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The Last Laugh: African Audience Responses to Colonial Health Propaganda Films*

  • Stephanie Newell

Abstract

Focusing on the complexity of local spectators’ responses to the simple ideological formulae of colonial health and hygiene films, this article asks about the ways in which the presence of local aesthetic tastes and values represented a vital third space of mediation alongside film content and filmmakers’ “authorial” objectives in the much-studied media archives on public health and hygiene in colonial Africa. The article argues that a host of cognitive failures is encapsulated in colonial officials’ reports on the laughter of African audiences between the late 1920s and early 1950s. In attributing African laughter to unrefined “native” cruelty, colonial officials precluded the possibility of a politics of ridicule among audiences, among many other aesthetic and social practices affecting spectators’ reactions to films.

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Footnotes

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*

Research for this project was funded by the ERC (AdG 323343) between September 1, 2013, and June 30, 2015; from July 1, 2015, to December 31, 2016, the project in Lagos received generous funding from the Whitney and Betty MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies at Yale University.

Footnotes

References

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1 Most sources list 1929 for the release of Plague, but Sellers claimed to have toured Nigeria with the film in 1926. Sellers, William, “Making Films In and For the Colonies: A Paper Read to the Commonwealth Section of the Society on Tuesday 24th March 1953,” Journal of the Royal Society of Arts 1014910 (1953): 830 .

2 Sellers, William, “Enclosure 1 in Circular Despatch,” PRO CO 1045/227 (January 30, 1940), 1 . Release dates are not available for most of Sellers’s amateur movies in the late 1920s and early 1930s.

3 See Commission on Educational and Cultural Films, The Film in National Life (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1932), 115 ; Smyth, Rosaleen, “Grierson, The British Documentary Movement, and Colonial Cinema in British Colonial Africa,” Film History 254 (2013): 82113 ; Larkin, Brian, Signal and Noise: Media, Infrastructure, and Urban Culture in Nigeria (Durham, NC, and London: Duke University Press, 2008), 77 .

4 Sellers, “Enclosure 1 in Circular Despatch, 30 Jan 1940,” 1.

5 Ibid., 2; see Larkin, Signal and Noise; Smyth, “Grierson.” By 1950, the CFU boasted twelve production units in eight British African territories with a total of 339 reels circulating for free in the colonies. See “Colonial Film Unit: Policy,” PRO CO 875/52/3 (1952–53), 35. For a detailed history of the changing faces of the CFU between 1939 and the early 1950s, see Smyth, Rosaleen, “Images of Empires on Shifting Sands: The Colonial Film Unit in West Africa in the Post-War Period,” in Film and the End of Empire, eds. Lee Grieveson and Colin MacCabe (Basingstoke, England: British Film Institute and Palgrave Macmillan, 2011): 155175 .

6 Editorial,” Colonial Cinema: A Bulletin Issued by the Colonial Film Unit for Distribution in the Colonies 52 (1940): 2627 .

7 William Sellers, “Health Propaganda Unit: Tour of Northern Provinces Nov 3rd 1937 to Feb 11th 1938,” NNA-I CSO 26: File no. 30314 (1938), n.pag.

8 Ibid.

9 Ibid.

10 Ibid. Sellers had been invited to the podium during C. F. Strickland’s lecture on “Instructional Films in India” at the Royal Society of Arts: he showed clips from Machi Gaba, performed sections of the voiceover, and described Nigerian audience reactions. For further discussion of this and other ventriloquistic performances of African spectatorship by colonial officials, see Newell, Stephanie, “Screening Dirt: Colonial Film Audiences and the Problem of Spectatorship,” Social Dynamics, forthcoming 2017 .

11 Ibid.

12 Ibid.

13 William Sellers, “Memorandum: Non-Commercial Films, Film Strips and Film Slides in the Colonial Empire,” PRO CO 1045/227 (n.dat [1951]), 9.

14 Sellers, “Enclosure 1 in Circular Despatch, 30 Jan 1940,” 6. In practice, Sellers’s prescripted commentaries were subject to great variation. In Yoruba areas of Nigeria, for example, alterations were required to the commentator’s original English script when the film Smallpox was shown, not least a modification of the recommendation for infant vaccination at the age of three months, for no Yoruba would allow a baby to be injected before it at was at least one year—and more probably five years old. See Morton-Williams, Peter, Cinema in Rural Nigeria: A Field Study of the Impact of Fundamental-Education Films on Rural Audiences in Nigeria (Zaria, Nigeria: Federal Information Service and Gaskiya Corporation, n.dat. [1953]), 57 .

