This film is held by the BFI (ID: 61186).


The story of a young disabled boy who escapes from his tribe as he is about to be sacrificed because of a drought. He flees to a Christian mission and in due course is converted to Christianity and develops his painting talents.

As a bare-breasted woman carries water on her head, the camera reveals the barren land and dying cattle. The woman reaches the village and looks down at her brother Pitaniko, who has a physical disability. Pitaniko and his sister attend a village meeting, at which Pitaniko is thrown into the middle of a circle and blamed for the current drought. However, after a sudden eclipse of the sun, everyone flees the meeting. Pitaniko escapes the village and travels for three months, across rivers and mountains, until he reaches a sign reading 'Cyrene'. Two men help Pitaniko into the mission. Canon Paterson introduces him to mission life and Pitaniko develops his drawing and painting skills. Scenes of mission life - including sports, gardening, carpentry, church and school activities, boy scouts - are shown, before the film ends with Pitaniko's confirmation by the visiting Bishop.



In 1945 the Southern Rhodesian Government arranged for Gaumont British units to visit the area, with a view to producing films primarily designed to attract tourists (for example Colony in Colour) and to address potential immigrants (Southern Rhodesia – Is This Your Country?). Between 1946 and 1949, approximately 40,000 European immigrants arrived in Southern Rhodesia, and the majority of these came from Britain. Partially in response to this growing influx, Gaumont British (Africa) Pty., Ltd., was formed in South Africa by the end of 1946, but in addition to educational and instructional films, Gaumont British units also produced films on mission life, such as Shinowa, a film in which a mission-educated African returns home (Sight and Sound, Spring 1948). Pitaniko charts the opposite journey, into the Cyrene Mission, and differs from many other Gaumont pictures, as it was sponsored by The Society for the Propagation of the Gospel and thus served primarily as a fund-raising film that was not directed by the needs of the Southern Rhodesian government. At this time, the government was beginning to take over African education from the missions, and the missions, often now without government funding, needed to reassert the importance of their work to external funders.

Pitaniko was certainly aimed at a predominantly British audience. This is evident both from the formal structure of the film, and also from contemporary reports. In this respect, Pitaniko differs from the early films of the Central African Film Unit, which were produced specifically for African audiences. The Central African Film Unit, which was created in 1948, endorsed the notion, held by many colonial observers, that Africans and Europeans ‘possessed differing cognitive abilities’ and thus encouraged directors to use simple camera angles, with minimal editing and character movement (Burns, 2002, 59). Pitaniko, particularly in its use of close-ups and editing, targeted a non-African audience, and this is also borne out by contemporary reports. The Times stated in January 1949 that two religious films, Pitaniko and For Times Like These, had been shown privately in London (The Times, 26 January 1949, 8). The paper further noted that Pitaniko‘illustrates the manner in which the camera can come to the aid of the pulpit’, while Sight and Sound suggested in 1948 that as Pitaniko is essentially a religious film, it will ‘probably only be circulated among religious societies’ (Sight and Sound, Spring 1948).

Pitaniko was shot at the Cyrene Mission, an Anglican mission station near Bulawayo that was visited by Queen Elizabeth during the Royal tour of Rhodesia in April 1947. Canon Edward George (Ned) Paterson (1895-1974) had founded Cyrene in 1938 and his work should be positioned alongside that of other missionary movements in Africa. P. J. Devlieger argues that Paterson’s ‘career as a clergyman and art teacher was, in part, the extension of a tradition of British social activism by religious figures in colonial Africa’ (Devlieger, 1998, 712). Paterson’s emphasis was on human development, promoting the social function of art, both as an opportunity to rehabilitate, and as a way of keeping families together and ‘men away from beer and brothels’. Paterson stated in 1954, that since its inception, Cyrene ‘has undertaken the rehabilitation of forty-five cripples’, but Cyrene was also an internationally recognised art centre which laid the foundations for the modern art movement in Zimbabwe. Indeed, for all its emphasis on inclusiveness and rehabilitation, Paterson was not ‘keen at all to see that the film centres on the boy Samuel Songo, who is most dreadfully crippled’. However, the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel emphasised the film’s documentary credentials, claiming that Pitaniko represented a ‘permanent record of life at Cyrene’, and that ‘The Story of Pitaniko, the heathen cripple boy who owes everything to Cyrene, is based on fact’ (Devlieger, 1998, 714).



