This film is held by the BFI (ID: 4696).


The film describes how a mission-trained Africanboy returns to his home village, having been at the mission school since a baby, to act as missionary amongst his own people.



When the Southern Rhodesian Government, anticipating an influx of new immigrants from a straitened post-war Britain, began to make plans for ‘film publicity’ in 1945, it was to the Gaumont-British Picture Corporation that they first turned. Arrangements were made, and from the beginning of 1946 several units from Gaumont-British were at work in the country, making films of ‘various aspects of life, primarily from the immigration and tourist points of view’ (Connelly, 1947, 7). The entire episode may be seen as foreshadowing the genesis of the Central African Film Unit in 1948 (Burns 2002: 60-106).

While some films were produced under Government auspices(e.g. Colour in the Colony 1947] or Southern Rhodesia – Is This Your Country? [1947]), others were instructional or educational films in classic Gaumont-British Instructional mode, and were occasionally sponsored by third parties. From Fear to Faith falls into the latter category. Directed by Jack Swackhammer (also responsible for Colour in the Colony), From Fear… was sponsored by Religious Films Ltd., J. Arthur Rank’s 16mm distribution company for religious films intended for use in churches, an off-shoot of the Religious Film Society project that had been Rank’s first foray into cinema (Macnab, 1993, 11-14; Wakelin, 1996, 41-62). It was one of two films on missionary activity that GBI produced in Southern Rhodesia (the other being Pitaniko [1948]), and it seems to have originally been entitled Shoniwa– the name of the film’s protagonist – as indicated byan article on GBI’s Rhodesia engagement that featured in the spring 1948 issue of Sight and Sound (the text describes the content of From Fear…accurately and cites Swackhammer as director, but gives Shoniwa as the film’s title; Connelly, op. cit., 8). On release in 1949, it was available for hire from Religious Films (15s., 17s. on weekends) (Monthly Film Bulletin, 1949, 17).

Mashonaland, the area where From Fear… was filmed (Connelly records the location as being near Umtali, present day Mutare) was first evangelized in the 1890s by a combination of Methodist and Catholic missionaries. The British South African Company had actively encouraged missionary work, generously granting land for mission stations. Such stations always included a mission school (often the same building used as a church on Sundays), and occasionally boarding accommodation for children from distant villages (it was also ‘deemed wise to remove pupils from their home environment’, in order to foster Christian values (Peaden, 1970, 8). Until the first government school for Africans opened in 1921, the only education service available to African children was through the missions, and in this way they wielded a substantial amount of power and influence, arguably becoming ‘the real rulers of large areas of Mashonaland’ (Blake, 1977, 161). The missions openly conceived of their education programmes as  the most effective way of evangelisation. ‘When I first came I walked from kraal to kraal and found it useless unless we started schools…Start with the children’, testified one missionary in 1925 to the Commission of Native Education  (ibid., 8). It was also regarded as  the best way to eradicate African cultural institutions, such as polygyny, ­that were seen as antithetical to the successful uptake of Christianity.

These standard missionary procedures and activities, reproduced in one form or another by Christian missionaries all over the Empire, had evidently not been subject to any dramatic rethink by the mid-1940s. The presidential address to the Southern Rhodesia Missionary Conference of 1944, given by the Venerable Archdeacon S. J. Christelow, baldly illustrates the importance accorded to the active dismantling of African life and custom. Having spoken with disappointment of ‘the backward development and low standards of life and intelligence of the Africans’, the Archdeacon goes on to outline in no uncertain terms the continuing project for missionary workers in Southern Rhodesia: ‘The present African home and family life and resources are a poor foundation for security and individual development. … There must be broken down at an accelerated rate the domination of ignorance, superstition, disease, and poverty. There is an emergent minority, but the majority of Africans are making only a small contribution to the country’s good, either spiritually or materially. For their own sake and for the country’s this cannot be allowed to go on’ (Proceedings of the Southern Rhodesia Missionary Conference, 1944, 31). 



A narrated drama intended for a churchgoing British audience, From Fear to Faith is not sponsored by any particular missionary society, and so lacks many of the common features of missionary films (e.g. requests for funding, or historical accounts of the foundation of the first missions, etc.). Given the involvement of Rank’s Religious Films Ltd., a common viewing context might well have been in Methodist churches (Rank was a devout Methodist), but the film itself does not identify any particular society or denomination. Instead it is concerned with the benefits that missionary work in general can bring to Africans. These benefits – and the courage that the educated convert must muster to overcome the ignorance and hostility of his unenlightened fellows – are illustrated by the tale of Shoniwa, a young man who one day returns to his native village after having been brought up and educated in a mission school (as a twin, he was due to be killed as ‘the work of the Evil One’, but the woman entrusted with the task took him to the mission instead).

