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First screening of 1937 film 'Borneo' in Asia here today

Published on: Sunday, September 30, 2012

Kota Kinabalu: The 1937 film "Borneo" will be screened for the first time in Asia on the last day of Borneo Eco Film Festival (BEFF) here today (Sunday).

Borneo is the ultimate adventure movie of married couple, Martin and Osa Johnson, the world's pioneer documentary filmmakers.

The screening of the film is made possible by collaboration between Martin and Osa Johnson's Safari Museum in Kansas, United States, and funded by Sabah Museum and Sabah Society.

The black and white film is 75 minutes long and will be screened at 5pm at the Sabah National Department of Culture and Arts Complex auditorium.

Martin died in a plane crash in Burbank, California, on his way to Hollywood for film narration and final editing of Borneo.

Osa was seriously injured in the accident. As a result, their close friend, a writer called Lowell Thomas, provided the full narrative of the film.

Hence, although the images are of what the Johnsons captured of Sandakan and Kinabatangan in 1935, the script is not but put together by Lowell in a hurry to get the movie out.

Osa, who survived the crash, decided Borneo would be her "last adventure" because she no longer wanted to travel without Martin. Osa died in 1953 and they had no children.

Notes about their travels to Borneo - they also came to Sandakan in 1920 and spent four months in the Kinabatangan - were discovered in 1961 when plans were underway to build a museum in their name in Chanute, Kansas.

A copy of the images of their two visits in 1920 and 1935 were handed over to the British North Borneo colonial administration but are believed to have been destroyed in the war. Many of their images of tribals and wildlife were converted into North Borneo stamps.

Research by Daily Express Chief Editor James Sarda, who was tasked to help in the restoration of the Agnes Keith House in Sandakan in 1997, resulted in tracing their work back to Kansas. It came about quite by accident when James came across a chapter in Agnes Keith's classic "Land Below The Wind" in which Agnes devoted an entire chapter called "Visitors" to the Johnsons.

The museum's Curator Jacky Borgeson followed up on James' work and soon collaborated with the Sabah Museum's Stella Moo to retrieve these images. As a mark of gratitude, the Safari Museum also gave James special permission to collaborate with Universiti Malaya historian Prof. Dr Danny Wong to put out a coffee table book on the images called "Spirit of Borneo." It was published by renowned publisher Irah Publications.

Among the images that were recorded in Borneo is the peak of Mount Kinabalu. The aerial photographs were taken for the first time and their travels down the Kinabatangan River using canoes and rafts.

The Johnsons also brought the audience into the rainforest with amazing wildlife images - the orang-utans, flying snakes, 'walking' fish and the first recording of Proboscis monkeys.

The Johnsons also explored Africa, the South Pacific Islands besides British North Borneo (now Sabah). Both Martin (1884-1937) and Osa (1894-1953) hailed from Kansas. Martin began his career as a member of the famous expedition writer Jack London.

The couple married in 1910 and earned their income through photography and roadshows showcasing their work.

In 1917, the pair launched their own adventure by visiting the Solomon Islands. They then began to make their mark in the world in the silent movie documentary making. The first successful silent movie was called "Cannibals Of The South Seas" in which the couple had to make a quick escape from real cannibals. They then ventured into British North Borneo ( Now Sabah in Malaysian Borneo).

The result was Jungle Adventures (1921) which is recognised as the world's first wildlife documentary and shot entirely in the Kinabatangan.

Footage of this movie still exists. Some 160 metres of images taken while filming this is with the US Library of Congress.

The Western audience learned about exotic Borneo only after seeing this movie. Not only did the couple become the first to fly across the interior of Borneo, Osa also became the first woman to fly an airplane across the South China Sea - from Kuching to Labuan and then across the Crocker Range to Sandakan. The plane they used was specially commissioned by Igor Sikorsky, the founder of Sikorsky Corporation, that makes planes to this day.

The Johnsons told Igor they needed a plane that can be dismantled and then put together to be flown again. Hence he came up with an amphibian model that they used first in Africa and then in Kinabatangan in their second 1935 trip.

It was the first time that the Muruts and Dusuns in the Kinabatangan had ever seen a metallic flying bird and many were afraid to approcah it when it landed on the Kinatangan.

A base camp was set up near Abai and was called Johnsonville, but more commonly known as Camp Abai. While there they also captured the largest orang utan in Borneo whose head was three times the size of a human and had extraordinary strength. He was transported to the New York Zoo where it became a novelty and once even bent the bars of the cage, according to a report in the New York Times.

From the camp, Martin and Osa continued the work they left off in their previous visits and began to explore deeper into the forest. The expedition was successful and resulted in three films - Borneo, Jungle Depths of Borneo and Jungle Calling.

During the 14 months of their stay in Sabah, they shot thousands of feet of film and still images of wildlife, social life and civilisation in Kinabatangan.

In addition to Borneo, several other films will also be screened before BEFF is brought to a close on Sunday night.

The BEFF is an annual programme to celebrate Borneo eco-cultural diversity through film screenings environment and foster the art of movie making in local communities. For more information, visit beff.org.my.