Central African Film Unit

In 1945 the Central African Council, a non-political administrative body, was established to co-ordinate activities and generate closer ties between the self-governing colony of Southern Rhodesia, and those of Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland (which were still run through the Colonial Office). One of its first steps was to approve the establishment of an inter-territorial film unit, primarily intended to produce and distribute 16mm instructional films to African audiences within its territories. Southern Rhodesia would contribute 50% of the unit’s operating costs, with the remaining funds derived from the Colonial Development and Welfare Funds on behalf of Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland (Burns, 2002, 66).

The Central African Film Unit began its operations in September 1948, with Alan Izod, who had formerly supervised the colonial productions at the Central Office of Information in London, assuming the title of ‘Producer’ (others that were considered for the role included Geoffrey Barkas, Norman Spurr and, it is claimed, John Grierson) (Burns, 2002, 68). Izod employed Stephen Peet to head a field unit in Salisbury as ‘director/cameraman’, while Louis Nell, the one man with filmmaking experience in Africa having previously served as film officer with the Northern Rhodesian Information office, assumed the same role in Lusaka. The three men were joined by Oxford-educated scriptwriter Denys Brown, who was based at the unit’s new headquarters in Salisbury. These headquarters initially housed a couple of offices, and an editing room in what was formerly an RAF training camp, which CAFU shared with the Southern Rhodesian Film Unit (Smyth, 1983, 134; Nell, 1998, 105).

Over the next fifteen years, the Central African Film Unit would grow to a staff of over a hundred, becoming ‘the most prolific colonial filmmaking unit ever created’ (Burns, 2002, 105). By the time of its disbandment in 1963, it had produced a total of 625 films, including newsreels, amounting to 1060 reels (Nell, 1998, 193). An examination of the unit’s policies and indeed the audience responses to its films shows how they responded to the enormous political changes within the territories over this period. A study of the films produced for African audiences also allows colonial historians, as James Burns argues, ‘to gaze on the colonised through the eyes of the colonizers – to see Africans and their societies as the filmmakers saw them and as the filmmakers desired them to be’ (Burns, 2002, 61). For film historians, CAFU illustrates the didactic uses of film within Africa as a means of social administration and control. Furthermore, it follows and extends a tradition of colonial filmmaking, which catered specifically for the perceived difference in the cognitive capabilities of African audiences, and which can be traced from William Sellers’ health films in the 1920s, to the BEKE productions of the 1930s and the more contemporary work of the Colonial Film Unit from the 1940s.

In its first five years of existence CAFU produced 77 films. The majority of these were silent 16mm Kodachrome films, which played to African audiences usually in rural areas at outdoor mobile cinema shows (with a live commentary provided in the local vernacular), at urban welfare centres, in missions or at mining centres. Many of the films were also bought by foreign governments and organisations, including the governments of the Belgian Congo, Sudan, Uganda, Nigeria, British Honduras and even Australia (for use in Papua and New Guinea) (Burns, 2002, 68; Smyth, 1983, 141).

The techniques employed within these films followed those pioneered by William Sellers, catering for the specific ‘requirements’ of the ‘primitive’ African audience. The settler newspaper, Rhodesia Herald, outlined these theories on hearing news of the unit’s establishment in 1946. ‘Films for Africans require a very different technique to those for Europeans’, it claimed, ‘simple photography, long shots to allow plenty of time for assimilation, a plain straightforward approach to the subject with repetition of the main point, some slapstick humour, and so on’ (Burns, 2002, 67). Alan Izod reaffirmed these assumptions in 1948, when he stated that ‘The greatest problem the Unit has to face is that its audiences are not yet capable of assimilating information put over in a film of a straightforward educational or documentary type’ (Izod, 1948, 28).

The first film produced by CAFU, Mulenga Goes to Town, indicates CAFU’s adherence to Sellers’ ideas. The first in a series of slapstick comedies (which would also include Mulenga Gets a Job), it highlights both the unit’s propensity for easily recognisable stereotypes (Colonial Cinema described Mulenga as a ‘born buffoon’), and the dangers of modern urban life (Nell, 1998, 104). These urban tales reflected widely held government fears of African agency and social mobility within urban centres. However, the majority of CAFU productions were rural in setting, invariably emphasising a farmer’s progress and prosperity after following a government scheme.

