Appointed as curator of to the Moravian Regional Museum in Brno in 1920, František Pospíšil was an ethnographer with special interest in sword dancing. He was also a keen photographer, became an enthusiast for the new medium of 35mm movie film, and dedicated much time and expense to record sword dances for posterity. He started documenting Czech sword dances in 1907, and filming them from 1922.
In terms of ethnographic documentary film, Pospíšil was a pioneer and exact contemporary of the American cinematographer Robert Flaherty, who filmed the documentary Nanook of the North in 1922 and is usually credited as the progenitor of ethnographic film.
Pospíšil started travelling at his own expense to present his collections to international ethnography conferences from 1924. It was at these conferences that Pospíšil first learned that sword dances were not a Slavic tradition, as he had previously believed, but a pan-European phenomenon. He also met Abraham (‘Aby’) Warburg, the Jewish-German art historian, founder of the Warburg Institute and fellow enthusiast for sword dances.
Warburg encouraged Pospíšil in his research, inviting him to visit Goathland to visit the newly revived Goathland Plough Stots and film their longsword dance. Some of his photographs are shown below:
With the backing of Warburg, Pospíšil was invited as a guest speaker to an international ethnography conference in Hamburg in 1927, and also to the Folklore Society in England, where his research would challenge accepted views:
“Last week more letters arrived from England. The president of the Folklore Society has invited me to show my films on sword dancing at the Jubilee Congress. Many members from all over England will come to London, who believe that sword dancing is English and do not accept that there is any in Eastern Europe. This could be very interesting.”
Cecil Sharp, having published his three volume set The Sword Dances of Northern England, was informed in 1913 of similar dances in the Basque Country. Told about these by Sharp, Violet Alford visited the Basque sword dancers, and invited them to demonstrate their dance at international meetings. Pospíšil thus became aware of them, and visited the Basque Country to meet the sword dancers from the small town of Iurreta near San Sebastian. He filmed them dancing on the promenade of San Sebastian. He is also known to have visited the island of Lastovo on the coast of Croatia, where he filmed the Poklad procession and its associated sword dance.
These research trips, usually accompanied by his wife and also his assistant Mr Blažek from the Brno museum, were funded at his own expense, sometimes by borrowing money from his family. Pospíšil had hoped to sell his films to help with this expense, but was frustrated by a lack of interest in his research by other ethnographers, feeling that Warburg was the only person who understood the importance of his work.
Some ethnographers might have criticised Pospíšil's work as his films are not true documentaries of the dances in the context of their traditional time and place, but staged performances at the times Pospíšil was able to visit. The Basque performance as doubly inauthentic as it was staged on the photogenic promenade of San Sebastian rather than the town square of Iurreta. However, these were real traditional dances performed by the real dancers and the earliest filmed records of these dances from the earliest days of the genre of ethnographic documentary film.
Sadly, after the war Pospíšil was falsely accused of collaboration with the Nazis, fell into disgrace with the new communist authorities in Czechoslovakia and lost his job as curator of the Brno museum. He died in a mental hospital in 1958. His archive was forgotten and only came to light recently when a compilation of films he had intended to present in London in 1927 was found in a storeroom in the Brno museum. His archive is the major source on Czech sword dances, but includes footage from all over Europe. His story was presented in a EBU documentary shown on BBC4 in October 2007.