Imperial History and Film Culture

three roads to tomorrow (1958)
Screenshot from the BP-sponsored Nigerian documentary ‘Three Roads to Tomorrow’ (1958), available for viewing at the Colonial Film Project.

David Thackeray
University of Exeter

What value do film culture sources have for historians of imperial history and how do we locate them? Readers of this forum (or at least those based in the UK) are likely to be familiar with the AHRC Colonial Film project but many key sources for the study of imperial film remain obscure to those outside film studies circles.

Media History Digital Library is perhaps the most useful resource for considering the culture of world cinema-going in the colonial era. Building on the resources of the Museum of Modern Art in New York and a host of other collections, this site offers a range of film magazines from across the world as well as key pieces of government legislation.

Cinema St. Andrews provides access to various digitised resources, including a full run of the Colonial Film Unit’s magazine Colonial Cinema.

For historians of the Francophone world the website of the Institut national de l’audiovisuel is an invaluable resource, with a range of free-to-access online films.

Some key national film collections are now accessible by Youtube including a collection of National Film and South Archive of Australia movies, films held by Archives New Zealand and the National Film Board of Canada. Recently the British Movietone archive also became available online.

Those with an interest in the changing culture of cinema-going in the early twentieth century may also be interested in the Object Stories series curated by the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum and University of Exeter.

In my own teaching, I use colonial film to think about the changing trade relationship between Britain and its empire during the mid- twentieth century. As the Youtube clip above demonstrates, the ways in which west Africa was presented in non-fiction film changed dramatically over time- with the growth of interest in promoting colonial development in the late 1940s and eventual decolonisation in the late 1950s.

Students are split into groups and given a film from the Colonial Film archive to consult. One of the things that they find most surprising is the range of groups which are using film to present stories of changing imperial trade relationships: British companies such as Cadburys and BP, as well as colonial and Dominion governments.

One of the comments that crops up most is the relationship between the Orientalising discourses of colonial film and modern day attempts to promote trade. Opinion is divided on how successful advertising campaigns such as Cadbury’s ‘Zingolo’ (2009) are at evading the motifs of earlier presentations of west Africa in colonial film. However, what is clear is that this legacy remains significant to the present day.*

* Readers may be interested in following the ongoing efforts on Bristol Record Office to recatalogue and maintain the former collections of the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum, which formed an important facet of the Colonial Film project.

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