The Bioscope Guide to … South Africa

Mabel May and the children of Piccanin village in The Picannins’ Christmas (1917), from http://www.vintagemedia.co.za

After rather too long a gap, we return to the Bioscope’s occasional series on national film histories – essentially a quick reference guide, with listings of online and offline resources for the researcher. So far we have covered Italy and China. And, inspired to a degree by my recent discovery of the guide to South African film and television, VintageMedia, our attention turns to a land not generally associated much with silent film at all, South Africa.

History
South African history, and therefore South African film history, is profoundly bound up with colonialisation, racial segregation and apartheid. The state enforced system of racial segregation was instituted in 1948 and ended only in 1994, but apartheid merely enshrined in statute an absolute state of privilege for the minority white population which had existed for a century or more. South African silent cinema was a minority cinema – white-owned, white-produced, white-performed (though not absolutely so) and exhibited for whites (again, not absolutely so). It was also a colonial cinema, similar to the situation in Australia, where local production was constrained by distance from Europe and America, by a lack of finance, and by a paucity of talent. It was a cinema on the margins.

Edna Flugrath and Holger Petersen in Der Voortrekkers (1916), from vintagemedia.co.za

When motion pictures first came to Johannesburg in 1895, South Africa did not exist as a country. There were the British colonies of Cape Colony and Natal, and the Boer republics of Transvaal and the Orange Free State. It was in 1910, following the upheavals of the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902 that the four combined as the Union of South Africa. Motion pictures came in 1895 in the same form as they did throughout the world, that is via the Edison Kinetoscope peepshow, which opened to the public on 19 April 1895 at Henwood’s Arcade in Johannesburg. American magician Carl Hertz brought projected film to South Africa when he first exhibited at the Empire Palace of Varieties, Johannesburg on 9 May 1896. Variety theatres quickly picked up on the new phenomenon, showing films mostly obtained via the Warwick Trading company in Britain, whose trademark projector the Bioscope became so fixed in the mind of South African patrons that it is still the common name for a cinema in South Africa over a century later.

The manager of the Empire Palace of Varieties, Edgar Hyman, became the leading figure in early South Africa film, obtaining a Bioscope cine-camera and becoming the first of a number of cameramen to film scenes from the Anglo-Boer War, an event of worldwide interest that ensured films from South Africa were in high demand. Joseph Rosenthal and William Kennedy-Laurie Dickson were aong the filmmakers whose war-front footage demonstrated the power (and the limitations) of the cinematograph as war reporter.

After the war and until the creation of the Union of South Africa, local production was minimal, mostly topicals of restricted interest, though British film companies, including Butcher’s and the Charles Urban Trading Company, filmed in the country. The first South African cinema opened in Durban in 1909, and such bioscopes spread rapidly throughout 1910, with the first cinema for ‘coloured people only’ reportedly appearing in Durban in December 1910. The issue of race came to the fore in 1910 with the banning of the film of the Jack Johnson-Jim Jeffries world heavyweight championship fight, because local authorities feared that its exhibition might cause racial unrest. Exhibitors in vain pointed out that in 1909 film of Johnson defeating the white Tommy Burns had not caused any social disruption, but the ban remained.

South Africa’s first fiction film, The Great Kimberley Diamond Robbery, was released in 1910. Made by the Springbok Film Company, it does not appear to have been a particularly disinguished production. The African Mirror newsreel, produced by I.W. Schlesinger African Films Trust, was a greater success, becoming the local agent for Pathé Frères. South Africa film production expanded in the teens through Schlesginger’s formation of African Film Productions in 1915. AFP brought in American talent in the form of Lorrimer Johnston and Harold Shaw to produce films with the potential for export to British and American markets.

Shaw was the most notable filmmaker in South African silent cinema. He directed three feature films [correction, four - see comments], each starring his wife Edna Flugrath: Der Voortrekkers (1916, retelling the story of the Great Trek of the Boer people and the Battle of Blood River), The Rose of Rhodesia (1917, a drama about stolen diamonds with a strong underlying theme of racial understanding, made by Shaw’s own company) and a horse-raing drama, Thoroughbreds All (1919), the only title of the three now lost (almost no other South African silent fiction films survive). A fourth film, The Symbol of Sacrifice (1918), was to have been made by Shaw, but after disgreements with the film company it was directed by Dick Cruikshanks. The only other director of note was Joseph Albrecht, who was AFP’s main director into the 1930s.

