling's nonfiction travelogue work. Several are described curiously as "book," 16mm, such as
       * [Kashmir] [Motion picture] [n.p.] Herford Tynes Cowling, 1923. 
       * An Indian Durbar [Motion picture] [n.p.] Burton Holmes Lectures, 1926, a silent 1,200 feet lecture version and  a later, shorter sound version. "Shows the coronation of 'Maharaja Hari Singh of Kashmir,' March 1926."

A third version of the latter film circulates online, with a rare on-screen credit for Cowling, copyright by Eastman Kodak Co., 1927.
As recently as this month, YouTubers continue reposting this footage of the "last maharajah," with comments about the political, religious, and military conflicts over Kashmir. (As I update this post on August 16, news  outlets are reporting multiple casualties today in the disputed region following the Indian government's revoking the "special status" of Kashmir.)

Both Cowling's [Kashmir] and An Indian Durbar can be linked to fragments that survive elsewhere. Like other globetrotting camera operators of the era, Cowling shot footage that commercial newsreel services licensed or purchased. The University of South Carolina Moving Image Research Collections reference catalog lists Cowling as the camera operator for Fox newsreel footage originally described by a footage librarian as [Leopard] (three shots taken in 1923) and Coronation of the Maharajah of Kashmir (1926). Portions of both were used in theatrical newsreel releases that do not survive. In fact, the company hyped the footage in a puff piece by sales manager Fred Quimby: "Fox News Helps Educate the World," Exhibitors Herald, (Sep. 11, 1926). Without naming Cowling, he boasted of the newsreel's international reach, saying "a special emissary just emerged from the Vale of the Cashmere, near the Afghan border, where he succeeded in making pictures showing the almost fabulous and barbaric beauty and wealth of the land of the Maharajah of that distant spot." Other exclusive newsfilm from Cowling included 1924 coverage of warring factions within China.

Thus Cowling's images were widely seen even if he was not as well known as Burton Holmes.

A final note about the Library of Congress catalog's clues to Cowling's films, now orphaned or lost. The entry attributing Cowling as photographer is for 72 photographs on glass lantern slides from 1923. The assigned title is "[Tibet and Asian landscapes and people, includes mountain expeditions, travel on elephants, tiger hunting, Herford Tynes [sic] with dead tiger and posing with his camera]." These are described as unprocessed items in the Prints and Photographs Division, with the note: "Gift to MBRS [Motion Picture, Broadcasting, Recorded Sound]  from Col. Cowling. Photographs are probably associated with the filming of Burton Holmes' To the Roof of the World in Tibet. This catalog record contains preliminary data."

The note is curious in that Holmes filmographies do not include this title, nor any about Tibet. The lone reference I have found to this title is from International Photographer, April 1933.  A column by Herford Tynes Cowling, "Around the World, No. 1," features a page of his 1923 photos under the heading "To the Roof of the World in Tibet." Are some of these images also on the LoC lantern slides that have yet to be processed? Are these the only remnants of the companion motion picture? Was there a film by that title or was the footage only part of a Holmes travelogue lecture? (The George Eastman Museum houses a rediscovered Holmes collection acquired in 2004, listing 175 items. None mention Tibet or Kashmir.)

"This" 1923 venture "was the first moving picture expedition ever made into Tibet for the purpose of filming the people and customs of the country," Cowling claimed in 1933. He refers to "about one hundred thousand feet of film exposed which, incidentally, kept very well at the high, dry altitude" [in re: our subject of cold storage as film preservation]. "About four thousand still pictures were taken during the trip, all of which were developed en route."

Were these films the first ever shot in Tibet? Possibly. Certainly among the earliest. By the  end of 1923, another American returned from Tibet with footage he secured under even more adventurous circumstances. In our next blog post, we will review the somewhat legendary career of scholar William McGovern and his only film, To Lhasa in Disguise, released in 1924, later lost, but refound and restored in 2015.

The online, collected in New York by filmmaker and archivist Tenzin Phuntsog, lists only three pieces of extant film from the 1920s, and these are after 1923. In 1928, German scientist Wilhelm Filchner publicly showed some of the footage he shot during his 1925-28 stay in Tibet. His 1929 book, Om Mani Padme Hum [a Buddhist mantra]: Meine China- und Tibet-expedition 1925-8, claimed he shipped 20,000 meters of unprocessed film to Germany. (Was it the new 16mm format?)

 Cowling commented in his 1933 account:  "The people had never seen a motion picture and could only understand an ordinary photograph with considerable difficulty." 

Such a description of a Westerner’s first encounter with non-Westerners’ first encounter with movies resembles similar accounts of the period. Cowling had been doing such work since the 1910s, but this 1923 expedition came only a year after the release of Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North. As Flaherty and Cowling acknowledged, the communities they photographed participated in the labor of chemically processing the films and photos as they were shot. Cowling describes hiring dozens of Tibetans who made possible his four-month trek through the mountains via yak. Thus the contradiction in his account that Tibetans "could only understand an ordinary photograph with considerable difficulty,” even though teams in his employ helped process thousands of photographs.

