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The Wonderful World of Albert Kahn (series); titles: Men of the World; Europe on the Brink; The Soldiers’ Story; The Civilians’ Story; Europe after the Fire; Middle East: The Birth of Nations; Far East: Expeditions to Empires; The End of a World

Distributed by Films Media Group, PO Box 2053, Princeton, New Jersey 08543-2053; 800-257-5126
Produced by Saskia Baron
Director n/a
DVD, color and b&w, 52 min. each DVD
College - Adult
Anthropology, European Studies, Film Studies, History, Middle Eastern Studies, Photography, Sociology

Reviewed by Rebecca Adler Schiff, College of Staten Island, City University of New York

Highly Recommended  Highly Recommended   
Date Entered: 12/17/2009

Coming upon the astonishing riches of the Albert Kahn Archives at this rather late date, the riches now copiously before us, courtesy of the BBC, in the format of nine autonomous DVD's one more fascinating than the next, a media librarian is bound to ask, "Why wasn't I told?" Then again, perhaps some librarians were told. The archives are indeed unique, invaluable. The 72,000 color photographs, 4,000 stereoscopic black and white stills, and 100 hours of film footage shot and stored contain, among other treasures: the first color photographs taken in Tokyo, circa 1908; the first color photographs taken in India, circa 1913; film of the devastation of the European landscape in the aftermath of World War I; film footage of the French involvement in Lebanon, circa 1919; film footage of Lord Balfour receiving an honorary degree at the inauguration of Hebrew University in Palestine, 1925; the first filming of a Voodoo ceremony in Dahomey (now Benin), Africa, 1935; intimate filming of the Gypsy community in Saintes Maries de la Mer; images of the grueling life of French fishermen as they fish in the treacherous Atlantic off the Newfoundland coast.

The first color images of Manhattan’s New York’s Plaza Hotel, circa 1908, dazzle. Pictures of San Francisco after the 1905 earthquake stay in the mind. Seen from a panoramic distance, a caravan of camels and elephants traverse the remote Khyber Pass. Film footage of the colonial empires in French Indochina, Africa,and India, and of Imperial China are of inestimable historical value.

The execution and compilation of this extraordinary visual record of people, places, practices, and events we owe to the French Jewish banker/philanthropist/pacifist Albert Kahn (1860-1940). Following a business trip to Japan in 1909, inspired by and taking advantage of the invention by the Lumière Brothers of an early technique of color photography called autochrome (which he had already experimented with on his earlier voyage to the United States), Kahn initiated a project whose purpose was to assemble a photographic inventory of human life at the beginning of the 20th century. Labeling the project Archive of the Planet, Kahn for more than two decades sent out a team of unusually gifted cameramen using the latest camera equipment to Japan, China, India, North America, Africa, and the Middle East. The images obtained not only depicted ceremonies, landscapes, and architecture but also the intimate details of the everyday life of vanishing cultures – cultures changed by industrialization, nationalism and the ravages of war. An internationalist and pacifist, Kahn optimistically believed that documenting humanity in all its diversity in over 50 countries would promote a worldwide pursuit of peace—a quest to be met by as brutally murderous a century as the world had ever known. In the same cruelly ironic outcome, Kahn himself went bankrupt in the Crash of 1929 and lived only long enough to see his beloved France defeated and occupied by the Nazi invaders. The nine part series (but each DVD can stand on its own) seamlessly weaves contemporary footage along with the archival record and presents commentary by academics, experts, and descendants of some of the persons depicted in the archive. The entire mesmerizing series comprises an indispensable must for any and every university library.