British newsreel showing a screeing of Der Voortrekkers (as Winning a Continent) at the West End Cinema Theatre, London, in 1917, from www.britishpathe.com

Der Voortrekkers gained some overseas screenings under the title Winning a Continent, but African Film Productions struggled to find a market outside South Africa for its productions, with only King Solomon’s Mines (1918), made by British director H. Lisle Lucoque, and the lavish The Blue Lagoon (1923) being relative successes. The great popularity of American product, with vastly superior production values, meant that local productions such as Prester John (1920) and The Man Who Was Afraid (1920) struggled to find audiences even in South Africa. AFP produced over forty fiction films between 1916 and 1924, before turning largely to documentary and newsreel work, South African fiction film production effectively disappearing until the talkie era.

South African silent cinema was white-produced for white audiences, but there were few South African films that did not feature the black population in one form or another. Inevitably such roles depicted the native population as either threatening or compliant, with Harold Shaw’s boldly inclusive The Rose of Rhodesia only able to stand out because it was an independent production (in every sense). Black performers appeared as tribes imperilling whites in gung-ho dramas of imperialist adventure such as King Solomon’s Mines and its sequel Allan Quatermain, and as naive and obedient in sentimental productions such as The Piccanins Christmas (1917). There were a few early AFP productions with all-black casts, notably the Zulutown Comedies series of slapstick shorts from 1917, performed by the Zulutown Players (though these made for white audiences). Zulu actor Goba starred in one of AFP’s first productions, A Zulu’s Devotion (1916) and in several productions thereafter.

Director Dick Cruickshanks (centre) with the Zulutown Players, from Screening the Past

Little now survives of South African silent film production, but scholarly interest has grown following the recent discovery of a print of The Rose of Rhodesia in the Netherlands, and through a rise in African film history studies generally, headed by such scholars as Jacqueline Maingard, Neil Parsons and James Burns. South Africa also boasts one of the most notable of all film histories, Thelma Gutsche’s truly epic The History and Social Significance of Motion Pictures in South Africa 1895-1940 (1972, but completed in 1946). South African film history is still trying to live up to it.

Notable filmmakers
Joseph Albrecht, Dick Cruickshanks, Henry Howse, Lorrimer Johnston, Norman Lee, Harold Shaw

Notable performers
Adele Fillis, Edna Flugrath, Goba, Mabel May, Marmaduke A. Wetherell, Grafton Williams

DVDs and online videos

  • The Rose of Rhodesia (streaming, via Screening the Past website)
  • The Symbol of Sacrifice (some scenes were included in the DVD Isandlwana, Zulu Battlefield but this seems to be no longer available; The Symbol of Sacrifice was also available from online pay service Kuduclub but this closed down in 2011)
  • Der Voortekkers (DVD-R from Villon Films)

Publications

Archives and museums

Websites

  • African Media Program (extensive database of films and videos on Africa, with variable information on some silent era productions)
  • A History of the South African Film Industry 1895-1003 (useful timeline from South African History Online)
  • Screening the Past (special issue on the online film studies journal on The Rose of Rhodesia ith rich material on silent era South African production in general)
  • Vintage Media (useful site surveying South Africa film and television history, with authoritative descriptions of most South Africa silent fiction films)

Pordenone diary 2009 – day six

pordenonestreet

We’re on the day six of the 2009 Pordenone silent film festival, with our intrepid reporter The Mysterious X once again turning his feverishly scribbled notes into a finely-honed account for our delight and posterity’s great benefit. So here goes with Thursday 8 October’s offerings:


Thursday already … and Pordenone regulars know what to expect – a gloomy feeling, as the end of the Giornate is in sight, and the nagging idea that we all have to return to the real world soon … and for those who could only make it for half a week, and opted for the first half, those goodbyes, perhaps for another year, have started. But put those thoughts to the back of the mind, and plough on …

