Films for the Colonies: Cinema and the Preservation of the British Empire

Films for the Colonies: Cinema and the Preservation of the British Empire

by Tom Rice

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Films for the Colonies examines the British Government’s use of film across its vast Empire from the 1920s until widespread independence in the 1960s. Central to this work was the Colonial Film Unit, which produced, distributed, and, through its network of mobile cinemas, exhibited instructional and educational films throughout the British colonies. Using extensive archival research and rarely seen films, Films for the Colonies provides a new historical perspective on the last decades of the British Empire. It also offers a fresh exploration of British and global cinema, charting the emergence and endurance of new forms of cinema culture from Ghana to Jamaica, Malta to Malaysia. In highlighting the integral role of film in managing and maintaining a rapidly changing Empire, Tom Rice offers a compelling and far-reaching account of the media, propaganda, and the legacies of colonialism.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520300392
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 09/03/2019
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 360
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Tom Rice is Senior Lecturer in Film Studies at the University of St Andrews. He is the author of White Robes, Silver Screens: Movies and the Making of the Ku Klux Klan.

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Beginnings: The Interwar Movement of Nonfiction Film

On 14 April 1926, William Sellers set sail from Liverpool to Lagos to start work as a Grade II sanitary inspector in Nigeria. Born and raised in Bury, Manchester, 28-year-old Sellers would immediately find himself confronting a severe outbreak of plague. "Before I had time to unpack my boxes," Sellers explained, "I was handed a hypodermic syringe and many bottles and anti-plague vaccine." He inoculated more than six hundred people on his first day, but soon recognized that more needed to be done to explain the causes, methods, and measures required to control the spread of plague. For this, Sellers turned first to lantern slides and, by 1929, to film: "I recruited an enthusiastic team of Africans and then, using exhibits, films, film-strips, wall stencil posters and other visual aids, the life history of plague, and the reasons how as well as why, were clearly explained." Sellers recounted these early days in Nigeria almost thirty years later in April 1955 at his presidential address at the Royal Sanitary Institute's annual Health Congress in Bournemouth, England. By this stage Sellers had enjoyed a long and successful career in the colonial service, formalizing his initial forays into film by establishing the Health Propaganda Unit in Nigeria in 1935, and then in October 1939 taking up the role of producer at the newly established Colonial Film Unit in Soho Square, London. Over a thirty-year career, which was recognized with honors from the King and Queen, Sellers had witnessed and, through film, helped administer a rapidly changing empire, across war, civil unrest, and impending political independence. His speech at the Bournemouth Health Congress marked a point of reflection both for 57-year-old William Sellers and the empire he had served. A month later, with the moves toward political independence gathering inexorable momentum, the CFU closed its doors for the final time.

Sellers's career in colonial service runs parallel to that of a much more celebrated figure in British cinema history — John Grierson. Born six months after Sellers, Grierson is now widely championed as the father of "documentary" film (a term he coined in a film review from February 1926). It was during Sellers's first year in Nigeria that Grierson began working for the Empire Marketing Board, the elaborate public relations operation set up in May 1926 to promote imperial trade and garner public support for the Conservative Party's largely unpopular economic tariff system. Through the EMB and subsequently the GPO Film Unit (1933–40) Grierson brought together a group of left-leaning filmmakers (comprising the so-called "British Documentary Movement") and then in 1939, as Sellers was setting up the Colonial Film Unit to project government propaganda initially across Britain's African colonies, Grierson moved overseas to orchestrate wartime propaganda efforts in another territory, establishing the National Film Board of Canada. Both represent efforts at this precise moment to institutionalize film and make it useful for an imperial project that urgently required loyal imperial workers and sought to foster intra-imperial trade.

At the same moment that Grierson began using film to promote imperial trade in Britain, and Sellers to instruct audiences in the colonies, Mary Field, a former teacher, started working on films for schoolchildren. In 1926, she took on the newly created role of educational manager at British Instructional Films (BIF), the leading producer of educational films in the UK. Field was soon editing the celebrated Secrets of Nature (and later Secrets of Life) natural history film series and then during the war set up Children's Entertainment Films (1944–50), educating schoolchildren more broadly in "good citizenship." Having received an MA with a distinction in Imperial History, Field's work was characterized by her interest in the British Empire, bringing the empire alive to children in Britain. Into the 1950s, she would serve as an advisor for Commonwealth countries and for the UNESCO center of films for children. She retired against the backdrop of widespread decolonization in 1960.

