Cultures in Transition Introduction

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From 1972-1976, Norman Miller led an ethnographic film project in five remote regions of the world funded by the National Science Foundation. He and a group of filmmakers created Faces of Change, a series of 26 films and textbook of essays and teaching materials. It was designed to bring attention to rural societies, some of which represented disappearing cultures. Themes included rural society and culture, education, economics and agriculture, role and status of women, and belief systems in each society. The purpose was to introduce students to foreign cultures which were in different phases of adaptation to their environments. The films were used in colleges and secondary schools in North America and Europe, and were remastered and reissued in 2017 by the nonprofit distributor Documentary Educational Resources (DER). Text material and critical reviews for teaching purposes appeared in the first decade of the project.   In 2010, the original negative and sound recordings were gifted to the Smithsonian Institution and made available to scholars and educational producers. The Smithsonian collection includes 188,000 feet of film (90 hours), 120 hours of sound recordings, detailed translations of all recorded spoken words (11 languages), and a collection of production research files, maps, camera and sound logs, and other materials from the expeditions.

In these films, and in the associated essays, you will see and read about villagers at work and play expressing themselves and exploring their own lives, their religious beliefs, and the natural environments in which they live. The films are arranged in a five-by-five format, a matrix covering five cultures and five themes. The locations were selected to portray the diverse ways that people have adapted to life in differing natural environments. The five themes were selected to facilitate comparability among the case studies.

The films, supporting essays, and teaching materials are available from many university media centers and as rentals through DER. The Faces of Change project contributed to the development of the fields of visual anthropology, observational cinema, and ethnographic film. The production history is contained in the Miller Collection at Michigan State University in materials archived under visual evidence and visual literacy, and project folders under visual anthropology (see Brief Guide).

Access to the entire film negative with subject indices to the material is available to the public through the Smithsonian Institution’s Human Studies Film Archives in Suitland, MD. Still photographs from the five film locations (Afghanistan, Bolivia, China, Kenya, and Taiwan) are available on their respective pages on this website.

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Summaries of the Faces of Change films can be found in the official booklet, and previews can be viewed on this website, organized by country. The films on women are available in full on this website (see Focus on Women)

Related Resources

A Note on Faces of Change, by David MacDougall (2015)

Visual Evidence: An Instructional Approach, a teaching guide to Faces of Change by Norman Miller (1976)

Whiting, Beatrice. “Faces of Change, A Series: Introduction.” American Anthropologist, vol. 79, no. 3, 1977, pp. 751–751.

For more background information on the Faces of Change project housed at the Smithsonian please consult the Brief Guide to the Norman Miller Archive.

Films on Women and Gender

Seven of Noman Miller’s Films out of the 28 he produced were specifically on women’s issues. Of the 26 films in the faces of change series, five are on women’s issues in Afghanistan, Bolivia, China, Kenya, and Taiwan. They were part of the series’s attempt to provide greater understanding of women within their specific cultures. (See 5×5 matrix above). 

Each of the five films were 15-17 minutes long and had a substantive film essay and a film layout for classroom questions and answers.

After these projects were completed in 1976, Miller produced a 44 minute film entitled “Women in a Changing World” with footage from the original faces of change series. This film was funded by the USAID in collaboration with the International Planned Parenthood Federation. On this website, it is made available in its entirety.

The final film on women was an educational documentary “Forgotten Farmers: Women and Food Security” produced by the Food and Agricultural Organization of the UN, created for the UN’s “Decade of Women.” The basic idea was if men would give women greater support in farm education, and greater ownership of land, the family food production would be greatly increased. The film is available here in it’s entirey. 

In addition to the 26 films in the Faces of Change series, Miller also produced and directed two other films: “The Forgotten Farmers: Women and Food Security,” sponsored by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, and “Women in a Changing World,” sponsored by the United States Agency of International Development. See Focus on Women.

DER: Distributor of Films and Essays.

The Faces of Change series is distributed by Documentary Educational Resources (DER). DER produces, distributes, and promotes quality ethnographic and documentary films from around the world. Founded by filmmakers whose collaborations reflected a lifetime of engagement and respect for their subjects, DER continues to foster cross-cultural education and understanding through documentary film.

DER blog post on the Faces of Change series