Folksonomy and films

(Time travel with film archives)

Orange juice stand, Watson Kintner Collection F16-0014

Though the Penn Museum has many different film collections, the everlasting 16mm Kodachrome films of  Penn graduate Watson Kintner (1890-1979) have to be the most gratifying in that they keep revealing new elements and finding new audiences at every turn. Though understood to be amateur travelogue films, what one immediately notices is Kintner’s interest in the folkways of work. In the 30 countries he visited, as far-flung as Iran and Niger, he managed to record people doing things rarely seen in film, (whether amateur or professional documentary) that is, much that would have seemed quite ordinary in its day. In small towns far from tourist destinations he seems to have delighted in filming the craftsmen, laborers and farmers doing their work in ways different to what he knew in Lancaster PA. Then with a detailed Engineer’s mind he took careful notes of where things were filmed and what he thought he was observing, leaving voluminous records on little index cards. Though a small collection of Kintner’s papers are available at the University Archives and a few more at the Lancaster Historical Society, there do not seem to be diaries or journals, so very little can be learned of the man, his motives or inspirations.

In my work as an archivist for the Penn Museum, few things have given greater pleasure than finding out that the films we have restored, digitized and sent out into the ether, when discovered are deeply significant to people.

 YouTube is often considered to be an unfortunate corner of the internet, and often with good reason, this is because comments can be left anonymously, and so rage, ranting and angry tangents are rife in many cases. However, in this case we can see that Kintner’s films of the Everyman have been returned to the Everyman by a mechanism that he could never have predicted. In addition to this inherent value, we all benefit in this form of folksonomy in that we are able to add much richness to the cataloging of the films, sometimes to the extent of adding personal names to people spotted in the old films.

Lady in market, Oaxaca, Watson Kintner Collection F16-0014

In 2020 at the first pandemic shut down, we started to notice a steep rise in views of the Kintner Mexico films online. The comments under the films were heartbreakingly beautiful, they spoke of the longing for home, places across the border that migrant workers in the US were unable to reach. More recently the Penn Museum Youtube channel reached an astonishing 14 million views. We have written in the past about the  tremendous popularity of collected films of Ecuador and Peru but the great interest in the Mexico 1930s films by Kintner made us stop and wonder: what is it about these travel films that is connecting with people? By reading the comments section of the most popular one (which alone has nearly two million views) and takes place in Oaxaca and Hidalgo states in 1939, it became clear whom the audience is. Almost all comments are in Spanish, with some indigenous words peppered in, and made mostly by indigenous Mexicans, writing about what they see of their parents’ hometowns, cultural history, their thoughts and feelings, which offer much to our own appreciation of the films, as you may read in the following comments.

Gelacia Hernández  2021

Mi abuela en 1970 vestía con faldón largo (nagua), y sobre él, un delantal estampado a cuadros pequeños, un atuendo casi idéntico al de estas mujeres, igual se cubría la cabeza con chal. En 1970 mi abuela tenia aproximadamente 72 años, osea que en 1939 debió ser una señora indígena de mediana edad, esa tradicional forma de vestir perduró por muchos años. Efectivamente esa generación vivió los estragos de la etapa porfiriana, la revolución, la guerra cristera, etc. y si, ella nos contaba de la pobreza, el machismo, el abandono de las comunidades indígenas. Lamentablemente aún hay lugares en esas condiciones. Doña Agustina era morena, delgada, y caminaba muy derechita con gran dignidad, nunca se encorvó, era hñahñu y también hablaba español. Guisaba pocos platillos, pero deliciosos, su especialidad las salsas en molcajete, los quelites, las calabazas y los frijoles de olla. Hermosa época que viví con ella en el Valle del Mezquital, por el estado de Hidalgo.