And the potentially long day starts with Justice d’Abord (France 1921) from the Ermolieff Studio, before it became Albatros; and at last a chance to see the great Ivan Mozhukhin, their greatest star; he plays an implacable State Prosecutor tackling an espionage ring, only to find that his artists model girlfriend may be involved – and has to prosecute her. Can a Russian ending be far away? The print seems slightly abridged, or missing some footage, but it is still a very watchable film, if not up to the later great Mozhukhin-starring classics. Immediately we see why Mozhukhin was so successful … he elevates another melodramatic plot into something greater; you cannot take your eyes off him on the screen. I do feel the Albatros thread has been weakened by the lack of the great Mozhukhin vehicles; not programmed because his films were shown a few years back, in a Mozhukhin tribute at Sacile (where the Pordenone festival was located for a number of years. Ed.). Understandable, but even one would have been nice; I would travel a long way to see Kean again.

This was followed by Nocturne (France 1927) , another Albatros, a short film made at the same time and with the same leads as Carmen, apparently at the crew’s hotel. Beautifully shot, and beautifully acted one-act tragedy, but even so a bit langourous after the previous film; it did also feature some very subtle piano work from Touve Ratovondrahety.

More Sherlocks; starting with The Sleuth (USA 1925) , a solo outing for Stan Laurel, one of his film spoofs made for Joe Rock. Here, as a detective who struggles with those interlinked nails puzzles, he infiltrates a household to solve a crime; as the maid. I think you can see where that is heading …

A Scandal in Bohemia (GB 1921), I think is the best Elvey/Norwood episode I’ve yet seen, helped by the tale, of a less-than-great success, with Holmes revealed as being less than perfect; and here, he is beaten for once, by the beautiful and engaging Irene Adair, renamed from the stories where she was Irene Adler. Too Germanic for 1921 Britain? Told very wittily, and with a lightness of touch Elvey is not always credited with.

Der Gestreifte Domino (Germany 1915) was well plotted, with a mix-up at a post office resulting in detective Stuart Webb stumbling on a conspiracy … but once more, the film moves at a very leisurely pace compared to the British series.

rhodesia

‘Chief’ Kentani in The Rose of Rhodesia

After lunch, the much-anticipated The Rose of Rhodesia (South Africa 1918) the recently restored Harold Shaw feature set in Rhodesia but filmed on location in South Africa. I’m delighted to say it stands up to all the hopes; the attitudes of the characters are notably liberal for the day, the characterisation of the native roles and their relationships with the white settlers is shown to be that of mutual respect, by and large; the intertitles don’t always reflect this, but as the print was for a German-language release they don’t necessarily entirely match the originals. The photography is superb – astonishing considering what must have been trying conditions; the acting, particularly that of Edna Flugrath, Mrs Shaw, subtle, and, as we have come to expect from Shaw’s films, the use of locations is spectacular. One flaw is the plot, pretty throwaway, and come the climax it is pretty much thrown away; again the caveat is that the existing print is the equivalent of two reels shorter than the version seen at its premiere, so some exposition may well be lost, if not an entire subplot. (See the Bioscope’s review of the film here, with link to a streamed copy of the film).

On Strike (USA 1920) is a delightful Mutt and Jeff cartoon, wherein our heroes see producer Budd Fisher’s regal lifestyle in a (live action) newsreel; they threaten to strike for better terms, their bluff is called, and they’re sacked. But Hey, how hard can this animation lark be? Mutt and Jeff set up their own animation studio – the basics of the process shown – and the end result of their efforts is another Mutt and Jeff….but drawn and plotted as if by a ten year old … very neatly done, the cartoon within the cartoon. The end product goes down badly with the preview audience, so they creep back to Fisher and the status quo restored.

L’Heureuse Mort (France 1924); a French farce on the subject of celebrity death; a once-respected but now-struggling playwright is swept overboard from a friend’s yacht; by the time he makes it back to land and civilisation he finds himself being mourned; the newspaper obituaries falling over each other in their race to elevate him to the pantheon of French literature; he arrives home to see his own memorial service, and to reveal his survival to his mourning wife. Not keen on seeing himself relegated to hack playwright again, he hatches a plot with his ‘widow’, to arrive and live as his own Senegal-based brother, while producing fresh works to be ‘discovered posthumously’ in the home. Until his real brother arrives … Nicolas Rimsky, as the author and his brother puts in a top performance delineating both men with subtle differences … very neat, and very funny, and still topical on the celebrity front.

