Julien & Sam Bryan and the
In Krakow, Poland, 1974
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The International Film Foundation was begun by photographer, writer, and cameraman Julien Hequembourig Bryan in 1945. Born in Titusville, Pennsylvania in 1899, this son of an elder in the Presbyterian church became fascinated with stories told of other lands by traveling missionaries. At seventeen, just graduated from high school, he joined the American Field Service for the French Army in W.W.I, driving an ambulance in Verdun and the Argonne, and wrote a book illustrated by his photographs, Ambulance 464 (Macmillan, 1918). After the war, he graduated from Princeton and attended the Union Theological Seminary, chose not to be ordained as a minister, and instead directed the workings of a YMCA in Brooklyn, NY, which allowed him to pursue one of the two themes (sociology) that would eventually meld together with his passion for travel to form the basis for the founding of a film foundation. While traveling, Bryan would shoot footage, often selling it to various film companies, among them ERPI. In 1932, having returned from Russia with outstanding film records of the people of the Soviet Union, began a series of lecture tours throughout North America.
Critics have occasionally maligned Bryan for ‘sugar-coating’ the soviet existence, and have suggested that the fully-stocked store shelves documented in his films were made that way by the authorities solely for propagandistic purposes on account of the presence of a US-based filmmaker. Sam Bryan emphatically denies this. As one of the few filmmakers allowed relatively free reign by the authorities, he celebrated the ethnic diversity of the country and emphasized the complexity of the evolution of a nation from a feudal state to a modern one, focusing on its human element in the process (Peoples of the Soviet Union [Revised], 1952). In 1939, Bryan found himself to be the only neutral-country reporter left in Warsaw when the Nazis began their brutal three week Blitzkrieg attack on the city, and still having 6,000 feet of film left after a trip to Switzerland and Holland, documented the fighting, misery, and courage of the population of the city, which would eventually result in a book as well as a documentary film by the same title (Siege, Pathé’ Pictures, 1940), the latter of which would be nominated for an Academy Award, losing on the technicality that it had not yet been shown in public theatres.
In August, 1940, President Roosevelt created the Office of Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs (CIAA) to foster social understanding in the western hemisphere, to be led by Nelson Rockefeller (a good friend of Bill Benton at EB, incidentally), who hired Bryan to make a series of films on Latin American culture and customs. These films were shown in narrated versions to schools throughout the US during the war years, and their success led the State Department to contract Bryan with making five similar films on the US. In turn these were translated into forty languages for foreign distribution as a means of explaining aspects of the culture of the people of the United States. It was this latter group of films that was brought to the attention of David and Ella Mills, whose New Jersey-based Davella Mills Foundation was seeking an educational project to combat war.
In 1945, Bryan was given a three-year grant of $300,00 to start a non-profit film foundation for the purpose of creating greater understanding between the peoples of the world. He was also instrumental in assisting Emily Jones in her mission to found the Educational Film Library Association (EFLA) by providing the organization rent-free space and paying her salary in the formative months. Joining the filmmaker on a free-lance basis in ly 1943 was Philip Stapp, an outstanding animator and filmmaker (Boundary Lines) who stayed at IFF for two more decades. Throughout the late 1940s and 1950s, the IFF would continue to produce ethnographic and world documentary films (e.g. Sampan Family, dir. William James, 1949) exceptional for their adherence to standards of respect and appreciation for cultures differing greatly economically and socially from that of many of the schoolroom viewers in North America.
In the 1960s, in an effort to free ethnic subject educational films from being perceived as travelogues, Bryan would begin to move away from narration to a large degree, feeling that extraneous influences --- narrators, study guides and ambient light in the classroom included --- took away an important part of the magic of the film experience itself, thereby negatively affecting the learning experience. In addition to fine in-house productions (Amazon Family, d. Francis Thompson, 1961 portraying a serengueiro rubber gatherer), one of the most positive outcomes of this philosophy was his decision to distribute the work of German filmmaker Hermann Schlenker. Creator of fascinating glimpses of daily activities in non-urban settings, his work included the eleven-part 'African Village' series from Mali including Building a House: Bozo People, (1967), the five-part Pacific Island Life filmed in Melanesia, eight films of the Makiritare Indians of the Orinoco River, and fourteen shorts made in Badakhstan, Afghanistan.
In 1960, Julien's son Sam joined IFF and made his first film Ancient Africans (1966), which, in addition to the younger Bryan's fine camera work, featured Philip Stapp's animation and Athmani Nagoma's powerful narration (filmmakers would not always use native speakers in the search for verisimilitude: Bill Deneen, using a high-pitched Japanese accent, narrated his own Japanese Boy: the Story of Taro in 1963). Stapp, whose importance as an important film animator is under-appreciated, also occasionally directed films, and his First Americans: Some Indians of the Southlands (1976) is a good indicator of his highly stylized technique. In the mid-1960s, future children's author and Caldecott-winner Gerald McDermott began taking over some of the in-house animation responsibilities as well, and also distributed his own films (Stonecutter, and Sunflight) through IFF as well.
Julien Bryan passed away on October 20, 1974. Since that time, the foundation has been operated by Sam Bryan, who continues to distribute IFF titles in video format.