This film is held by the BFI (ID: 59580) and British Empire & Commonwealth Museum (ID: 1996/087/001).


Dramatised history of Rhodesian tobacco growers from 1927-1963.

The film opens with footage of a cricket match at the Umvukwes country club. The film¿s protagonist and commentator, R.S. Lawrence is playing, while his wife and father-in-law watch. He is called away to attend to one of his dairy cows, which he manages to retrieve from a ditch with the help of 'young Jim' and 'good old Sammy', the African manager. The farmer points out the 'old house' - 'really it's full of memories for all of us' - before the film flashbacks into a series of nostalgic reminiscences about early farm life. He recalls travelling as a child with Sam in the back of his father's new car, and remembers those early days - 'it was my idea of heaven to go around with Dad and take in all the noises and sights I grew up with' - while crediting his father for these early developments. He learnt and helped out with Sammy on the farm, but notes the difficulties and problems - such as storms and crop disease - that his father faced.

He recalls playing with Sammy in the countryside - 'golden days in a golden land. They seemed as though they would never end' - encountering wildlife and inspecting bushman paintings. There are further problems, not least with over-production, but the tobacco growing community worked together to overcome this. The film introduces local characters, such as Bill Robson and his daughter Liz, and shows local dances and songs around the campfire. The arrival of war takes our protagonist away from the farm and on his return, he finds his father 'a tired old man with the bad years catching up on him fast'. His father dies. He subsequently marries Liz Robson. The wedding is interrupted by a fire on the farm, but he recalls these as the 'best days of all'. The tobacco people are now organised 'thanks to people like Dad', while he builds a new dam for his children to play in and a new house. Next, he visits Salisbury - the auction houses and the tractor showroom - complaining about the modern developments, before the film dissolves back into the present as Sammy tells him that tea is ready. As he sits with his family, he is told that the cow is stuck again and so he heads off once more. He takes his son, but not his disappointed daughter - 'Dad used to say this is a job for the men of the family' - as they walk with Sammy towards the camera.



The See-Saw Years was one of the final films produced by the Central African Film Unit. Louis Nell, a filmmaker with the Unit, recalled that by the time the CAFU was shut down in 1963 it had produced, including newsreels, 625 films, ‘totalling 1060 reels in its fifteen years of existence’. However, there were three 35mm documentaries that could not be completed in time and so arrangements were made with sponsors to take these over. ‘One of these’ Nell explained, ‘was a very ambitious project for Southern Rhodesia, The See-Saw Years, the story of a pioneer tobacco farmer with a charming sequence on the close companionship of a black and white boy’ (Nell, 1998, 193).

The film thus marks the end of the Central African Film Unit and the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland, which was dissolved in 1963 despite, in the words of James Burns, ‘the best efforts of the Federal Information Department and the Central African Film Unit’ (Burns, 2002, 102). Louis Nell wrote of this ‘sad end to a happy association… the end of an era and a poignant moment as the Central African Film Unit now witnessed its own final fade out’ (Nell, 1998, 193). At this moment of great political change, many within the Unit hoped that the CAFU would continue under the auspices of the Southern Rhodesian Government. However, the Rhodesian Front regime ‘balked at the costs of continuing to produce films for Africans without supporting funds from the other territories’ and announced instead that ‘production will in future be put out to commercial production companies’. Its laboratory, one of the most sophisticated in Africa, was sold to a local commercial company, Dragon Films – a sale that embroiled the ‘young government in its first scandal’ as critics argued that the agreed price was well below its market value – while many of the personnel moved to other commercial companies (Burns, 2002, 188, 189). For example, this film’s director, Dick Raynor, would succeed Ian Mackersey as producer of the Roan Selection Trust’s Film Unit, based at Ndola, while Henry Berriff, the film’s cameraman, set up Bridge Films (Nell, 1998, 197). Geoffrey Mangin, another filmmaker at the Unit, remembered this ‘story of a tobacco grower family over 35 years’ as Henry Berriff’s last production for the unit (Mangin, 1998, 46).

Records at the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum – which holds an audio interview with Henry Berriff – indicate that The See-Saw Years was filmed in 1963-64, while an additional label inside a 1962 film, entitled ”The Rivers” Tobacco Farm Concession, states that ‘these shots of Southey/Konschel Farm were the forerunner to the 35mm Eastman Colour [sic] CAFU prestige film, The See Saw Years’. The film’s production though was not without its difficulties. Louis Nell recalls an incident on the set of the film, in which Dick Raynor was directing an elaborate wedding scene. ‘The actors were in their finery’, Nell wrote, ‘there was a real wedding cake to be washed down with genuine bubbly, and all the trimmings were to lend authenticity to a scene that would be a highlight in the film’. ‘All went well’, Nell continued, ‘until finally the whole scene was in the can… or was it?’ For some ‘incomprehensible reason’, the magazine had never been loaded and the scene ‘due to the expense, could not be reshot’. ‘The actors had dispersed far and wide’, Nell explained, ‘and it would have required reshooting several other scenes with different actors to maintain continuity’ (Nell, 1998, 185).