In describing its productions, a CAFU catalogue explained that ‘although the primary object of the Unit’s films is education, the nature of its audiences makes it essential that the lesson should be presented in an entertaining form. This method is a feature of all the Unit’s films’ (‘CAFU Catalogue’, 10). These story films often followed the ‘Mr Wise and Mr Foolish formula’ – a format pioneered by Sellers and widely used by the BEKE and the CFU – as they contrasted the hero, embracing modern government schemes, with the villain, following traditional and superstitious ideas. ‘This model’, Burns explained, ‘made colonial films into simple morality plays, dividing the colonised world into modernisers and traditionalists, winners and losers’. A notable early example of this is The Two Farmers (1948) (Burns, 2002, 80). Other titles served as cautionary tales often presented within a traditional African story (for example, The Thief), or highlighted the authority of the colonial state in showing that crime doesn’t pay (for example, The Box). Many promoted ‘self-help’, while the unit also produced ‘profile’ films illustrating the work and success of individual Africans who had embraced an aspect of colonial life. It was within this genre that CAFU addressed the role of women within colonial society (women were deemed by Izod to be a significant and ‘most educable’ element of the audience) (Burns, 2002, 91). A prominent example of this is The Wives of Nendi (1949).

These early productions, in particular in their assumptions about African audiences, reflect the dominant racial attitudes of settler society within the territories, and this is also evident in the organisational structure of the unit. While other Colonial Film Units, for example in Malaya, the Gold Coast and Jamaica, set up film schools and ostensibly sought to train and develop local filmmakers, CAFU ‘did not pursue a policy of Africanisation’ (Smyth, 1983, 140). CAFU employed African actors, interpreters and cinema van operators (Geoffrey Mangin noted that the ‘indigenous peoples kept very much to themselves’), but there was seemingly no attempt to prepare an African-run unit on the expectation that the Africans would achieve self-government (Mangin, 1998, 29). David Kerr, referring in particular to Stephen Peet, suggested that CAFU was comprised of ‘liberal filmmakers’ but added that ‘in reality the basic ethos of its filmmakers was paternalistic’ (Kerr, 1993, 24). Certainly as the political situation intensified in the late 1950s, CAFU’s promotion of government ideology, and a traditional racial order, became all the more explicit.

At the formation of the Central African Federation in 1953, responsibility for CAFU shifted to the Federal Department of Information. Rosaleen Smyth suggested that with this ‘the whole character of the CAFU changed’ (Smyth, 1983, 134). The unit absorbed the Southern Rhodesian government film unit and, as Alan Izod acknowledged in 1957, now worked ‘almost exclusively’ on producing 35mm sound films for ‘European audiences and particularly for overseas audiences’ (Burns, 2002, 97). Filmmaker Geoffrey Mangin suggested that ‘only about five new films a year’ were directed towards the African audiences (Mangin, 1998, 29). The films catering for the European audience promoted the formation and work of the Federation overseas (e.g. Two Generations), celebrated and romanticised colonial rule (See Saw Years), or encouraged tourism and immigration (e.g. Fairest Africa). It also produced a newsreel for European audiences, Federal Spotlight, which ran until 1963. In its almost complete failure to address the social and political changes within the Federation, Federal Spotlight (eg. 87, 167) further illustrated the Unit’s (and indeed Government’s) increasing dislocation as its idealised vision of the Federation became ever more anachronistic.

In later years CAFU did seek to re-engage with its African audiences, although its motives were now more defensive and reactionary. James Burns argued that the Unit now ‘became an integral part of the Federal Information Department’s campaign to “put over Federation and to allay fears” among Africans’. A memo from the information department in 1959 urged CAFU ‘to keep the lines clear, so that the unit can concentrate on the production of a series of films to put the Federation over’ to audiences at home and overseas (Burns, 2002, 101). While the unit had earlier focussed predominantly on promoting modern agricultural methods to rural Africans, it now sought to generate support for the Federation by highlighting the ‘benefits that the government bestowed on its subjects’ (Burns, 2002, 98). From 1957 until its disbandment it produced an edition of Rhodesia and Nyasaland News every month for its African audience, intended (often unsuccessfully) to highlight racial cooperation and African advancement. Films like Free From Fear sought to promote the legacy of white rule in Nyasaland to combat, in the words of the director of the Federal Information Department, ‘the insidious development of Congress movements’ within the territories (Burns, 2002, 131).

