Sarah Elder


Sara Elder.

Sarah Elder


Sarah Elder


Professor Emeritus
Research Professor

Research Areas

Documentary film production and studies; ethnographic media; ethnography; visual anthropology; emerging interactive documentary; nonfiction ethics; collaborative and participatory media practices; Alaska Native communities; Indigenous heritage and sovereignty with a focus on the practices and ethics of filming across cultural and social boundaries


documentary film production and studies, ethnographic media, ethnography, visual anthropology, emerging interactive documentary, nonfiction ethics, collaborative and participatory media practices, Alaska Native communities, Indigenous heritage and sovereignty with a focus on the practices and ethics of filming across cultural and social boundaries.


Sarah Elder is Professor of Film in the Dept. of Media Study and Adjunct Professor in the Dept. of Anthropology and the Dept. of Africana and American Studies, University at Buffalo, State University of New York. Elder is an international award winning documentary filmmaker whose work focuses on the practices and and ethics of filming across cultural and social boundaries. Elder teaches courses in non-fiction studies, ethnographic media, documentary production, media ethics, visual anthropology, experimental and emerging Internet documentary, and film editing. Her research focuses on documentary media practice, interview practices, Alaska Native cultures, indigenous heritage issues, language restoration, oral histories, subsistence rights/practices, climate change, alcohol abuse and prevention, indigenous knowledge and landscape.

Elder’s films have won numerous awards and distinctions: In 2006, her feature documentary, Drums of Winter, (Produced/Directed by Elder and Kamerling) was selected for the National Film Registry in the U.S. Library of Congress. Her films have exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art, Cinémathèque Française, Smithsonian Institution, Musée de L’Homme, Freiburg Film Forum, Lumiére Institute, Soviet-American Flaherty Seminar in Riga, National Museum of the American Indian, International Center for Photography, Aperture, American Museum of Natural History, European ARTE TV, Parliament of the World’s Religion, IX International Festival of Ethnographic Films in Nuoro, Italy, and the Sofia International Festival of Ethnographic Film. Her films have won four first prizes in the American Film Festival, three Cine Gold Eagles, two Awards of Excellence from the American Anthropology Association. In 2004 she received the State University of New York Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Teaching, and in 2012 received the University at Buffalo’s Milton Plesur teaching award.

From 1973 -1990, Elder co-founded and co-directed the Alaska Native Heritage Film Center at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks with Leonard Kamerling. Working in rural Alaska collaborating with Alaska Native communities, Elder pioneered methods in collaborative filmmaking that share filmmaking decisions with the communities filmed. Elder’s films have wide international distribution and are also screened in many Alaskan cultural programs, Native villages and Alaska school curricula. Her work is popular among Native American communities in the lower 48 and Canada. She has been active in cultural empowerment initiatives, indigenous rights and Native sovereignty movements. Elder has served on the Board of the Society for Visual Anthropology, a section of the American Anthropology Association, and as film juror on various documentary film festivals.

Elder has received funding from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Ford Foundation, Alaska State Legislature, Alaska State Council for the Arts, Aperture, and others. In 1998 she received the Andris Slapins Memorial Award from the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution and the Rockefeller Trust for Mutual Understanding. Her current film project, Surviving Arctic Climate Change, looks at the consequences of global warming on the small Yup’ik Eskimo village of Emmonak, Alaska on the coast of the Bering Sea.

Elder received her BA from Sarah Lawrence College (1969) and her MFA in film from Brandeis University (1972) where she worked with Timothy Asch as her thesis chair. She worked at Documentary Educational Resources (DER) working on the Yanomami and Ju/’hoansi (Bushmen) film series with Tim Asch and John Marshall and also studied at MIT with Richard Leacock, one of America’s pioneers in cinema verité filmmaking. Her films are distributed by Documentary Educational Resources. Now working in Buffalo, NY, Elder continues to do research and media production in Alaska and keeps a small log cabin in a birch forest outside of Fairbanks, Alaska.

Awards and Honors

  • The Chancellor's Award for Excellence in Teaching