After the special Harold Shaw Collegium, which discussed both his work and career, and the case of Rose of Rhodesia in particular, but which annoyingly clashed with a Holmes programme including a 1912 French version of The Musgrave Ritual, I fell into a particularly good dinner and conversation; so skipped Der Furst von Pappenheim (Germany 1927), a gender-based comedy, and subsequently didn’t feel up to Gunnar Hedes Saga (Sweden 1923), a Mauritz Stiller-directed adaptation of the novel by Nobel laureate Selma Lagerlof. By all accounts, by those who made it, one of the highlights of the week, but given a start time of approaching 11.00 pm. Hopefully I’ll get a second chance one day … Pordenone can have its frustrations.


Now I can remember A Scandal in Bohemia from a long time back, when I noted it as being something rather exceptional. It’s good to have that memory confirmed as a sound one. Next up, day seven where we will visit the Tower Circus in Blackpool, Maxim’s in Paris, the hills of Corsica, and the Home Counties of England – by bicycle.

Report on day one
Report on day two
Report on day three
Report on day four
Report on day five
Report on day seven
Report on day eight

The Rose of Rhodesia

rose-of-rhodesia

Chief Kentani (left) and Prince Yumi in The Rose of Rhodesia, from Screening the Past

A while ago we wrote a piece on the peripatetic American film director Harold Shaw, who – in between periods in America, Britain and Russia – for a short period (1916-1919) produced films in South Africa. Shaw made three films in the country – De Voortrekkers, The Rose of Rhodesia and Thoroughbreds All (a fourth, Symbol of Sacrifice, was started by Shaw but completed by other hands). The first was an Afrikaner nationalist epic of the Battle of Blood River; the third (a lost film) was a racing horse comedy.

The Rose of Rhodesia (1918) has been attracting a lot of interest lately, following its happy rediscovery by the Nederlands Filmmuseum. The process of critical rediscovery has led to a special issue of the always commendable Australian online journal Screening the Past dedicated to the film. There are pieces by the two foremost experts in filmmaking in Africa at this period, Neil Parsons and James Burns, which provide rich detail on the background to the film’s production and personalities, Parson concentrating on the production history and Burns on Bioscope audiences in South Africa at the time (Bioscope was – and I believe remains – the common name for a cinema in South Africa). There are other essays on its racial politics, political and literary perspectives and position in cinema history, and a rich selection of background materials including reproductions of original press notices and advertisements.

rose1

Prince Yumi (Mofti), Edna Flugrath (Rose Randall) and M.A. Wetherell (Jack Morel), exchanging a white rose

But what it is particularly notable is that Screening the Past is delivering the entire restored film itself (streaming only), courtesy of the Filmmuseum. 81 minutes long, with German intertitles (an English translation is supplied) and inventive soundtrack by Matti Bye, the film is a revelation. What commentary the film had received before its rediscovery (chiefly Thelma Gutsche’s 1972 great history The History and Social Significance of Motion Pictures in South Africa 1895-1940) dismissed it as an amateurish failure which was roundly dismissed by local audiences. It is hard to match the recorded disappointment of South African audiences with the remarkable, engrossing film we see now (which is some 20 minutes shorter than the film as originally produced) which more than merits the attention given it by Screening the Past. Indeed, as Shaw had fallen out bitterly with Isidore Schlesinger, film producer and owner of practically all of the South African distribution and exhibition business, one suspects that the film’s reception was sabotaged.