My grandmother in 1970 wore a long skirt (nagua), and over it, an apron printed with small squares, an outfit almost identical to that of these women, she still covered her head with a shawl. In 1970 my grandmother was approximately 72 years old, [which] means that in 1939 she must have been a middle-aged indigenous woman, that traditional way of dressing lasted for many years. Indeed, that generation lived through the ravages of the Porfirian period, the revolution, the Cristero war, etc. And yes, she told us about poverty, machismo, the abandonment of indigenous communities. Unfortunately, there are still places in those conditions. Doña Agustina was dark, slim, and she walked very straight with great dignity, she never stooped, she was Hñahñu and she also spoke Spanish. She cooked few but delicious dishes, her specialty being the molcajete sauces, the quelites squash and pot beans. Beautiful time that I lived with her in the Valle del Mezquital, in the state of Hidalgo.

[author/date not recorded]  Yo tengo 60 años y mi papi 90 y nosotros vivíamos asi todo el campo sagrado era para nosotros que bendiciones ahora lo entiendo

I am 60 years old and my daddy 90 and we lived like this.  The whole sacred field was for us –what blessings now I understand

Leticia Cobarrubias  (2019)

Horale que interesante antes la gente ya viejecita pero bien derechitos y su vista buena  ahora por el celular  ya muchos jóvenes muy jorobado y con lentes de tanto cel

How interesting before the old people [were] very upright and their eyesight [was] good now on the cell phone many young people [are] very hunchbacked and with glasses

[author/date not recorded]  Porque no encontre estos videos hace unos 7 o 8 años? Se los hubiera enseñado a mi papa, el nacio en 33 y se la pasaba contandonos de lo hermosa que era la ciudad de mexico hasta los 50s jaja. Hace 6 años fallecio el y neta que me voy a siempre quedar con ganas de disfrutar estos videos juntos; me lo imagino reconociendo sitios o contandonos anecdotas suyas en tal o cual lugar; le hubieran encantado. Tal vez estoy diciendo tonterias peros siento que es de esas memorias perdidas que puediron ser… Perra vida, ya estoy moqueando. Gracias por los videos

Why didn’t I find these videos about 7 or 8 years ago? I would have shown them to my dad, he was born in ‘33 and he kept telling us about how beautiful Mexico City was until the ‘50s haha. He passed away 6 years ago and the truth is that I will always have wished to enjoy these videos together; I imagine him recognizing places or telling us his anecdotes in this or that place; he would have loved them. Maybe I’m talking nonsense but I feel like it is one of those lost memories that could have been..Life is a bitch, now my nose is running. Thanks for the videos

Read more: Folksonomy and films

[author/date not recorded]  Mis abuelos son de Jalisco y ellos también usaban las chinas de palma para protegerse de las lluvias. Ellos también vivieron una vida campesina con calzón blanco, camisa de manta, faldas, rebozo, zerapes, chiquihuites, y petates etc. Muy bonito nuestro méxico

My grandparents are from Jalisco and they also used palm kerchiefs to protect themselves from the rains. They also lived a peasant life with white pants, a blanket shirt, skirts, shawls, zerapes, chiquihuites, and mats etc. Our Mexico is very beautiful

[author/date not recorded]  Wow este vídeo me traes muchos recuerdos de mi niñez, con mi  mamá  vendiendo pescados con el chiquicuiete signica canasto, y todo el lago era tan bonito que mucha gente se reunía para ir a nadar 😢 todo se está acabando tuve una niñez con mucha pobreza pero éramos felices con mi madre ya que mi padre murió hace muchos años muchos niños sin zapatos así fue mi niñez tengo 45 años gracias por este tesoro de vídeo

Wow, this video brings me many memories of my childhood, with my mother selling fish with the little chiquicueite, which means basket, and the whole lake was so beautiful,  many people gathered to go swimming 😢 everything is ending I had a childhood with great poverty but we were happy with my mother since my father died many years ago, many children without shoes that was my childhood I am 45 years old thank you for this video treasure.