The See-Saw Years offers a nostalgic look back at settler life in Rhodesia. As a film marking the end of both the Central African Film Unit and the Federation that the Unit sought to promote, it offers both a romantic celebration of traditional settler life and an appeal for constancy in the face of potential change.

From the outset, the film creates an idealised image of settler life – opening with a friendly cricket match at the local country club – and presents this story as representative of the settler experience. On spotting his old farmhouse, the commentator remarks that ‘there must be one of them on every farm on Rhodesia’, before adding that ‘really it’s full of memories for all of us’. These memories are then recalled through the flashback, which follows the experiences of the commentator, accompanied throughout by ‘good old Sammy’. The commentator speaks effusively of his childhood, emphasising the importance of the land and country – ‘but most of all it’s the countryside I remember, free for two small boys to run in’, ‘golden days in a golden land. They seemed as though they would never end’. As he does so, he and Sam fish and run together to the accompaniment of up-tempo music, reminiscent of Westerns.

Particular importance is also placed on family. Indeed, the film plays almost as a paean to a previous generation of settlers. ‘It was my idea of heaven to go around with Dad’ the commentator states. He acknowledges the hard work required – ‘it will never be an easy life, but it’s a good one for people like us’ – and repeatedly notes the ‘work’ and ‘worry’ put in by these early farmers to ensure that future generations had ‘our farm, our home’. Later, when noting the modern organisation of tobacco farmers, he remarks ‘if only Dad could have been there to see how right he and Bill Robson had been’. He also recalls the role of wives who, despite the difficulties, ‘never let it show’. ‘What a grand lot they were’ he concludes.

Through its flashback sequence, the film highlights the fluidity and continuation of this traditional life across generations. For example, upon building a dam ‘as Dad had planned’, the commentator watches his children play and remarks that ‘I went straight back to my childhood days’. Yet, in romanticising this bygone era – ‘terrific days those… everyone looking happy’, ‘what a way to grow up, what a beautiful country’ – the commentator also reacts against any modern changes, particularly in urban areas. ‘I’m really sorry for those people you read about today filled with complexes and inhibitions’, he remarks, over images of the farming families singing and dancing around the campfire. Upon visiting Salisbury, he explains that ‘we always used to meet in the old Grand Hotel at the end of the day, just as Mum and Dad used to’. Again, he follows the ways of his parents, but he complains here that ‘now they’ve closed that down too’. ‘So I suppose’, he concludes, ‘we will have to go to one of the new places, all air conditioning and modern furniture. Not a patch on the friendly old Grand’.

The film marks the end of an era, for both the Unit and the Federation, and this seems to be acknowledged in the nostalgic reminiscences of this traditional settler life. However, the film’s conclusion suggests that these farming traditions can continue for a new generation. In the final scene, the commentator takes his young son, but not his disappointed daughter, to help him with his work. ‘As Dad used to say this is a job for the men of the family’ he states, as father, son and his loyal African farm manager, Sam, all head off towards the camera. The scene, using the term ‘men of the family’ which was earlier used by his father, reiterates traditional gender, and racial, roles, and, in particular, this link across generations. The final words – ‘Marobi the same as ever, still the master of the Lawrence family’ – promote this unchanging existence, as the film, the Unit that produced it, and the Federation it represented, all fade out.

Tom Rice (March 2009)


Works Cited

Burns, J. M., Flickering Shadows: Cinema and Identity in Colonial Zimbabwe (Ohio: Ohio University Research in International Studies, 2002).

Mangin, Geoffrey, Filming Emerging Africa: A Pioneer Cinematographer’s Scrapbook – from the 1940s to the 1960s (February 1998).

Nell, Louis, Images of Yesteryear: Film-Making in Central Africa (Harper Collins (Zimbabwe), 1998).




Technical Data

Film Gauge (Format):
16mm Film

Production Credits

Production Countries:
Sound Recording
Sound Recording
cast member
ASAN, Chance
cast member
cast member
HEATH, Peter
cast member
HOVE, Alec
cast member
JANSEN, Michael
cast member
JOHNS, Evelyn
cast member
KNIGHT, Madeleine
cast member
LYNCH, Claire
cast member
cast member
NDOWE, David
cast member
cast member
Director of Photography
Executive Producer
BROWN, Denys
Production Company
Central African Film Unit





Production Organisations