The story concerns, at least initially, the theft of a diamond from a Rhodesian mining concern. The diamond is called ‘the rose of Rhodesia’, but Shaw develop this into a deeper metaphor, as Rose is the name of a gold prospector’s daughter (played by Edna Flugrath, Harold Shaw’s wife), who falls in love with Fred Winter, the overseer who has stolen the diamond, before transferring her affections to a missionary’s son, Jack Morel, played by M.A. Wetherell. Jack is friendly with Mofti, son of the chieftan Ushakapilla, and a white rose is exchanged as a symbol of their friendship. Ushakapilla is planning an uprising against white rule, and expects his reluctant son to adopt the cause, but after Mofti’s accidental death and news that his people’s ancestral lands has been granted to them by the “great white Chief”, Ushakapilla relents. Rose retuns the diamond to the mining corporation (it had been found by one of Ushakapilla’s men), and the reward money enables she and Jack to marry.

mofti

Prince Yumi, as Mofti

The Rose of Rhodesia is distinguished in particular by its portrayal of Africans. The African parts were taken by members of the M’fengu people, with Ushakapilla played by ‘Chief’ Kentani (probably a local headman) and Mofti by ‘Prince’ Yumi (possibly a migrant worker or student). The portrayals are sympathetic and convincing, and the friendship between Mofti and Jack Morel affecting and unforced. The theme of African discontent over loss of lands reflects genuine feelings of the time, and the potential for uprising was one that greatly exercised white authorities at the time (to the degree that the film could never have been made in Rhodesia itself, where the authorities greatly feared cinema’s subversive potential, and was instead filmed at Sea Point studio in Cape Town and by the spectacular Bawa Falls in Eastern Cape – none of the film was made in Rhodesia). It may be felt that the films shies away from what seems to be its initial interest – to depict African versus white tensions – by playing it safe with a story of diamond stealing. Interestingly this was even commented upon at the time by the British trade paper The Kinematograph Weekly:

At the start the impression is given that there is to be strong drama founded on a conflict between the interests of the natives and those of imperialism. But, in reality, the “native question” does not develop. The producers have carefully avoided the danger of giving offence to either partisan side … [and] have left a story rather devoid of “punch”.

But viewing the film now one is struck by how readily the diamond plot is set to one side, and how inter-racial relations become the film’s real interest. Local sensibilities undoubtedly stayed Shaw’s hand, but the theme of the importance of mutual trust and respect demanded of black and white is not diluted at all. Such a progressive view of Africans would not appear again in South African cinema for many years thereafter.

The Rose of Rhodesia was written and directed by Harold Shaw for Harold Shaw Film Productions. It was photographed by the American Ernest G. Palmer and Briton Henry Howse (like Shaw a much-travelled figure whose career included filming for the Salvation Army and in the Arctic). It was first shown on 23 March 1918 in Cape Town, and in Britain on 28 October 1919. It is unclear how widely it may have been seen in Britain (it gained some trade press coverage, reproduced in Screening the Past), while it it a mystery how a print turned up with German titles as no record has been found of its exhibition in any German-speaking territory. Its story is a fascinating one, while its quality as a film is unexpected and most welcome. I warmly recommend seeing the film, and engrossing yourselves in its history.

The Rose of Rhodesia is a late addition to the programme at this year’s Pordenone silent film festival.

Harold Shaw and De Voortrekkers

voortrekkers

Still from De Voortrekkers, showing Zulu warrior Sobuza, who converts to Christianity. From Jane M. Gaines’ essay ‘Birthing Nations’ in Metter Hjort and Scott Mackenzie (eds.), Cinema and Nation (2000)

The London African Film Festival is taking place 29 November-7 December 2008, a wide-ranging celebration of African cinema involving a number of venues across London. The programme brings together an imaginative programme of new and classic titles, with some eye-catching surprises. Among the latter, the one that is catches this eye in particular is De Voortrekkers.

This 1916 epic film was one of the first South African dramatic film productions, and tells the story of the Boers’ Great Trek, concluding with a reconstruction of the 1838 Battle of Blood River, where a few hundred Voortrekkers (Afrikaners) defeated several thousand Zulus. Commemorating as it did their view of a highly contentious area of history, the film came to be revered by Afrikaners. It enjoyed a long after-life in South African classrooms and was (and may still be) shown annually on the date of the Battle of Blood River (16 December). For a long time remained unseen outside of the Afrikaner community, though copies have been available on video from a Canadian company, Villon Films, for some while now.