Christopher Vazquez  (2021)

Está genial esta película tomada en la década de los años 30’s, pero evidencía que en México ya había mucha desigualdad social y pobreza, la gente común andaba descalza, viviendo en chozas, muy precariamente, y si lo comparamos con hoy, la situación ha cambiado muy poco, a lo mejor la gente tal vez tenga un poquito más de cosas, pero seguimos en el hoyo en materia de índice de desarrollo humano, estamos atrasados cerca de 80 años con respecto a otros países desarrollados, es triste ver cómo México ahí va paso a pasito hacia el desarrollo, pero muy lentamente.

This film taken in the 30’s is great, but it shows that in Mexico there was already a lot of social inequality and poverty, ordinary people went barefoot, living in huts, very precariously, and if we compare it with today, the situation has changed very little, maybe people may have a [few] more things, but we are still in the hole in terms of the human development index, we are about 80 years behind other developed countries, it is sad to see how Mexico goes step by step towards development, but very slowly.

Liberio Escriba (2020)

Mi abuelo paterno tenía como 11 años. Fue a esa edad que se quedó huérfano de ambos padres y quedó al cuidado de sus padrinos. Ya falleció, no era de Pátzcuaro, pero sí era Michoacano, del mérito Huetamo. Ojalá pudiera mostrarle ésto para hacerle recordar y que comparara. Recuerdo que de niño conocí varias partes de Michoacán y hasta fuimos a Janitzio. Ese día él estaba emocionado porque llegamos y estaban bailando “los viejitos”

My paternal grandfather was about 11 years old. It was at that age that he was orphaned by both parents and was in the care of his godparents. He has already passed away, he was not from Pátzcuaro, but he was from Michoacan, [distinctively from] Huetamo. I wish I could show him this to make him remember and make comparisons. I remember that as a child I knew various parts of Michoacán and we even went to Janitzio. That day he was excited because we arrived and they were dancing “the old men” [dance]. 

victor velasquez  (2020)

Me da escalofrio este video de tanta emocion

This video of so much emotion gives me chills.

Benjamin Amaya Belmares (late 2021)

Amo el canto del cenzontle pájaro de 400 voces, amo el color del jade, y el enervante perfume de las flores, pero amo más a mi hermano, el hombre”. Nezahualcóyotl

 “I love the song of the 400-voiced mockingbird, I love the color of jade, and the unnerving perfume of flowers, but I love my brother, the man more.” Nezahualcóyotl

There are definitely some critical comments, questioning the interest of Kintner and any other outsider for their motive for filming what they saw.

Marely 2920 Ramos  (2019)

Pues los estadounidenses les interesa más nuestra cultura qué a nosotros como mexicanos.

Americans are more interested in our culture than in us as Mexicans.

And speaking of an earlier era, before chain stores and globalization:

Apolo Erdes (2020)

Es raro ver a México sin ninguna aparente influencia norteamericana

It is rare to see Mexico without any apparent North American influence.

Comments about the appearance of the natural world and what has changed over time:

[author/date not recorded]  Nunca en mi vida me imaginé que vería la isla de janitzio en su mejor época cuando aún había vegetación y apenas se empezaba a poblar.

Never in my life did I imagine that I would see the island of Janitzio at its best when there was still vegetation and it was just beginning to populate.

[author/date not recorded]  Orale definitivamente otro mundo, las personas se ven muy tranquilas, la  vestimenta  se nota los grandes canastos, el ambiente sano, esperemos pronto volver a esos tiempos cuando todavía no nos invadía  el plastico.

Pray definitely another world, the people look very calm, the clothing shows the large baskets, the healthy environment, we hope soon to return to those times when we were not invaded by plastic.

