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Faculty Member's Film Named to National Film Registry

By Sue Wuetcher

Release Date: January 12, 2007

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Sarah Elder's 1988 documentary about Alaska's Yup'ik Eskimos has been added to the prestigious National Film Registry.

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- A documentary film co-directed by University at Buffalo faculty member Sarah Elder has been added to the prestigious National Film Registry as part of a select group of films that includes "Rocky," "Blazing Saddles" and "Halloween."

"Drums of Winter: Uksuum Cauyai," a 1988 documentary about Alaska's Yup'ik Eskimos co-directed by Sarah Elder, UB professor of media study, focuses on the rich tradition of the Yup'iks' music, dance and spiritual world, and attempts by missionaries to suppress them.

Also among this year's 25 selections on the Library of Congress List are "Fargo," "Groundhog Day," "Notorious" and "sex, lies and videotape." The number of films honored by inclusion in the National Film Registry now totals 450. They include Hollywood features, documentaries, avant-garde and amateur productions, films of ethnic and regional interest, and animated and short-film subjects.

A place on the list ensures the film will be preserved under the terms of the National Film Preservation Act. Twenty-five films are selected each year by the National Film Preservation Board.

A professor in the Department of Media Study in the UB College of Arts and Sciences, Elder has worked in Alaska for 25 years collaborating with native Alaskan communities. Her documentary career focuses on the ethics and the challenges of filming across cultural boundaries. Working with Kamerling in the 1970s, she pioneered a community-collaborative approach to ethnographic film in which the people who are filmed share in the filmmaking decisions and determine the film's themes, events and topics. Throughout her career, she has explored this community-collaborative process with indigenous people in both her documentary practice and theoretical explorations.

Elder's work has become a recognized model for documentary media, serving both native Alaskan communities and the wider independent documentary world.

"The annual selection of films to the National Film Registry involves far more than the simple naming of cherished and important films to a prestigious list," said Librarian of Congress James H. Billington, who makes the annual selections. "The registry should not be seen as 'Kennedy Center honors,' 'the Academy Awards' or even 'America's most beloved films.' Rather, it is an invaluable

means to advance public awareness of the richness, creativity and variety of American film heritage and to dramatize the need for its preservation," he said.

"The selection of a film recognizes its importance to American movie and cultural history, and to history in general. The registry stands among the finest summations of more than a century of wondrous American cinema."

Despite preservation efforts by various organizations, films are becoming "an endangered species," Billington noted. It is estimated that 50 percent of the films produced before 1950 and 80-90 percent of those made before 1920 are gone forever.

He said more and more films are lost each year to nitrate deterioration, color fading and "vinegar syndrome," which threatens the acetate-based stock on which most motion pictures have been reproduced.

Congress established the National Film Registry in 1989 to ensure that motion pictures "survive as an art form and a record of our times," Billington added.

"Drums of Winter," which Elder co-directed and co-produced with Leonard Kamerling, has received numerous national and international juried awards. Among them are the First Prize at the 1989 American Film Festival; Third Prize at the Ninth International Festival of Ethnographic Film held in 1998 in Nuoro, Italy; three first prize Bronze Eagle awards -- for Best Feature Documentary, Best Documentary Directing and Best Cinematography -- at the 1996 Native Americas International Film Festival; and Best of Festival at the Third International Arctic Film Festival.

Elder's films have won two Awards of Excellence from the American Anthropological Association, and for many years she has served on the board of the Society for Visual Anthropology. She has received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Ford Foundation, the Alaska State Council on the Arts, Aperture magazine, Atlantic Richfield Corp. and others.

They have been showcased at the Museum of Modern Art, Cinemateque Francaise, the Freiburg Film Forum, Musee de L'Homme, Arte TV in Europe, the Smithsonian Institution, the American Museum of Natural History and the Field Museum.

In 1995, the Institut Lumière in Lyon, France, honored Elder as a distinguished filmmaker, inviting her to show her body of work and speak as part of the 100-year anniversary celebration of the Lumière brothers' invention of cinema.

A UB faculty member since 1989, Elder received a bachelor's degree from Sarah Lawrence College and her MFA in film from Brandies University.

Elder continues to do research and media production in Alaska and keeps a small log cabin outside Fairbanks.