Academics & Faculty

Obituary: Jorge Prelorán, 75, UCLA professor, documentary film pioneer

Jorge Prelorn, a pioneer in the field of ethnographic documentary film and a professor emeritus at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television, died March 28 in Los Angeles following a 10-year battle with prostate cancer. He was 75.
A cinematic icon in his native Argentina and a UCLA alumnus, Prelorn taught at the School of Theater, Film and Television from 1976 until his retirement in 1994. Celebrated for developing a cinematic genre known as ethnobiography, he was the recipient of the school's first International Cinema Artist award, conferred at the commencement ceremony in 2008.
Born in Buenos Aires, Prelorn began making films on rituals and celebrations in rural communities in Argentina after his graduation from UCLA in 1961. In his later films, he focused on individual craftsmen who were representative figures of their far-flung indigenous cultures.
"Prelorn would begin by making long journeys into remote parts of Argentina," wrote filmmakers David MacDougall and Lucien Taylor in their book "Transcultural Cinema" (1998), "gathering sound recordings of his subjects' reminiscences and reflections on their lives. He would return later to shoot the film … finally drawing upon the sound recording he had made to construct the film's voice-over soundtrack. He refined the technique in such films as 'Imaginero' (1970), 'Cochengo Miranda' (1974) and 'Zerda's Children' (1978)."
"Imaginero," about a creator of religious images from the Andean high plateau, was recently named one of the 10 best Argentine films of all time by a panel of the nation's film critics.
Prelorn also directed the feature fiction film "My Aunt Nora" (1983), the Academy Award–nominated short film "Luther Metke at 94" (1979) and the seven-part television series "Patagonia — In Search of Its Remote Past" (1992). A departure was "Zulay, Facing the 21st Century" (1989), which was both reflective and reflexive, filmed as a dialogue between Prelorn, his anthropologist wife, Mabel, and Zulay Saravino, a woman from Ecuador who traveled to Los Angeles to help them edit a film about her community.
Jorge and Mabel enjoyed what close friend and colleague Mara Elena de las Carreras, a visiting assistant professor at the School of Theater, Film and Television, called a "fecund intellectual and creative relationship."
"He was an inspiring, generous teacher," de las Carreras said, "who taught hundreds of students to look at their subject matter — whether a fiction film or a documentary — with a human, compassionate eye. In his documentary work in Argentina, he gave voice to those that were rarely seen or heard on the screen, embodying the values of the Sermon on the Mount — as he modestly noted in the course on an interview with me."
Among his many honors, Prelorn received the Golden Astor award for lifetime achievement at the 2005 Mar del Plata Film Festival in Argentina and was declared a Distinguished Citizen by the city of Buenos Aires the same year. He was a Guggenheim fellow in 1971 and 1975 and a Fulbright scholar in 1987 and 1994, and he was invited to the White House by President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s.
The National Anthropological Archives and Human Studies Film Archives, located in the Smithsonian Institution, decided this year to archive all of Prelorn's films because of their importance to the field of anthropology. A feature-length documentary on Prelorn’s life's philosophy, "Huellas y Memoria" ("Footsteps and Memory"), will be released in 2009.
Prelorn spent the years since his retirement from UCLA writing 40 profusely illustrated in-depth biographies of colleagues and artists, many of whom were also the subjects of his films. This biographical series, "Masters Among Us," had not yet found a publisher at the time of Prelorn's death, but it was his hope that the landmark series of books would live on after him.
In lieu of flowers, gifts may be made in Jorge Prelorn's memory to the Fund for Excellence in Film, Television and Digital Media at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television, Development Office, 214 East Melnitz, Box 951622, Los Angeles, CA 90095-1622 (or by calling 310-206-1349). Checks may be made payable to "The UCLA Foundation" with the memo: In Memory—Prelorn (Account #3976).
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