These three figures, whose careers would intersect, represent three significant, related strands of nonfiction cinema — documentary film, educational film, and the "specialized" film for colonial audiences — that take shape and formalize in this interwar period. Each strand is defined by, and exists primarily to promote and preserve, the British Empire, whether illustrative or instructive in its approach, and whether playing in British classrooms or through traveling mobile health units in Nigeria. Indeed, the early history of British nonfiction film — told here primarily through failed schemes and instantly forgettable, commercially unsuccessful films — is intrinsically tied to the empire it served. Through the example of a single film, Black Cotton (1927), which during the 1920s became a foundational film for all three strands, the chapter explores the beginnings of film for colonial audiences, tracing its genealogy across British nonfiction film through to the establishment of the Colonial Film Unit in 1939.

These three strands of nonfiction share a common goal as each form was used to promote and develop economic productivity across the British Empire. The first, and most familiar, strand concerns documentary cinema. In short, the genesis of documentary film and public relations within Britain was borne out of a desire to promote and propagate imperial economic interests and, in showing the production and movement of products, a revised model of economic partnership between Britain and her empire. Documentary cinema can thus be understood as a product of interwar British imperial politics. To provide some context here, the end of the Great War had marked the territorial apogee of the British Empire, a moment when Britain could claim to govern almost a quarter of the globe. The challenge of maintaining and indeed monetizing this splintering mass of people, lands, and ideologies prompted British and colonial governments increasingly to consider the possibilities of cinema. This was often reactive, an anxious response to the more innovative and effective political cinemas in Russia, to the greater state organization of film in education in Italy, France, and Germany, and, most of all, to the rise of American commercial cinema, which the British state now recognized as a threatening form of cultural imperialism.

By the middle of the 1920s, these discussions were reaching the highest echelons of power. The prime minister, Stanley Baldwin, noted in 1925 the "danger to which we in this country and our Empire subject ourselves if we allow that method of propaganda [film] to be entirely in the hands of foreign countries." For Baldwin the problem was one of advertising, seeing film as a way of restoring "trade and national prosperity." "On the production side I have no fears," he wrote in 1927, "... on the selling side we must modernize our methods and make use of the great developments which have taken place recently in the art of advertising." This message was taken up by the Empire Marketing Board (1926–33) and the Conservative Party, which used mobile cinema vans and trains to transport support for British industry and imperial trade across the country.

For his part, John Grierson recognized film's ability to travel (like the products it depicted) across the highways of empire, arguing: "The film can travel as no individual, or troupe or expedition can hope to do, even in this age of whirlwind communication." Grierson was focusing here, as the 1926 Imperial Conference had, on the "particular economy of cinema," by which "the ends of the earth are brought to a cutting bench in Wardour Street" and "the unconverted spiritual and temporal are brought within the range of a director's megaphone." The form that documentary cinema took would differ markedly from the specialized technique employed within the colonies, but there are clear points of comparison here, as both focus on imperial productivity and use modes of mobile exhibition.

Indeed, while the pedagogical possibilities of film were widely acknowledged by the end of the 1920s, the form and place that this cinema would occupy was far less clear. Today Grierson's work has been largely characterized by a more liberal, poetic form of documentary cinema, exemplified by his own Drifters (1929), but Grierson and his contemporaries worked extensively with other forms of nonfiction film. It is worth noting that the canonical films of the British Documentary Movement, such as Drifters and Basil Wright's Song of Ceylon (1934), make up a misleadingly tiny proportion of British nonfiction output in this period. While Song of Ceylon is now widely celebrated, there is invariably very little mention of the four short instructional films produced simultaneously from this material for the Ceylon Tea Propaganda Board, which were available nontheatrically through the Empire Film Library. There are a plethora of instructional, nonfiction films, often critically invisible in histories of British documentary, which were imagined as part of British education. This is the second way in which nonfiction film develops in this period, as a pedagogical tool in the classroom and in other nontheatrical settings. This form is very quickly, and somewhat arbitrarily, divorced from documentary film. In the foreword to his seminal 1936 book Documentary Film, Paul Rotha explained that he had initially intended to consider cinema as a "factor in modern education," but decided that the "educational movement should be considered separately from the documentary movement." Rotha's construction of these two distinct categories — the "so-called general illustration film" and the "direct teaching, or instructional" film — and his statement that he placed a "higher value" on the former, illustrates a hierarchy in nonfiction cinema, which has largely relegated the classroom or instructional film to a critical wasteland.

However, this form of pedagogy, which was often initiated by amateur film enthusiasts and teachers, was repeatedly occupied with geography, economics, and in particular, the British Empire. It provides a notable precursor to the films produced for the colonies, particularly in its use of amateurs and disciplinary experts, and in positioning film as one part of a wider lesson alongside supplementary materials and lecturers. To take one example, Norman F. Spurr, who joined the newly formed Institute of Amateur Cinematographers in 1933, made a series of silent 16mm educational films in the latter half of the 1930s for organizations including the Cinema Christian Council and the British Camp Fire Girls, while also producing instructional medical films, with catchy titles like The Both Mechanical Respirator (1938) and Modern Aseptic Operating Technique (1939). A decade later Spurr would become an integral figure with the Colonial Film Unit, producing instructional films across Africa and training colonial filmmakers.

