This film is held by the BFI (ID: 12125).


Instructional film for African audiences on the causes and prevention of hookworm disease.

An African man, 'a typical case of chronic hookworm', describes his symptoms to a friend. The film shows a close-up of the type of worms inside his intestines. The man walks down a path before crouching by a plant - 'the worms lay eggs which he evacuates'. Subsequently two Africans meet and walk along the path by this plant. The intertitles explain that 'the little worms have burrowed into his bare feet, and will eventually reach his intestines, giving him the disease'. The second part of the film focuses on 'Cure and Prevention' as an African doctor provides medicine for the infected man. Further methods of prevention are suggested, initially the preparation of cassava leaves. After showing a man re-infecting himself by using the same bush, the construction of 'pit latrines' is shown. Finally, the film shows the manufacture of sandals from old tyres and hides.



Tropical Hookworm (referred to in Bekefilm material as Hookworm) was part of Bekefilm’s second cycle of films, with production beginning during September 1936. Dr Bagster Wilson, a Malaria Research Officer, had met with the director Leslie Notcutt earlier in the summer to discuss ‘proposed scenarios for films on medical subjects’, and suggested that hookworm was a ‘suitable subject for filming’. However, it was not until additional finance was received from the Government of Tanganyika that work on the new films could begin (Notcutt and Latham, 1937, 129, 61).

As a result of financial restraints, the second set of films produced in 1936 were not exhibited nearly as widely as the original productions. However, Tropical Hookworm was shown as part of a programme, which had 25 performances as it toured the Tanga district from February 1937. Notcutt noted that of these films, ‘Hookworm was naturally less in demand, though several appreciative comments were made by intelligent Africans regarding the value of the propaganda it contained’ (Notcutt and Latham, 1937, 177, 99).

The small travelling unit was ‘operated by a young Native, Manyara’, while the District Officer Mr Alcock ‘arranged his itinerary and transport from place to place and provided him with letters to headmen’. Manyara would arrange a suitable venue with the local headman – ‘often on the verandah of a large hut’ – and after collecting the entrance money – ‘2d. for adults, 1d. for children’ – he would begin the show for ‘up to a hundred persons’. Notcutt suggested that this trial indicated that ‘touring cinemas for natives, under native management, are not only a practicable proposition but a profitable one’ (Notcutt and Latham, 1937, 176)

Tropical Hookworm was certainly not the first film produced on the subject. For example, in 1920 the International Health Board at the Rockefeller Institute completed Unhooking the Hookworm, which was intended for southern rural communities in the United States, but which was subsequently distributed in India, Jamaica and other parts of the Empire ( Julian Huxley, who went to East Africa in 1929 to test African reactions to instructional films, wrote about Hookworm Campaign on the Gold Coast (1926), which he referred to as Harley Street in the Bush. Produced by Dr A. Paterson of the Kenya Department of Medical and Sanitary Service, this was ‘one of the first educational films for use in Africa’, with displays ‘given to natives in the reserves’ (Smyth, 1979, 440, Orr, 1931, 242). Subsequent films on hookworm included a Disney cartoon, with a central character called ‘Careless Charlie’, which while originally intended for South American rural audiences, was shown to ‘peasant audiences in Uganda’ after the War (Colonial Cinema. June 1951, 28).



In their writing on film production in East Africa, Notcutt and Latham largely endorsed the arguments of the influential William Sellers – a medical officer for the Nigerian government who became head of the Colonial Film Unit in 1939 – that illiterate African audiences required a different ‘set of rules’ from Europeans. To an extent, this is evident within Tropical Hookworm, with its slow pace, repeated shots, minimal editing and close-ups, which direct the viewers’ reading of the film. Yet the film also relies on associations across shots and uses forms of abstract representation.

For example, close-ups of the worms under a microscope are shown, even though popular colonial rhetoric – in particular a story reported by George Pearson, who worked with Sellers at the Colonial Film Unit – argued that African audiences accepted films literally. The story, of an African audience which saw an enlarged picture of a mosquito and decided that ‘there was no need to worry about the tiny mosquitoes that they knew’, was also reported by Notcutt and Latham. The film thus sought to present a complex scientific problem to an audience that, according to colonial rhetoric, had great difficulty in reading a film (Burns, 2002, 50).

The film has a clear narrative structure, outlining the symptoms of the disease, how it is spread and finally how it can be treated and prevented, yet it uses intertitles extensively, often including only a single shot between titles. This may highlight a desire on the part of the filmmakers to direct the audiences’ reading of the film but, while a ‘local official, missionary or educated African’ on occasion would speak before the film, for illiterate audiences the film’s narrative must ultimately be told visually. For example the physical symptoms are shown in close-up, the cause is revealed through repeated shots of the bush, and the preventative processes are carefully outlined and, in the example of the shoes, repeated for the audience.

Although this narrative is told through the experiences of an African protagonist, the emphasis throughout is on the disease itself rather than the African characters. For example, when an African man contracts the disease, the camera focuses on the plant from which the worms emerge, with the character’s leg partially in shot. When showing the preventative measures, the cassava leaves are framed centrally – cut, crushed and then cooked – with only a man’s hand shown. Similarly when showing the ways of making sandals, the African man is barely in shot, until the camera finally pans up to show an African boy with his new shoes, smiling excessively.

While an audience may be encouraged to identify with the African characters – to recognise their mistakes and responses – the close-ups of the ailments, causes and preventative measures suggest that the filmmakers sought to instruct the audiences without distracting their gaze with background material or extra characters. Indeed, Notcutt and Latham explained that the ‘chief point’ of the film was to serve as ‘instruction in a simple method of making sandals’ and the film’s direct pedagogical function is apparent in both the manner and detail in which the preventative processes are shown. For example with the cassava leaves, Notcutt and Latham explained in their writing that they wished to show ‘the quantity necessary and the manner of cooking’ as the British filmmakers sought to directly educate the Africans through this modern technology (Notcutt and Latham, 1937, 61-62).

Tom Rice (May 2008)


Works Cited

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

Notcutt, L.A. and G.C. Latham, The African and the Cinema : An Account of the Work of the Bantu Educational Cinema Experiment during the Period March 1935 to May 1937 (London: Edinburgh House Press, 1937).

Orr, J. Russell, ‘The Use of Kinema in the Guidance of Backward Races’, Journal of the Royal African Society, Vol. 30, No. 120 (July 1931), 238-244.

Smyth, Rosaleen, ‘The Development of British Colonial Film Policy, 1927-1939, with Special Reference to East and Central Africa’, The Journal of African History, Vol. 20, No. 3 (1979), 437-450.

Spurr, Norman, ‘A Report on the Use of Disney’s Hookworm Film with an African Audience in the Western Province, Uganda’, Colonial Cinema. June 1951.

Stein, Eric A., ‘Colonial Theatres of Proof: Representation and Laughter in 1930s Rockefeller Foundation Hygiene Cinema in Java’, Health and History. Volume 8, No. 2, 2006.

‘Unhooking the Hookworm’, accessed 23 May 2008.




Technical Data

Running Time:
10 minutes
Film Gauge (Format):
16mm Film
328 ft

Production Credits

Production Countries:
Great Britain
Production Company





Production Organisations