[author/date not recorded] Que estos vídeos nos ayuden a hacer conciencia de que los años no regresan, y debemos cuidar la naturaleza ,la fauna y la flora como los grandes tesoros de todo México,no permitamos que por ningún motivo la fábricas sigan contaminando nuestros ríos o las mineras sigan contaminando o las pedreras nosotros somos pueblo y el pueblo manda

May these videos help us to become aware that the years do not return, and we must take care of nature, fauna and flora as the great treasures of all Mexico, we do not allow factories to continue polluting our rivers or mining companies for any reason polluting or the quarries:  we are the people and the people rule

Athena D Marco  (2020)

Ese río es el río Atoyac ,dónde se iba a pescar, a lavar, a beber agua… Y ahora solo es un río contaminado por los dueños de los fraccionamientos, ahora la gente ya grande solo se lleva los recuerdos de lo felices que erán y si lo sabían…

That river is the Atoyac river, where they went to fish, wash, drink water … And now it is only a river contaminated by the owners of the subdivisions, now the elders only carry the memories of how happy they were and if they knew it…

Some of the viewers saw the footage as a moment to affirm indigenous pride and resistance.

Alex Mora  (2019)



WoioW oioW  (2021)

Muy sierto, mi familia en San Luis Potosi, por ejemplo me explicaron que extranjeros vinieron y destruyeron nuestra fuentes de agua y cascadas, buscando petrolio, no encontraron nada, y asi se fueron. Destruyeron fuentes de agua que tomo miles y miles de años por hacer y jamas regresaron, y ni un perdon por destruyir nuestra cosecha de la comunidad. El govierno mexicano tambien son unos malvados. Jamas confiar en nadie que no se indigena porque jamas entenderan la tristesa que vivimos.

Very true, my family in San Luis Potosi, for example, explained to me that foreigners came and destroyed our water sources and waterfalls, looking for oil, they found nothing, and so they left. They destroyed water sources that took thousands and thousands of years to make and never came back, and not a pardon for destroying our community harvest. The Mexican government is also evil. Never trust anyone who is not indigenous because they will never understand the sadness we have lived.

Hugooor Rr (2020) 

Mi Mexico indígena, llevando  el pasó apresuradamente y todos realizando una actividad, con un sentido de cooperación.Hombres cargando bebés y mujeres cargando grandes bultos. Este si es el Mexicano que nos ocultaron, haciéndonos creer que éramos ignorantes y flojos para  controlar y así robar.

My indigenous Mexico [everyone] hurriedly walking and doing an activity, with a sense of cooperation: men carrying babies and women carrying large bundles. This is the Mexican that they hid from us, making us believe that we were ignorant and lazy in order to control us and thus rob us 

Weweee Greming (2019)

 @Gurnero Battlefury  así es absolutamente te dot la razón pues mi mama y mus tías son del edo. De oaxaca y de niños nunca usaron zapatos los hombres algunos usaban huaraches mi papa en la mixteca poblana tampoco usaban zapatos y conecto el argumento de los que comentar con al respecto, no había dinero, y el trabajo era escaso y mal pagado y mantener a 10 a  12 chilpayates era un desembolsé de dinero si en estos tiempos fuese, en aquel entonces era un desembolsé de lágrimas de sangre, trsitesa, humillaciones, ya que eran mal tratados por los capatases, y los dueños de las tiendas, y los policías se paraban en el camino para robarles a los indígenas oaxaqueños, con el argumento de que había que pagar un impuesto al ayuntamiento eran una época triste y no había caminos era usado el tren nada más t si no había que caminar diaz diaz , no había tanto peligro de la delincuencia eso si hay que decirlo

Weweee greming  @Gurnero Battlefury that’s absolutely right because my mom and my aunts are from the state. of Oaxaca, and as children they never wore shoes, the men some wore huaraches, my father in the Puebla Mixteca also did not wear shoes and I connect the argument of those who comment in this regard, there was no money, and the work was scarce and poorly paid and to support 10 to 12 chilpayates [kids]  It [drained] your money to live in these times, at the same time, shedding tears of blood, sadness, humiliations, since they were badly treated by the foremen, and the owners of the shops, and the policemen blocked the way to rob the Oaxacan Indians, arguing that a tax had to be paid to the town hall, it was a sad time and there were no roads, the train was used otherwise you would have to walk days and days, there was not so much danger of crime that must be said.

