American Anthropologist John Marshall spent almost 30 years filming the !Kung people of the Kalahari desert in Africa, and one of the products of that lifetime of research is this hour-long documentary — on which editor Adrienne Meismer gets a co-director credit — about the life of one !Kung woman, starting at around age 8, just before her marriage. Overall, Nǃai, the Story of a ǃKung Woman (1980) is an archetypal ethnographic film, a format which Marshall is credited with pioneering: Through its hushed proto-NPR format, it observes daily life and rituals, and stops just short of explicitly idealizing the culture it depicts or advocating for corrective action, though there are unmistakable whiffs of both throughout.
While any 60-minute edit of 30 years of complicated history and transition is going to be accused of reductionism, and Marshall may be criticized for imposing a colonial perspective on the !Kung story, N!ai largely narrates her own story, recalling her early childhood, her contentious marriage, becoming a parent, and the changes forced on the !Kung and other San tribes as their region of Africa became subject to European colonization and its modes of economic and technological progress. This format allows as much as romanticization and complaint as N!ai's own self-narrative provides, with little introspection. Marshall doesn't appear to white-wash the more challenging aspects of !Kung life, particularly the subject of child marriage, which gets ample treatment. N!ai freely relates her resistance to marriage, her many infidelities, and, later, her daughter's similar issues — which provoke a domestic fracas that would not be out of place on the TV series Cops. N!ai even comes off as a little bit of a diva, at times, with her neighbors accusing her of hoarding resources while she claims to be unjustly targeted by those who are jealous of her status as the focus of the documentary.
While interesting for its general anthropological value and depth of access, what seems to be lacking from Marshall's film is any sense of broader curiosity or contrarianism against the banal fetishization of primitive cultures that we take for granted because of movies like Nǃai, the Story of a ǃKung Woman (1980). Its serious and sensitive veneer is practically immune to critical approach. Movies of this tone and with its director's credentials (and the imprimatur of its debut on PBS) are meant to be accepted as a kind of bland "educational" wallpaper suited for the middle schools classrooms of 40 years ago. Today, of course, this movie would likely be banned from schools for its scenes of adolescent child nudity and graphic hunting violence against giraffes. I'd be more interested in exploring the !Kung culture's potentially larger and less polite conflicts with modern ideas about progress and sustainability and the allocation of resources, as well as many other regulated baseline standards of contemporary life, but that's too unruly for something this mildly informative and, by nature of its assumptions, congratulatory to its white audience for being so "worldly."