15 Ibid.

16 Ibid.

17 Larkin, Signal and Noise, 100.

18 Sellers, “Enclosure 1 in Circular Despatch, 30 Jan 1940,” 6.

19 Colonial Office, “Cinema Propaganda, Colonial Film Unit: Replies to Questionnaire, Section A1,” PRO CO 875/10/11 (1943), 6.

20 Ibid.

21 Ibid.

22 Morton-Williams, Cinema in Rural Nigeria, 72. For a detailed discussion of Morton-Williams’s research, see Newell, “Screening Dirt,” forthcoming.

23 Colonial Film Unit, “Policy: Annual Report of the Colonial Film Unit, 1951,” CO 875/52/3 (1952–53), 38.

24 Colonial Office, “Cinema Propaganda,” Section D21, n.pag.

25 Ibid., Section B17, n.pag.

26 Morton-Williams, Cinema in Rural Nigeria, 48.

27 Colonial Office, “Cinema Propaganda,” Section B17, n.pag.

28 William Sellers, “Health Propaganda: Report, ‘Health Propaganda Unit: Tour of Southern Provinces, March 11th to April 28th 1937,’” NNA-I CSO 26: File no. 30314 (March 11–April 28 1937), 2.

29 Sellers, “Enclosure 1 in Circular Despatch, 30 Jan 1940,” 8.

30 Ross, L. H., “Africans and Propaganda Films,” United Empire (February 1940), 65 , cited in Burns, James, “Watching Africans Watch Films: Theories of Spectatorship in British Colonial Africa,” Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television 20.2 (2000): 200 .

31 Beale, Colin, “The Commercial Entertainment Film and Its Effect on Colonial Peoples,” The Film in Colonial Development: A Report of a Conference (London: British Film Institute, 1948), 19 .

32 Morton-Williams, Cinema in Rural Nigeria, 42.

33 Ibid., 44–45.

34 Colonial Film Unit, “Policy: ‘Annual Report of the Colonial Film Unit,’” PRO CO 875/52/3 (1951), 39; Colonial Film Unit, “Cinema Propaganda: ‘VD Film,’” PRO CO 875/10/13 (1943), 32; Sellers, “Health Propaganda Unit: Tour of Northern Provinces Nov 3rd 1937 to Feb 11th 1938,” n.pag.

35 Colonial Office, “Cinema Propaganda,” Section D21, n.pag.

36 Ibid.

37 Ibid.

38 Ibid.

39 Ibid., Section A2, 2.

40 Ibid.

41 Ibid.

42 Dickie, Simon, Cruelty and Laughter: Forgotten Comic Literature and the Unsentimental Eighteenth Century (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2011), 49 .

43 Ibid.

44 African audiences were often highly alert to making faux pas in the face of foreign films, and controlled their own reactions accordingly. One of the more sensitive observers to work for the CFU, Norman F. Spurr, noted of one rural Tanzanian audience’s responses to the South African musical film, Zonk, “The most surprising reaction was the almost complete absence of chatter . . . there was almost silence. This suggested at first glance that the film was not being followed in the sense that even visually it made no sense, or that it was not liked. Nothing was further from the truth.” See Norman F. Spurr, “A Report on the Reactions of an African Urban and Rural Audience to the Entertainment Film Zonk,” CFU: Audience Research, CO 875/51/7 26 August 26, 1950), 4.

45 See Vaughan, Megan, Curing Their Ills: Colonial Power and African Illness (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 1991).

46 Colonial Office, “Cinema Propaganda,” Section A2, 3. When the colonial secretary, Arthur Creech-Jones, gave the opening address at the British Film Institute conference on “The Film in Colonial Development” in March 1948, he attempted to prize open the hermetically sealed colonial optic. “Sometimes,” he suggested, “I have been told that, for practical purposes, a primitive African audience is quite as appreciative, say, of the antics of Charlie Chaplin as is the British audience (there is a certain common humanity there) but we do not know really the effects of films on the unsophisticated, the general reaction, nor are we quite happy about the place of commercial films and whether it is altogether wise in certain societies for the modern British or American film to be introduced at all.” See Creech-Jones, Arthur, “Opening Address,” The Film in Colonial Development: A Report of a Conference (London: British Film Institute, March 1948), 6 .