McGovern's account of his 1923 trip to Lhasa contradicts Cowling's. His popular book To Lhasa in Disguise reported the Dalai Lama's chief aid made a hobby of "amateur photography," decorating this room with family photos.

The LoC online catalog offers only one photograph.

Cowling photo of Tibetans

The title assigned to it is [Lama with headdress and Caucasian man seated in front of nine boys and men, Tibet].  The "Caucasian" man is  Cowling himself. Who took the photo? or is that a shutter release cable in his right hand?

More important, what happened to the 20 hours of footage he shot in Kashmir and Tibet? and is there a film called To the Roof of the World in Tibet that might survive under different titles or within later film compilations?

The best photographic evidence comes from the International Photographer piece and his more contemporary account in American Cinematographer (Feb. 1924), "Photographing the Roof of the World," by "Herford Tynes Cowling, A.S.C."  The first page of this is missing from the online copy, but  the Long Island University Post library digitized its microfilm copy.  Here is some of the photo-documentation of H. T. C. at work with his 35mm Akeley movie camera.

"I believe I have secured the only existing films of this nature."

He contributed another short piece, "How the Pandita [Buddhist spiritual leader] Was Photographed," American Cinematographer (April 1925). He describes how Tibetan and Kashmiri workers helped him set up the movie camera and introduced him to the Pandita who gave permission to film people.

Pages harvested from 

Cowling Tiber

Cowling Tibet 1923

According to the Exhibitors Herald, the 1923 Tibetan expedition was facilitated by Hari Singh, who "later commissioned Cowling to officially photograph his coronation" in Kashmir -- "though it was to rest only in Sir Hari's private archives" ("Fame of A.S.C. Spreads," Sep. 4, 1926). Cowling published his own accounts of the coronation film as an elaborate work for hire. (“A Modern Ruler in the Vale of Kashmir,” New York Times, Feb. 27, 1927; “A Washingtonian Grinds the Camera as India Crowns a New Ruler in a Pageant Costing Millions,” Washington Post, Sep. 16, 1934.)

He'd taken other camera commissions, filming, for example, an elaborate 1924 hunting expedition in Nepal and India for the wealthy "Mr. and Mrs. W. J. Morden of Chicago." The New York Times and many others ran rotogravure spreads of Cowling's stills, including this one of him "photographing the slaughter of the tigers from the back of an elephant."

Cowling 1924 tiger hunt
Rotogravure Picture Section, New York Times, June 29, 1924.

He published his account in "Around the World, No. 2: Filming a Tiger Shoot in India," International Photographer (May 1933).  The column ran for six issues, then was reworked for a series in the Washington Post Magazine in 1934.

The question remains: what became of the motion-picture film he recorded on these trips?

His writings do not address the issue.

For most of the 1920s, Cowling traveled the globe, shooting for Holmes for seven years (1917-1923) and then for his own Round-the-World Travel Pictures. American Cinematographer often mentioned the travels of the American Society of Cinematographers member, who upon his return in 1929 served on the journal's advisory board.

When his globetrotting ended, Cowling returned to Virginia and federal employment in D.C. as a technical consultant on motion pictures (and microfilm) for the National Archives, National Parks Service, Bureau of the Census, the military, and other government bodies.

Returning to the relevance to orphan films about climate and migration: Even during his active shooting years he published technical advice about how film needed to be treated in cold and hot climates. See his article "Film Care in the Tropics," for example, in the August 1927 issue of Transactions of the Society of Motion Picture Engineers. That so much of his shooting took place in diverse geographies, recording landscapes, mountains, glaciers, rivers, islands, and jungles makes these films prime examples of how we might re-examine newsfilm, travelogues, and their unedited footage for what they captured of these places a century ago.

American and European travel films of that era are often noted now for their "bad" anthropology, xenophobic commentary, and photographic othering of people filmed in non-Western parts of the globe. Without Cowling's theatrical releases to examine, we cannot fairly analyze them. Certainly his brief written comments in trade journals and the press often resort to the word strange (and sometimes worse) to characterize the people and places he encountered in Asia, Africa, Latin America, and Pacific islands.  He never claims cultural expertise or anthropological mission. He was seeking spectacular scenes for American movie audiences, he says. His writings are often sympathetic to his subjects, expressing admiration for traditional or ancient cultural practices he observes. Cowling writes without judgment about the polyandry (he uses the word) and female-led communities he saw in Tibet.

Without trying to make the case for Cowling as an exceptional filmmaker or sensitive ethnographer, we might conclude by noting his public protest over Hollywood abuse of travelogue footage. He licensed his footage of Tibet and India for use in the RKO release India Speaks (1933), which lists him as one of three photographers in the credits. The movie intercuts genuine location footage shot by Cowling and others with fictional scenes staged in Hollywood, all narrated by travel writer and adventurer Richard Halliburton. The exploitation film presents India as a land of ritualized sin, orgies, crime, and violence. Cowling strongly objected to its misrepresentations. "They have taken scenes made in Burma, Java, Sumatra and other places and put them in Tibet and India with no regard for geographic truth." They took his tiger footage and "faked a fight between a lion and a tiger." He complained to the Federal Trade Commission, the Hays Office, and newspaper reviewers. ("Film Fakers," International Photographer, June 1933.) But the movie enjoyed wide release -- except in England and India, where exhibitors refused to show it.  A FilmIndia editorial complaining about misrepresentation of Indians in RKO's new Gunga Din (1939) recalled the rejection of India Speaks on the subcontinent, while "the rest of the world – the white world to be accurate – received the picture with enthusiasm," and "got through the American ‘keyhole’ a cock-eyed peep of India and her 'natives.'"

