Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Flickering Shadows

J.M. Burns. Flickering Shadows: Cinema and Identity in Colonial Zimbabwe. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 2002.

James Burns's book is a detailed examination of the encounter with cinema in what was known as Southern Rhodesia and, later, simply Rhodesia. Covering the period 1914-1980, Flickering Shadows is the first book-length account of the impact of film in an African country; his work also makes frequent reference to the use of film in other British colonies, and includes briefer comparisons with French and Belgian colonies.

Most work on African cinema tends to focus on the development of post-colonial African filmmaking, from the 1960s onwards. This book is a refreshing addition to the literature in that it concerns itself in large measure with an earlier period, and particularly with African audiences, who are often absent from works which deal with films that are seen more widely in the west than on their continent of origin. Burns deals with both propaganda and commercial filmmaking, and attempts to trace audience reactions to both.

Almost as soon as cinema arrived in Southern Rhodesia, around the time of the First World War, there were calls for control of filmed images, with colonial officials quickly establishing a censorship board (this was nothing new: censorship in India, for example, accompanied the growth of cinema as a popular form of entertainment, as Prem Chowdhry recounted in her 2000 book Colonial India and the Making of Empire Cinema). The zeal of the censors sometimes came into conflict with the demands of the white mine owners, who needed to assure a steady stream of cheap cinematic entertainment, which they viewed as a simple means to control the leisure hours of their African employees; some owners, and even a few colonial administrators, saw nothing wrong with a good film show, particularly in comparison with beer halls, which were both a source of domestic strife and possibly a theatre for political organisation.

By contrast, an emerging African middle-class sometimes repeated the call for the censorship or even outright banning of commercial (mostly Hollywood) films, including the hugely popular westerns, fearing that any misbehaviour linked to film screenings would threaten their own developing social status. However, unquestioning belief in African credulity with regard to film, was the particular province of the white population.

Film units throughout the British colonies in Africa developed a simple shooting style for educational films. The film unit directors felt that this style, which pared the action down to the barest minimum, and which eliminated all extraneous material, would be comprehensible to African audiences. The colonial filmmakers swallowed then-current theories about African cognition, with many semi-apocryphal stories about African credulity; Burns does a fine job of dismantling such stories, which often circulated for decades in various guises.

The colonial film unit directors were certain that Africans would believe and then follow what they saw onscreen (the corollary of the view that film could provoke disturbances was that film could also educate, along the desired colonial lines). As Burns shows, the short films that emerged from these theories were often counter-productive. Not only did African audiences not identify with what they saw in such films - they were obviously a white gloss on the African experience of life, and said far more about the coloniser than than colonised - but they often ridiculed the content, and then voted with their feet by simply staying away. Mobile film units in rural areas had to resort to the expedient of adding westerns or other commercial fare to the film programmes in order to ensure that the audience showed up.

While Burns provides a detailed account of the development of the colonial film units, and some of the individual films they made, the major weakness of his book is the lack of any sustained examination of the commercial films that were apparently so popular with audiences in Southern Rhodesia (and elsewhere in Africa: the anthropologist Hortense Powdermaker wrote vividly about 1950s film-going in Northern Rhodesia (Zambia) in her 1962 book Copper Town).

Westerns were, Burns tells us, the particular favourite of most audience members, but either through lack of documentary records or because his research took him in other directions, there is little sense of the specific films shown, or of more detailed audience preferences (did they show a preference for a particular kind of western? were gangster films also popular?). One of his chapters is a re-worked version of a journal article entitled "John Wayne on the Zambezi", but neither article nor book makes any mention of films actually starring Wayne. There is a suggestion that B westerns starring Jack Holt may have been favoured in the 1930s, but the specific film titles mentioned in the book (and they are few in number) tend not to be westerns at all; one film deemed liable to provoke upset was Abbot and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1953), for example.
In that, Burns, no doubt inadvertently, tends to reinforce the colonial-era view that African audiences were not especially interested in film narratives, and would watch more or less anything as long as it was exciting. While it's possible that audiences were not always discerning, it's difficult to draw conclusions one way or the other given the lack of evidence. There's also something of a contradiction in the book: at one point, Burns states that westerns simply escaped the censors' scissors, while later he implies that many films were so badly chopped that the plots were rendered meaningless. In this, his comments are similar to Charles Ambler's 2001 American Historical Review article on moviegoing in Northern Rhodesia. Ambler appears to over-reach the raw materials, at least as cited in the article, which state only that many films -- perhaps half at the high-water mark -- were censored, but not whether they were heavily cut.

Even with this caveat, however, Burns's book is tremendously valuable as a starting point for further research, and also as an examination of the use of film for propaganda purposes by a colonial regime. Film remained a critical - though not necessarily effective - tool under Ian Smith's illegal Rhodesian Front regime after 1965: the closer the regime came to collapse, the more violent the propaganda, with Burns arguing that Rhodesian Front propaganda ironically precipitated its own end.

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Boston, Massachusetts, United States