47 Morton-Williams, Cinema in Rural Nigeria, 52; Smyth, “Grierson, The British Documentary Movement, and Colonial Cinema in British Colonial Africa,” 96.

48 Morton-Williams, Cinema in Rural Nigeria, 53.

49 Ibid., 59.

50 Ibid., 64, 70, 72, 76.

51 Ibid., 74.

52 Ibid., 42.

53 See Stein, Eric, “Colonial Theaters of Proof: Representation and Laughter in 1930s Rockefeller Foundation Hygiene Cinema in Java,” Empires of Vision, ed. Martin Jay (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2013): 315345 .

54 Morton-Williams, Cinema in Rural Nigeria, 72.

55 Ibid., 79.

56 Ibid., 31.

57 Ibid., 78.

58 Ibid.

59 Ibid., 79.

60 In 1940, a similar failure of “authenticity” was given as the reason for audiences’ laughter in northern Nigeria. L. H. Ross noted that people laughed, not because of their “primitive psychology,” but because the village portrayed in Machi Gaba was implausible: it was “so utterly miserable, so utterly destitute” that it failed to “arouse the sympathy and understanding of the audience.” See Ross, “Africans and Propaganda Films,” cited in Burns, “Watching Africans,” 200.

61 Stein, “Colonial Theaters of Proof.”

62 Morton-Williams, Cinema in Rural Nigeria, 53.

63 Ibid., 55.

64 Warner, Michael, Publics and Counterpublics (New York: Zone, 2002): 6570 .

65 Ibid., 67, 72, 88; emphasis in original.

66 Larkin, Signal and Noise, 23.

67 Ibid., 94, 99.

68 Ibid., 85.

69 Ibid., 94.

70 Ibid., 80.

71 Ibid., 86.

72 Alongside film displays, lectures and practical demonstrations were given to members of the community and designated “clean-up days” and “dry pot days” were introduced alongside “school health displays,” “healthy baby” competitions, “clean house” competitions, and cake-making competitions for which teachers and elders were recruited as judges, with score charts and certificates provided by the Health Propaganda Unit. See Sellers, “Health Propaganda: Report,” 3; Sellers, “Enclosure 1 in Circular Despatch,” (January 30, 1940), 4.

73 Michael Warner, Publics and Counterpublics, 68.

74 Larkin, Signal and Noise, 77–78; Burns, “Watching Africans Watch Films.”

75 Hartley, John, “Invisible Fictions: Television Audiences, Paedocracy, Pleasure,” Textual Practice 1.2 (1987): 5 .

76 Larkin, Signal and Noise, 89.

77 Burns regards the voluminous archives of British speculation about African audiences as forming a body of “colonial film spectatorship theory.” See Burns, “Watching Africans Watch Films.”

78 Spivak, Gayatri, “Can the Subaltern Speak?Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, eds. Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg (London: Macmillan, 1988), 271313 . In practice, there was no rigid divide between rural and urban areas, as individuals exercised a great deal of geographical mobility in colonial West Africa: there was no “native permit” system as in the settler colonies of East and southern Africa.

79 Morton-Williams, Cinema in Rural Nigeria, 57.

80 The word foolish is repeated in the English voiceovers of numerous films. See, for example Towards Wholeness (1952), made by the Overseas Film Unit of the Church Missionary Society. (Many of the CFU movies discussed in this article are available on open access via the Colonial Film Database www.colonialfilm.org.uk.)

81 Pearson, George, “The Making of Films for Illiterates in Africa,” The Film in Colonial Development: A Report of a Conference (London: British Film Institute, 1948), 24 ; see Gikandi, Simon, “Realism, Romance, and the Problem of African Literary History,” MLQ: Modern Language Quarterly 73.3 (2012): 309328 .

* Research for this project was funded by the ERC (AdG 323343) between September 1, 2013, and June 30, 2015; from July 1, 2015, to December 31, 2016, the project in Lagos received generous funding from the Whitney and Betty MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies at Yale University.

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The Last Laugh: African Audience Responses to Colonial Health Propaganda Films*

  • Stephanie Newell

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