Can Cowling's footage of Tibet, Kashmir, and India be seen in India Speaks? It has long been listed as a lost film. But . . . just three months ago the Travel Film Archive, a footage licensing company, quietly posted 55 minutes from India Speaks. The 1933 release ran 78 minutes. TFA founder Patrick Montgomery, veteran of archival film collecting and licensing, bought 35mm prints of both Africa Speaks (1931) and India Speaks on eBay. A 1941 RKO reissue version, The Bride of Buddha,  63 minutes, survives as a nitrate print at the UCLA Film and Television Archive.

Indeed many of the shots of Tibetan locations, ceremonies, and lamaseries mirror the stills published as "To the Roof of the World in Tibet" (above). Perhaps Cowling disseminated these in April 1933 precisely because the Hollywood movie that desecrated his handsome footage was released that same month.

Other scenes in India Speaks match Cowling pictures of the 1926 coronation in Kashmir. Compare, for instance, this frame from India Speaks (left) to a Cowling photograph (right) the Washington Post (Sep. 15, 1934) used to promote his article about the coronation.

Finding other Cowling films will take time, but now we know that some of his most widely seen cinematography is no longer lost.

Watching India Speaks confirms why Cowling was so displeased with how his images were appropriated and exploited.

"The striking posters and exploitation material" boasted of in RKO's trade promotion further reveal how lurid and sexualized the images of India were.
India Speaks exploitation.     -- Motion Picture Herald, May 27, 1933.

"'Horrific' Film About India," ran the Times of India headline of April 11, 1948, when the American producer re-applied fifteen years later to London censors to permit exhibition of his self-described "horrific" documentary. (Reference provided by Navnidhi Sharma, who in a fortunate convergence is writing a dissertation on "a history of encounters between Indian cinema and China.")

-- Dan Streible
(updated Aug. 23, 2019, originally published at


• Michael R. Pitts, RKO Radio Pictures Horror, Science Fiction and Fantasy Films, 1929-1956 (McFarland, 2015) well describes the history of India Speaks, but deems it a lost film (as do Wikipedia and IMDb at the moment).
• While in China, Cowling was interviewed about his Tibet shoot and Nepal tiger hunt. (“With the Movie Camera in Farthest Tibet,” North-China Herald and Supreme Court, Oct. 4, 1924.)  He also recounted events in his own article, “In Tibet, Strange Land of Beauty and Ignorance, Women Rule 'The Roof of the World,’” Washington Post, Oct. 7, 1934. Upon returning to North America, he told of filming conflicts among Chinese military cliques, particularly those commanded by generals Wu Peifu and Feng Yuxiang in September-October 1924.  ("Pictured Actual Fighting Along Chinese Battle Fronts with 8,000 Feet of Camera Film;  H. T. Cowling Had Thrilling Experiences While Watching Chinese Factions in Warfare," Victoria [BC] Daily Times, Nov. 18, 1924.)
• The Travel Film Archive offers two other short films about Tibet, which could possibly include Cowling footage. The Unknown World"an expedition in the 1930's [?] to see the Dalai Lama" in Lhasa, Tibet. The title is another unknown one. The end credit, "A General Film Productions Corp. Picture," identifies this as a post-WWII nontheatrical edition for television. "Adapted by Tom Terriss" refers to the host of a film and radio travel series, Vagabond Adventures (1927-34), who developed postwar television content. I have found no evidence of a title The Unknown World in distribution in the 30s; much of the footage appears to be from the 1920s. Easier to verify is the travelogue Tibet: Land of Isolation (FitzPatrick Pictures, 1934), an MGM theatrical release. Although contemporary with India Speaks, most of the FitzPatrick footage appears distinctive. (Historian Peter H. Hansen assays: "Although it is unclear where the film was shot, the soundtrack is more Chinese than Tibetan in inspiration. . . a visual catalogue of many Western myths about Tibet." Hansen makes this indispensable 2001 essay “Tibetan Horizon: Tibet and the Cinema in the Early Twentieth Century" available for free download.)
• The Travel Film Archive lists 2,851 digital video items in its collection. Only one, An Indian Durbar (1926), is credited to Cowling.
• Where do TFA films come from? The website calls them "a collection of travelogues and educational and industrial films" shot on film between 1900 and 1970. Stock footage entrepreneur Patrick Montgomery began building this and other thematic collections in 2007.  Previously he created Archive Films, for a time the largest U.S. stock footage company until acquired by Kodak's The Image Bank in 1997 (which in turn was purchased by Getty Images in 1999).