De Voortrekkers was one of four films made during a short period in South Africa by the remarkable Harold Shaw (1876-1926), whose full story needs to be told properly by someone some day. Briefly, Shaw was an American, who began his career in film as an actor with Edison in 1908, graduating to film director and moving to the IMP company. His best known work from this first period is the haunting fantasy film, The Land Beyond the Sunset (1912), now recognised by the National Film Preservation Board, which has placed it on its National Film Registry for permanent preservation as a national film treasure.

haroldshaw

Shaw (left) moved to Britain in 1913 to direct for London Film Productions, making such prestigious titles as The House of Temperley (1913) and Trilby (1914). His best British work, for me, is a barely-seen 1916 propaganda piece, You (1916), which encourages various people to support the war effort by means of a piece of paper that floats from person to person, asking each ‘What are YOU doing for your country?’ It is so creatively put together. That same year he ventured out with actress wife Edna Flugrath to South Africa, where he had been hired by African Film Productions. His first film for them, De Voortrekkers (1916), which starred Flugrath, was sensationally successful locally and even gained some screenings overseas (in the USA it was known as Winning a Continent). The scenario was written by historian Gustav Preller, and its version of the Great Trek emphasised the common point of view between Britons and Afrikaners (the Anglo-Boer War was long past and the political stress was now on the strength of the Union) and the ‘savagery’ of the native peoples (who, the film argues, are led to rise against the Boers by Portuguese traders). News reports at the time stressed the authenticity of the props and costumes and the huge numbers involved: hundreds of extras, black and white, many of them mine employees. Telling tales were told of a filmed charge which was undertaken too enthusiastically, the ‘natives’ neglecting to fall dead and instead assaulting some of the Europeans, with mounted police having to restore order. The completed film ran for some two hours.

rose_of_rhodesia

The Rose of Rhodesia, from http://www.slottsbio.com

Disagreements with the production company led Shaw to withdraw from a follow-up film on the Zulu wars, Symbol of Sacrifice (1918, directed by Dick Cruikshanks), fragments of which survive and are apparently available on a DVD entitled Isandlwana, Zulu Battlefield. Instead he made a melodrama about stolen diamonds for a rival producer, The Rose of Rhodesia (1917), which was recently discovered in the Netherlands and is attracting growing academic interest. Shaw and Flugrath made a third film (now lost), a horse-racing drama entitled Thoroughbreds All (1919), then returned to Britain.

Shaw next went another strange journey, to the Soviet Union to film Land of Mystery (1920), a melodrama (now lost) set in the USSR and loosely based on the life of Lenin, whose strange history (the story was written by Basil Thompson, who was high up in the British secret service) is covered in Kevin Brownlow’s Behind the Mask of Innocence. Shaw made more films in Britain, including two H.G. Wells adaptations, Kipps (1921) and The Wheels of Chance (1922), before returning to America to direct for Metro. He then died in a motor car accident in 1926.

It’s an extraordinary personal history, and one day someone needs to do Harold Shaw’s strange career adequate justice. As it is, he has a small but dedicated band of devotees around the world, myself among them (we used to gather around a table at the Pordenone silent film festival – it wasn’t a very large table). Meanwhile, De Voortrekkers, which I’ve yet to see, comes to the Barbican in London on 3 December, screening with Joseph Albrecht’s 1938 129-mins epic Building a Nation (Bou van ‘n Nasie), another piece of Afrikaner apologetics. The films runs for 60 mins and musical accompaniment will be provided by Juwon Ogungbe with piano and traditional instruments such as the kalimba and marimba. Both films clearly need to be seen in the context of Afrikaner nationalism and racism, but it is good to see De Voortrekkers move from its time of closet, propagandist screenings to a public festival where it can be viewed in the fuller context of African film production, past and present.

Iamhist conference report

Amsterdam

Iamhist (International Association for Media and History) is an organisation of filmmakers, broadcasters, archivists and scholars dedicated to historical inquiry into film, radio, television, and related media. It publishes the widely-respected Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, and organises biennial conferences. This year’s was held in Amsterdam 18-21 July, on the theme Media and Imperialism: Press, Photography, Film, Radio and Television in the Era of Modern Imperialism. There were several papers given on silent film subjects, and the Bioscope was there with pen and notebook.