As CAFU’s ties with the Federal government became more pronounced, African audiences (particularly in Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland) became increasingly critical of the propaganda it presented. Vernon Brelsford, head of the Federal Information Department, noted in 1958 that mobile cinema vans were stopped on ‘several occasions’ by road blocks, and by 1962 mobile cinema reports were noting this opposition. ‘This show was a failure. Village people were kept away’, stated one report from Nyasaland. ‘We do not want Sir Roy’s pictures here… after one and a half hours showing we closed down as crowd looked dangerous’. A further report a couple of months later noted that ‘A good number of leaflets were torn up. One could hear them say “Sir Roy is dead”, “Federation is finished”’ (Burns, 2002, 133)

In promoting the Federation, the unit was effectively fighting for its future as the demise of the Federation would mark the end of CAFU. Although some employees hoped that the Southern Rhodesian government would maintain the unit, it was rapidly disbanded in 1963 as Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland achieved independence. ‘The staff would now disperse far and wide’, Louis Nell recalled, ‘a tremendous team whose spirit and energy had created a film unit second to none. For all of us, it was a 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). Many of its filmmakers moved to other companies in Africa, while its laboratory was sold to a local commercial company, Dragon Films. However, CAFU’s influence was perhaps most keenly felt over the next two decades in the propaganda work of the Rhodesian Front which, in making government films for African audiences, utilised many of CAFU’s methods, ideals and personnel.

Tom Rice (January 2010)

 

Works cited

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

The Central African Film Unit Catalogue, accessed at the BFI.

‘Central African Film Unit’, Colonial Cinema, September 1949, 27-28.

Izod, Alan, ‘Some Special Features of Colonial Film Production’, The Film in Colonial Development: A Report of a Conference (London: British Film Institute, 1948).

Kerr, David, ‘The Best of Both Worlds? Colonial Film Policy and Practice in Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland’, Critical Arts, Volume 7 (1993), 11-42.

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).

Smyth, Rosaleen, ‘The Central African Film Unit’s Images of Empire, 1948-1963’, Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, Vol. 3, No.2, 1983, 131-147. 

 
 
Browsing: Production Company / Central African Film Unit
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Rhodesia Collection: 'Holiday Highlights 1959' (1959)

Tour of Nyasaland, Europe, U.K. and arrival back in Cape Town.

'Holiday Highlights. Nyasaland - Rome - Switzerland - Austria - ...

 

RHODESIAN SPOTLIGHT NO. 79 (1959)

Art in Nyasaland.

Fragrant Sideline - Mr. Balisra makes citronella oil.

Cookie Has a Look - beauty spot Mpatomange Gorge.

Surprises in International ...

 

RHODESIAN SPOTLIGHT NO. 80 (1959)

The Final Copper Process - copper refinery at Ndola.

Survey into Sight - St. John mobile eyesight survey in bush.

Lifting Trees ...

 

RHODESIAN SPOTLIGHT NO. 82 (1959)

New Club for Newsmen - Sir and Lady Welensky open Press Club.

Snakes alive - Salisbury's snake park.

To Back Up Tobacco ...

 

RHODESIAN SPOTLIGHT NO. 83 (1959)

New Fangs for the Air Force - Canberrra bombers.

Take the Whole Family - drive in cinema at Mabelreign.

This is How ...

 

RHODESIAN SPOTLIGHT NO. 84 (1959)

N. Rhodesian Elections - at polls in Lusaka.

Swearing in of Mr. Savavhu - first African minister.

Legislative Council opens in Lusaka ...

 

RHODESIAN SPOTLIGHT NO. 85 (1959)

Token of Gratitude - presentation of ambulance to Bulawayo hospital.

Straight from the Dog's Mouth - dog show.

Roughing it in Comfort ...

 

RHODESIAN SPOTLIGHT NO. 86 (1959)

Another Big Dam Project Starts - Kyle Dam.

Gubernatorial Change-Over - Sir Arthur Benson leaves, Sir Evelyn and Lady Hone are ...