The narrative structure of Pitaniko presents a direct contrast between the ‘primitive’ world of local Africans and the ‘civilised’ society of the colonial powers. While the first half of the film – before Pitaniko’s arrival at Cyrene – represents a land of drought, of witchcraft and of intolerance, the second half, at Cyrene, shows water, religion and opportunity for all. The distance between these two worlds is revealed in Pitaniko’s journey. A caption explains that ‘For three months Pitaniko struggled on, crossing rivers and mountains, hearing ever more distinctly of a strange white man who would help him or even teach him to be independent of help, although he was a cripple’. The self-description of the white man as ‘strange’ – and the ascribing of this perception to the African – is typical of the distancing tactics of segregation, which insisted on the mutual incomprehension of whites and Africans.The film further suggests that this ‘strange white man’ can be the solution and cure to all local problems. However, this help is only offered within the film to those who ask and Pitaniko is ultimately not cured of his disability, but rather incorporated into Christian life, through the development of his artistic talents.

Certainly, the influence of the ‘strange white man’ is not evident in the first half of the film. The film absolves the colonial powers, by their absence, from any responsibility for the Rhodesian drought, instead blaming the uneducated local population. This is reiterated in the later shots of Cyrene, which depict herds of cattle and boys watering crops.

The opening title emphasises the film’s validity as a historical document (‘Rhodesia May 20 1947 – The Worst Drought Within Living Memory’) and, within this context, presents a community adhering to magic and intolerant of Pitaniko. The assertion that the African community blamed Pitaniko for the drought is certainly not in keeping with local cosmology, but rather suggests a white Christian ideology that misunderstood indigenous beliefs and (perhaps not unintentionally) misrepresented them in its efforts to raise funds for the mission’s conversion projects.

Pitaniko is best understood then as an insight into colonial ideology, rather than as a representation of either African society or of African attitudes towards disability. Pitaniko appears to represent popular colonial attitudes towards the African, as he is both physically and metaphorically disabled. This disability is emphasised, in particular, as the colonial man reaches out – shot from above, as an almost Christ-like figure – to Pitaniko, as he approaches Cyrene.

Cyrene offers rehabilitation to the disabled African through art, and in particular, through religion. This rehabilitation occurs within a distinctly masculine environment – in contrast to Pitaniko’s earlier rejection by the local woman – and involves the ‘civilisation’ of the local people. This ‘civilisation’ is emphasised through a series of well-established markers, as a group of boys stand to attention beneath the British flag, and as the Africans now adopt European clothing. While in the opening scene, the local woman is bare-breasted, the clothed students are now taught by an African man in a suit. The final scene, in which Pitaniko crawls towards the Bishop for his confirmation, indicates the ultimate rehabilitation and ‘civilisation’ of the African through his conversion to Christianity.

Tom Rice (February 2008)


Works Cited

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

Connolly, Brian M., ‘Southern Rhodesia – Is This Your Country?’, Sight and Sound, Spring 1948.

Devlieger, Patrick J., ‘Representations of Physical Disability in Colonial Zimbabwe: The Cyrene Mission and Pitaniko, the Film of Cyrene’, Disability and Society, Vol. 13, No. 5, 1998, 709-724.

‘Two Religious Films: Cinema and Pulpit’, The Times, 26 January 1949, 8. 




Technical Data

Film Gauge (Format):
16mm Film

Production Credits

Production Countries:
Great Britain, Rhodesia
LAST, Robin G.
Sound Recording
BIRCH, Peter
cast member
on-screen participant
Bishop of Southern Rhodesia
on-screen participant
GROOM, George
Production Company
Gaumont British Africa (Pty) Ltd.
Production Company
Gaumont-British Instructional
Production Company
Rank Organisation
Production Company
United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel
LAST, Robin G.
British Acoustic Film





Production Organisations