A number of the best papers were given on media outside Iamhist’s usual frame of reference. Pascal Lefèvre spoke lucidly and informatively on Imperialist images in French and Belgian children’s broadsheets of the late nineteenth/early twentieth centuries, finding arguably positive or some downright critical images that differed from the usual Western view of African peoples at this time. Andrew Francis was equally entertaining and observant in talking about the use of pro-Empire imagery in New Zealand newspaper advertising during the First World War.

On silent films themselves, James Burns spoke on the distribution (or lack of distribution) of the films of the Jack Johnson-Jim Jeffries boxing match in 1910 and D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation in 1914 to black audiences in Africa and the Caribbean. The Johnson-Jeffries film (the black Johnson defeated ‘white hope’ Jeffries for the world heavyweight title) is well-known for how its images of a black victory alarmed many in America, though Burns pointed out that films of Johnson’s earlier victories over white opponents had not aroused anything like the same rabid reaction. He also pointed out that Birth of a Nation was not exhibited in Africa (until 1931), yet no evidence has yet been found to show why it was withheld. Burns’ has done excellent work on film and black African audiences (see his Flickering Shadows: Cinema and Identity in Colonial Zimbabwe), and his new research promises much, even if evidence of black audience reactions (outside the USA) remain elusive.

Simon Popple spoke on films of the Anglo-Boer War, focussing on the dramatised scenes of the conflict produced by the Mitchell and Kenyon company. M&K are now renowed for their actuality films of life in Northern England in the Edwardian era, after the successful BBC series The Lost World of Mitchell and Kenyon, but they also made dramas, recreating melodramatic scenes from the South African war to feed a public appetite for moving picture scenes of the war which had been disappointed by undramatic newsfilms of the conflict. These crudely histrionic dramas, with titles such as Shelling the Red Cross, A Sneaky Boer, and Hands Off the Flag, raise a laugh now, but presumably had them cheering in the aisles in 1900.

With the unavoidable but unfortunate practice of parallel sessions so that as many speakers as possible can be crammed in, no one could attend everything, and I missed some relevant papers, including Teresa Castro on ‘Imperialism and Early Cinema’s Mapping Impulse’ and Yvonne Zimmermann on ‘Swiss Corporate films 1910-1960′. Too few witnessed Guido Convents‘ excellent presentation on the huge production of Belgian colonial films, from the early years of the century onwards, all designed to remind the world and audiences at home that Belgian had a presence in Africa and an Imperial role to play. He also showed a heartbreaking film of the difficulties faced by the Congo film archive, which put into perspective some of the institutional troubles faced by the world’s larger film archives, described by Ray Edmondson in a plenary session. Edmondson nevertheless made an eloquent case for the ways in which some film archives have come under threat through insensitive political fashions and institutional follies. Archives seem hampered by being archives: politicians do not grasp what it is that they are about in the same way that they do with museums, a far more generously funded sector with a considerably greater public profile.

And there was more. Martin Loiperdinger showed magic lantern slides of British Empire subjects from the nineteenth century and considered their impact upon audiences. Kay Gladstone of the Imperial War Museum showed a two-hour selection of films from its amazing archive for the two world wars (and more), including a live action political ‘cartoon’ from the Anglo-Boer War, and images of Colonial troops in the First World War, though what left the audience stunned was silent, colour home movie footage of India at the time of partition in 1947, showing scenes of the misery caused that the newsreels of the time scrupulously avoided. And there was plenty on post-silent subjects, and me thrilling a small audience with a disquisition on databases and the misuse of thesauri and keywording in describing Imperial and Colonial themes. You should have been there…

These conferences are curious affairs. They are an excellent meeting place and a good way to catch up on the latest ideas, but you do also sit through some truly grim presentations – mumbled monotones, heads bowed down reading from indigestible text, oblivious to the needs of an audience. How some people can still continue to draw salaries as lecturers beats me – you do pity their poor students. And then there are the natural entertainers, who know their audience as well as their subject, and can speak wisely and clearly, in whatever time allotted. It was a well-organised event, the sun shone, the pavement cafés were inviting, and the coffee was fine. I’ll be following up some of the themes (especially silent cinema in Africa) in future posts.

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