RHODESIAN SPOTLIGHT NO.  87

RHODESIAN SPOTLIGHT NO. 87 (1959)has video enhanced entry

The Jamboree - Lord Roallen attends international janboree in Salisbury.

Nyasaland Back to Normal - after emergency March 1959.

Round the Federation ...

 

UNHAPPY FAMILY (1959)

Story illustrating the dangers of using the same source of water for bathing, washing and as a toilet. Story centres ...

 

CEDAR MOUNTAIN (1958)

Depicting life on a cedar plantation in Central Africa, showing the nursery, pine tree plantation, pest control, trout fishing and ...

 

LAND DEVELOPMENT OFFICER (1958)

The work of the land development officer shown in a dramatised account.

 

RHODESIAN SPOTLIGHT NO. 65 (1958)

R.R.A.F. for Aden.

Chieftainess Luwazhi takes over.

Spotlight on Livingstone - including the museum and Victoria falls.

Heading for home - Central African ...

 

RHODESIAN SPOTLIGHT NO. 66 (1958)

Show Places:- N. Rhodesia builds new cinemas.

Back from Malaya:- Beira, troopship brings back 1st batt.

Rhodesian African Rifles.

Fish out of Water:- ...

 

RHODESIAN SPOTLIGHT NO. 67 (1958)

The Wine Growers.

Modern Mineral Hunt - using a helicopter.

Trees for Timber - Forestry Commission trial forest.

Strange Cargo - animals from ...

 

RHODESIAN SPOTLIGHT NO. 68 (1958)

VIP's in the Federation - Field Marshall Sir Gerald Templar & Eugene Black.

Latest on Kariba - Kitwe switiching station.

New Seasons ...

 

RHODESIAN SPOTLIGHT NO. 69 (1958)

Flights From Nairobi.

Sir Robert Tredgold Visits the USA - greeted by Earl Warren, chief justice.

Scouts Keep Transport Tally.

News fron Nyasaland ...

 

RHODESIAN SPOTLIGHT NO. 70 (1958)

Fletcher High School - opens.

S. Rhodesia Governor Visits Mtoko - visit hospital and Chiefs.

New Harari Hospital - opened by Lord ...

 

RHODESIAN SPOTLIGHT NO. 71 (1958)

S. Rhodesian General Elections.

Federal Flashes - the Dalhousies visit Nyasaland tea industry, farming in Msengezi, Lusaka - police passing out ...

 

RHODESIAN SPOTLIGHT NO. 72 (1958)

Recent Arrivals - Merle Park & Gary Burne at command performance for The Dalhousies.

News from Nyasaland - new Nkata Bay ...

 

RHODESIAN SPOTLIGHT NO. 73 (1958)

Message from Mountbatten - Lord & Lady Dalhousie visit a schoolbearing Mountbatten's name.

Water for Blantyre.

Probing the Great Riddle - the ...

 

RHODESIAN SPOTLIGHT NO. 74 (1958)

On the Lake - Nyasa and sea scouts.

The Ndola Show - Lord Dalhousie opens.

The Numismatist - Mr. Epstein at Mufulira.

Youngsters ...

 

RHODESIAN SPOTLIGHT NO. 75 (1958)

The Standard Goes to Press.

From over the Border - Portuguese Gov. Gen. of Mozambique.

Lundazi Castle.

Polley's Workshop - Nkana mine training ...

 

RHODESIAN SPOTLIGHT NO. 76 (1958)

The Economy Run - car rally sponsor, Mobile.

Que Que Regatta.

Progress at University College.

Federation Round Up - Blantyre's new railway station, ...

 

RHODESIAN SPOTLIGHT NO. 77 (1958)

Buy Federal - exhibition in Salisbury.

The Fourth in Ten Months - Lord Dalhousie opens LLewllyn Hospital, Kitwe.

One of the Lucky ...

 

RHODESIAN SPOTLIGHT NO. 78 (1958)

New GPO for Limbe.

Back from the London Talks - Roy Welensky returns to Salisbury from London; Diana Dors also arrives.

A ...

 

GROWING LAND (1957)

Stresses the growth in all areas of Rhodesia's natural resources, especially mineral production, increasing white population and consumer consumption (e.g: ...