The story follows Shoniwa as he eventually wins over his hostile people to the new ways he has brought with him. He brings new methods of agriculture, heals a sick child, begins to teach, and takes a wife – the couple are married in the village by the white missionary teacher from his original school, who has come to visit. Even his violently opposed twin brother – a malicious confidante of the bone-rattling village ‘Rainmaker’ – is eventually won over through a show of Christian charity. It is a great day in the village, and the audience is reminded at the close that ‘the eternal spirit has done all this.’

The film thus follows the well-worn trajectory of missionary objectives in Rhodesia and elsewhere: evangelise the young, and when they return to their villages they will spread the gospel through their undeniably good works in healthcare, agriculture, etc. The narration is portentous and frequently delivered in faux-biblical language (‘one day came a stranger to this land’), and some of the film takes place in the form of explanatory flashbacks. 

It does seem that consultation with missionaries or others with some knowledge of the area informs the film. Twins were indeed considered particularly inauspicious amongst at least some Shona groups (according to Aschwanden, twins were killed at birth among the Karanga (1987, 86-96)), and rain-making (the figure of tribal authority in the film is a be-feathered ‘Rainmaker’) was, according to Kuper, a significant feature of some Shona chieftainships (Kuper, Hughes and van Velsen, 1954, 31). Similarly, the scene in which the missionary visits the village in order to marry Shoniwa may well refer to the hope of the missions that the laws on native marriage might be relaxed in order that missionaries could conduct services between Africans without the celebrants appearing before the Native Commissioner, a possibility discussed at the 1944 missionary conference (op. cit., 11).

The opening scenes of drought give the strongest nod toward the local past, both missionary and Shona. The period of greatest success in evangelising the previously unresponsive Matabele (Ndebele) and Shona peoples of Southern Rhodesia came in the aftermath of the violence and failure of the Matabele and Shona rebellion of 1896-7. The uprising was finally crushed by the settlers with great brutality, and Blake reports that the defeat ‘brought with it the longed-for Christian breakthrough’ (op.cit., 160). The rebellion itself followed several years of severe drought, plagues of locusts and a catastrophic outbreak of rinderpest which decimated cattle stocks (this last was exacerbated by the settler policy of destroying thousands of healthy cattle in attempt to prevent the spread of the disease; ibid., 123). Thus from the drought of the opening sequence, through the violence and hostility of the people to Shoniwa, and on to their final conversion, the narrative structure of From Fear to Faith appears to incorporate a reference, in distorted and trivialised form, to this disastrous sequence of historical events.

Francis Gooding 


Works Cited

Aschwanden, Herbert Symbols of Death: An Analysis of the Consciousness of the Karangatr. Ursula Cooper (Gweru: Mambo, 1987).

Blake, Robert A History of Rhodesia (London: Eyre Methuen, 1977).

Burns, J. M. Flickering Shadows: Cinema and Identity in Colonial Zimbabwe (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2002).

Connelly, Brian M. ‘Southern Rhodesia – Is This Your Country?’ Sight and Sound vol. 17, no. 65, Spring 1948, pp. 7-8.

Kuper, Hilda; Hughes, A. J. B.; van Velsen, J. The Shona and Ndebele of Southern Rhodesia (London: International African Institute, 1954).

Macnab, Geoffrey J. Arthur Rank and the British Film Industry (London: Routledge, 1993).

Peaden, W. R. Missionary Attitudes to Shona Culture 1890-1923 (Salisbury: Central African Historical Society, 1970).

Wakelin, Michael J. Arthur Rank: The Man Behind The Gong (Oxford: Lion Publishing, 1996).

Monthly Film Bulletin vol. 16, no. 181, 31st January 1949.

Proceedings of the Southern Rhodesia Missionary Conference 1944 (Morija, 1944)




Technical Data

Running Time:
20 minutes
1875 ft

Production Credits

Production Countries:
Great Britain
Religious Films
FENN, Hugh
ADAMS, Robert
Production Company
Gaumont-British Instructional