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British Empire’s forgotten propaganda tool for ‘primitive peoples’: mobile cinema

Van in Ghana early 1950s. CFU

It’s 1945. A mobile cinema van drives into a village in Ghana. Word spreads, music plays and a crowd gathers. The travelling commentator gives local chiefs a tour of the equipment, showing off this latest British technology, and explains the aims of the film show. Once darkness falls, the screen is set up, the commentator organises the crowd and the film show begins.

Such a scene was far from unusual in the British Empire. It was commonplace in many parts of Africa, not to mention other parts of the world through different modes of delivery. From trains in interwar Britain to river boats in 1950s Malaya (Malaysia) to cinema vans in colonial Africa, the mobile film show was part of a bigger project to use new forms of film and spaces to administer, control and maintain a rapidly changing empire.

It was often brought to colonial subjects courtesy of the Colonial Film Unit in London. The unit was set up at the outbreak of war in 1939 and disbanded on the cusp of widespread independence in 1955, producing over 200 films in the process.

The African shows typically contained four or five short films, mostly made for African audiences. They would include an “entertainment” film, with edited Charlie Chaplin films especially popular, but the majority would be “instructional” shorts and talks designed to promote government initiatives. Audiences were encouraged to sign up and act on what they had seen afterwards – visiting an accompanying Post Office Savings van, for example, or a vaccination unit – with a local leader first in the queue.

Colonial Film Unit sample film programme. CFU

Whether promoting child welfare in Ghana, instructing in modern methods of cocoa production in Nigeria or depicting Africans living and working in Britain (see the clips below), these films sought to project a modern vision of empire. It was about instructing and defining colonial citizens and legitimising the work of the colonial government.

The Colonial Film Unit did this not just through the subjects it filmed but in the way it filmed them. It championed a specific mode of production that avoided close-ups, cross-cutting, short scenes or excessive movement within the frame. This was based on reductive assumptions about the intellectual capabilities of its rural audience or “primitive peoples”, as unit producer William Sellers referred to them.

The film shows were also a way of organising the colonial space, for example through carefully outlined seating plans that reaffirmed traditional hierarchies. Some government officials reportedly took most pride in the fact that the crowd had learned to stand to attention at the end of the show and sing the British national anthem – empire in microcosm.

A change is gonna come

Unlike in much Western cinema the pivotal figure in these events was not the director but the local commentator. He might set up the screening, provide an introductory lecture, answer questions and translate and talk over the films.

He would offer call and responses, ask questions of the audience, outline the intended message of the film and direct where the audience looked on screen. He might talk over or replace the British voice on the soundtrack, in the process emerging as a new voice in African cinema. Indeed audience responses show how the commentator could completely transform a film event, even prompting widespread laughter during a film on venereal disease.

In western Nigeria. CFU

The colonial authorities largely overlooked or downplayed the importance of this commentator, allowing him to work unsupervised for example. Yet they did recognise the value of using a local figure to convey its messages – noting for example that audiences “believe much more readily what is told them by other Africans” and that “their jokes went down better than ours”.

While the Colonial Film Unit could be dismissive of its audiences’ capabilities – one official in Tanganyika (Tanzania) suggested they were “not sufficiently sophisticated to be bored” – audience responses often challenged the intended government aims. At the height of the Emergency in Malaya in the 1950s, the government cancelled screenings of a propaganda film made by the Malayan Film Unit after reports that cinemagoers had cheered the onscreen appearance of communist leader Chin Peng.

In Nyasaland (Malawi) at the height of the nationalist movement, mobile units, and by extension government messages, were blocked from reaching their destination. On other occasions, people stood in front of screens or nationalist leaders took to the microphone themselves. In Ghana a lamp was actually fitted to the screen to prevent unrest among the audience, using the cinema screen to light up political dissidence. It was as if the film was watching the audience.

On location in West Africa, 1946. CFU

The end is nigh

1950 Colonial Film Unit magazine. CFU

The work of the Colonial Film Unit took place against a backdrop of global war, civil unrest, Cold War politics and emerging independence movements. The film shows revealed and were a response to the tumultuous changes taking place across the British Empire.

When William Sellers had outlined his plans for the film show in 1941 he suggested that a good way to get the crowd’s attention was for the commentator to “ask a question to which the obvious answer is ‘yes’”. Such a question, he suggested, might be: “Are you proud to be British?”. The question would be asked three times, and “almost every member of the audience will reply and their answer comes back in a roar”.

A decade later, when Sellers revisited these plans, the suggested question had intriguingly changed from “Are you proud to be British?” to “Are you all well?” It would appear that by the 1950s, the original question was no longer rhetorical as the moves towards independence gathered pace.

The Colonial Film Unit would soon close, but its influence often lived on beyond independence, whether through personnel, equipment, or films. As one example, the Colonial Film Unit had set up training schools in Ghana, Jamaica and Cyprus in the late 1940s as part of political moves to transfer power to the colonies. These schools provided a core group of filmmakers for the emerging local film units, which would continue to produce, and exhibit films for many years to come.

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