The following reflects knowledge of local history which Kintner as a visitor may not have been aware of

  • author not recorded (2019)

He llegado tarde, no sabía de la existencia de esta cinta. Agradezco infinitamente la memoria fotográfica que narra  la vida del pueblo de Oaxaca. Mi padre me contaba de esas épocas y reflejaba en sus pupilas mucha tristeza y  melancolía, recordaba sus raíces. Esta cinta todavía denota la destrucción del terremoto de 1931, que destruyó gran parte de la ciudad y que redujo la población a la tercera parte.

I was late, I did not know about the existence of this tape. I am infinitely grateful for the photographic memory that narrates the life of the people of Oaxaca. My father told me about those times, reflected in his eyes [was] a lot of sadness and melancholy, remembering his roots. This tape [sic] still denotes the destruction from the 1931 earthquake, which destroyed much of the city and reduced the population by one third.

Perhaps the most stirring comment is this one, which has inspired more than 1100 replies, all supporting and expanding on her thoughts.

silvia gaitan  (2019)

Los viajes a través del tiempo, sí existen. Las personas de éste video, inconscientemente y sin pretenderlo, viajan al futuro. Y nosotros, por medio de la tecnología actual y gracias a la aportación de nuestro excelente camarografo, podemos viajar al pasado, tan claramente, que podemos ver, sentir y casi tocar a las personas que vivieron su momento y sus actividades cotidianas en ése tiempo. ¡sin duda, un maravilloso viaje en el tiempo! Esas personas, nunca se imaginaron, ser observados en sus actividades cotidianas, con tánta claridad a través de tánto tiempo…

Time travel does exist. The people in this video, unconsciously and unintentionally, travel to the future. And we, through current technology and thanks to the contribution of our excellent cameraman, we can travel to the past, so clearly, that we can see, feel and almost touch the people who lived their time and their daily activities at that time. Without a doubt, a wonderful journey back in time! These people never imagined that they would be observed in their daily activities, with such clarity after so long a time ..

And finally…

Su padrastro (2019)

No se que lugar sea pero esta hermoso mi  México lindo y querido si muero lejos de ti que digan que estoy dormido y que me traigan aquí gracias por el video nos hace retroceder y viajar en el tiempo .

I don’t know where it is but it is beautiful, my pretty and dear Mexico. .  If I die far from you, let them say I am asleep and have them bring me here. Thanks for the video, it makes us go back and travel in time

To see the amateur films by Watson Kintner that inspired these comments,, and read more comments please visit:

Mexico 1939 Reel 4 of 6 F16-0014 [might be 1940] this is the most popular one this is the most popular one

Mexico [1940] Reel 1 of 4] by Watson Kintner (the date for this one was revised after comments were made on the timing of building construction in the town, as well as a movie poster, released in 1940).

Mexico 1939 Reel 5 of 6 by Watson Kintner   F16-0015 [might be 1940]

Mexico 1939 Reel 6 of 6 by Watson Kintner F16-0016 [might be 1940]

The best place to view Kintner films and search locations by country is in the Watson Kintner collection at the Internet Archive. Film copies may also be downloaded at this site for your personal collection.

Note that the films were digitized under a special project organized by the Penn Museum Archives together with the Internet Archive. Several years later Mike Condiff of the Penn Museum suggested exporting the films to Youtube, he deserves full credit for this idea.

The author wishes to thank Alessandro Pezzati, Senior Archivist of the Penn Museum for translation assistance but on a deeper level for appreciating film archives and making this work possible.

Adios, Watson Kintner Collection F16-0015

One response to “Folksonomy and films”

  1. This article is excellent because, among other things, it suggests how scholars can use YouTube viewer comments in research. I will point this out to students in the future, regarding creative research methods.

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