 

REPORT ON KARIBA HIGH WATER, 1957 (1957)

Report on the Kariba Dam scheme, and the effects of the record floods.

 

RHODESIA AND NYASALAND NEWS NO. 1 (1957)

New Ambulance Service - in Nyasaland. The New Governor-General - Simon Ramsay, Lord Dalhousie. New Postal Agency at Soche.Kafue National ...

 

RHODESIA AND NYASALAND NEWS NO. 2 (1957)

Governor opens new bridge, assembly of Mashonaland chiefs, training game guards, new village water supplies in Nyasaland, weight lifting in ...

 

RHODESIA AND NYASALAND NEWS NO. 3 (1957)

Training and welfare at Kariba, the K.A.R. leaves Zomba for Lusaka, Chief Rozani invested, Chilonga mission, University College of Rhodesia ...

 

RHODESIA AND NYASALAND NEWS NO. 5 (1957)

Rhodesian African Rifles return from Malaya via Beira.

K.A.R. move to Lusaka.

Governor General visits African townships.

Rabies control in Nyasaland with vaccinations.

Cheap ...

 

RHODESIA AND NYASALAND NEWS NO. 6 (1957)

Governor General invests Africans, new wing for Zomba hospital, M.L.C.'s visit Chitedze, Machipisa - progressive store keeper,Governor presents football cup, ...

 

RHODESIA AND NYASALAND NEWS NO. 7 (1957)

Mobile bank, Lake Nyasa fishermen, hospital guest house, police parade at Lusaka, new Salisbury hospital, farmers day at Msingesi, training ...

 

RHODESIAN SPOTLIGHT (KARIBA COMPILATION) (1957)

Compilation of early Spotlights 1955-58 all focusing on the Kariba Dam Scheme from inception to the record floods of 1958. ...

 

ROYAL VISIT 1957 (1957)

Visit of Queen Mother to Rhodesia 4th - 15th July l957.

 

STAKE IN THE LAND (1957)

The implementation of the Land Husbandry Act, th people involved and the progress it has had on agriculture and the ...

 

BORDER HIGHLANDS (1956)

A colour travelogue intended to encourage tourists to visit the Eastern Districts of Rhodesia.

The film shows the the great ...

 

FIVE MESSENGERS (1955)

The work of the African Messenger service in Northern Rhodesia. Looks at a typical day's duties of a chief messenger ...

 

FOUR ROADS TO FUN (1955)

Four couples describe their holidays:- Kariba/Eastern Highlands, Lake Nyasa, Victoria Falls, Lake Tangyanika.

 

FUEL FOR THOUGHT (1955)

The destruction of Rhodesia's native timber resources and the need for careful management of that resource.

 

RHODESIA AND NYASALAND NEWS NO. 4 (1955)

Chieftainess Luwezhi installed at Chavuma, head messenger retires, training African nurses in Nyasaland, the Kyusa dancers, Jairos Jiri- friend of ...

 

Rhodesia Collection: Victoria Falls 'The Smoke that... (1955)

Film about the Victoria Falls on the borders of Northern and Southern Rhodesia.

Production / Donor Details: The Rhodesia Collection was ...

 

RHODESIAN SPOTLIGHT "B" (1955)

Compilation from early Spotlights, no's 8-14, including. Land clearance at Karoi, Chingola mining town, soil conservation in Nyasaland, expansion of ...

 

RHODESIAN SPOTLIGHT "C" (1955)

Compilation of early Spotlights, no's 15-19, including - postal school, making ropes, growing tea and tobacco, Chirunda sugar estates, Umtali ...

 

RHODESIAN SPOTLIGHT "D" (1955)

Compilation of early Spotlights, including - Katambora reform school, fumigation of bagged grain, safari on river Luangwa, stock car racing, ...

 

RHODESIAN SPOTLIGHT "E" (1955)

Compilation of early Spotlights, no's 20-30, including, lake Nyasa developments, reopening of old copper mine, the story of rubber, news ...

 

RHODESIAN SPOTLIGHT "F" (1955)

Compilation of early Spotlights, no's 20-29, including - trout fishing, lake Miveru, cotton cultivation in Nyasaland, agricultural research station, new ...