Friday, April 22, 2011

Sanders of the River

1935, UK, directed by Zoltan Korda

Of limited cinematic value -- even in the 1930s at least some reviewers noted the problems of marrying studio-set plot material with "authentic" background footage shot on location -- Sanders of the River holds considerable historical/anthropological value, both for the record of certain aspects of African life provided by those location sequences and for the insights into the British colonial (and domestic) mind.

Viewed through a modern lens, it's a terrifically problematic film, with Paul Robeson's Bosambo character an excruciating, obsequious "native" stereotype who breaks into song from time to time. Although it sounds as though Robeson -- who disowned his participation in the film -- was gulled somewhat by the production team, it doesn't help that he's not the subtlest of actors, at least on this occasion. He's more a presence, and sometimes an impressive one, than an actor, and at times you get the sense that he's following Zoltan Korda's direction rather too literally rather than attempting to inhabit a character.

As in his other colonial films, Korda has little interest in giving us actual insight into the territories that came under British rule: the location footage is a mishmash from across the continent, blended together as a composite, undifferentiated "Africa," and the studio actors playing the major African roles are almost invariably non-African. Nonetheless, and presumably inadvertently, Korda gives us a fine insight into the realities of Britain's much-vaunted "indirect rule" system, where the only indirect aspect was the fact that the will of the local colonial officer was on occasion nominally transmitted through indigenous ruling structures. The film also provides a pretty good illustration of how the colonial administration shed all pretence of indirect rule and inserted itself directly in local affairs as soon as things got tough - a theme explored in Moses Ochonu's book Colonial Meltdown: Northern Nigeria in the Great Depression, particularly relevant here given the time period.

Note: This is part of my Watching Movies in Africa project. The film was shown in post-independence Ghana in 1956 and 1957 by the government-controlled West African Pictures chain. It had been imported, and presumably screened, earlier in the 1950s, too. While I wonder what exactly audiences of the time made of the film, it was apparently box office gold: the Accra screenings in September 1956 broke local records, raking in G£464 in two nights, a huge sum by local standards when a single cinema might only earn £1,000 in a month.

The image above is from the DVD Beaver review of the Criterion Collection Paul Robeson - Portraits of the Artist. The film is also available to view online at the Internet Archive, although the quality isn't great.

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Boston, Massachusetts, United States