By the late 1920s discussions around educational film in Britain increasingly considered the role of film in the colonies. The eminent geographer James Fairgrieve, who published his influential book Geography in School in 1926 and would chair a British Film Institute (BFI) committee on the production of geography films in the 1930s, connected the discussion on film in British classrooms to the "larger educational problem" regarding the teaching of "the native races of the Empire." Fairgrieve complained in 1932 about the existing films shown within the empire — "For good or ill, they [native races] are being educated by films. Many films that they see are positively bad; most of the others are unintelligible or uninteresting" — and now outlined the broader political value of film in "the education of the masses." He suggested that the educational film "might help to save political trouble" within the colonies, supporting his oft-quoted earlier assertion that "the function of geography in school is to train future citizens to imagine accurately the conditions of the great world stage." Fairgrieve's language resonates with Grierson, who emphasized the potential of film in teaching "civics," in effect creating citizens and showing how communities should operate. The use of film within fundamental education would become a critical focus after the war for the Colonial Film Unit and for UNESCO's first director of mass communications, John Grierson, even if their notions of how these films should look and work often differed.

Rosaleen Smyth has recently shown how Grierson, with characteristic opportunism, later aligned the work of the British Documentary Movement to the more "simple" instructional film. In his last interview, Grierson claimed that "the greatest thing of all to me has been the use of film for simple purposes," extolling its value for "health and medicine at the most primitive and primary levels" and within "less privileged countries." Grierson can rival Mick Jagger in the paternity stakes, variously described as the father of documentary, the father of educational film, and the father of television documentary, as each of these narratives preserves and subtly reworks the legacy of the British Documentary Movement to respond to the rising concerns of the time. While attributing this strand of cinema ("simple instructional") to the documentary movement helpfully acknowledges the other, numerous overlooked aspects of its work, it further shades the foundational contributions of those amateurs, subject experts, and government officials who used film within the colonies.

It is this development of film as an instructional tool within the colonies, directly speaking to, and shaping, colonial citizens, that marks the third strand here and the principal focus of this chapter. These discussions again escalate in the second half of the 1920s. The Imperial Education Conference of 1927 discussed the "use of the cinema as an aid to increasing knowledge" not only of the empire in Britain but, equally significantly, of Britain across the empire. In the same year, the Colonial Office Conference considered film's place within the colonies, particularly regarding "health and economic development." These "health and economic" motivations were invariably connected, and they fueled early film work in the colonies. Shortly before William Sellers began making health films in Nigeria, Dr. Arthur Paterson, the deputy director of medical services in Kenya, used film to combat hookworm in East Africa. In noting the success of Paterson's films — in outlining causes and remedies, showcasing the work of doctors, and, in their public exhibition, breaking down resistance — Julian Huxley explained that "the white settlers report an increase in the efficiency of their labourers." A healthy workforce is a productive workforce. At the same moment in 1926, Leslie Notcutt began making films, as historian Glenn Reynolds shows, to "maintain a contented, migrant labor force" on his sisal plantations in East Africa. From the outset, these earliest initiatives can be understood as a form of imperial biopolitics, with film used to develop and sustain a colonial workforce.

For the most part, the early history of filmmaking in, and for, African audiences involves individual government workers, whether educationalists, scientists, or sanitary inspectors like William Sellers. Sellers was a health official using film, an expert initially self-taught in film who took training courses at Kodak's Medical and Scientific Department during three leaves (1933, 1935, 1937) in the UK. Immigration records list Sellers's occupation, when traveling back to Nigeria in the 1930s, as a "sanitary inspector" and even in 1940 when in charge of the CFU, he was listed as a "Civil Servant." This background as a health official dictates his approach to film. When the CFU conducted its first audience survey in 1943, it asked colonial administrators — rather than filmmakers — for their feedback. One of Sellers's initial innovations, the Raw Stock Scheme, which provided film stock for the colonies, was specifically intended to allow "experts," whether on hygiene or agriculture, to make films that "adhere to the instructions given from time to time in Colonial Cinema." This background, whether in government, education, or science, shapes the cinema that follows, both in form — more akin to Rotha's "direct teaching" — and in its use, not in isolation, but as one part of a wider government campaign. This is a cinema of expertise.


Excerpted from "Films for the Colonies"
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Copyright © 2019 Tom Rice.
Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations,
Accessing Digitized Materials,
1. Beginnings: The Interwar Movement of Nonfiction Film,
2. Film Rules: The Governing Principles of the Colonial Film Unit,
3. Mobilizing an Empire: The Colonial Film Unit in a State of War,
4. Moving Overseas: "Films for Africans, with Africans, by Africans",
5. Handover: Local Units through the End of Empire,
Selected Bibliography,

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