This film is held by the BFI (ID: 11266).


A record of measures taken against an outbreak of plague in Lagos, followed by footage of welfare exhibitions in Lagos in 1937.

The film opens with Africans standing outside a corrugated iron hut, with an open sewer running through the street. Aerial views over the town are followed by shots of the streets and then a close-up of a rat scurrying among rubbish. There are further shots of the ramshackle huts and roofing, then footage of local babies. A sign for Oroyinyin Lane reveals another deprived area, in which a young girl prepares food in the street, while other children play, watched by locals. A sick child is then shown, before the film focuses on the different methods of improving sanitation and catching the rats. First, Africans with buckets and spades climb into the back of a van, supervised by an African man in uniform. Two Africans spray the outside of a house. A man pulls back a panel and discovers, catches and kills a rat hidden within the rubbish. Further methods of killing the rats are shown; a smoke bomb buried in the ground; pumping gas from a cylinder down a hole, after which a man digs out at least five dead rats; baiting rat traps, supervised by a European. A dead rat is shown in the trap.

A European man supervises the destruction of a wall, followed by shots of the cleared area. Interior scenes then reveal Africans at their drawing boards designing new houses, as plans for the 'Lagos Town Planning Scheme No.7' are revealed. African nurses leave a building followed by a European nurse, before the film shows African nurses checking babies. Africans are shown showering, washing and preparing water. Next the film depicts a food exhibition emphasising hygiene. Foods are lined up, while African and European women sit behind stalls along within a European nun. Lots of school children play and partake in various activities.

The camera shows a travelling cinema van - with Lagos Town Council inscribed on the front - bearing the marking 'Local Health Week Travelling Cinema' along the side. A record is put on the gramophone and the film reels turn. Large crowds gather, before the camera pans to reveal people visiting the 'Infant welfare exhibition 1937'. The exhibition contains stalls showing 'Unclean House', 'Clean House' and includes a demonstration by a European woman to African women on how to bath a child. A European man and woman judge a baby show, as part of 'baby week' and present a large trophy. The film then shows Africans laying bricks, revealing modern buildings with gardens. Aerial shots highlight the improved roofs, green landscape and improved sanitation. Finally the film shows African children writing in class, watched by an African schoolmaster, before final close-up shots of healthy African babies.



William Sellers served for twelve years before the war as a medical officer with the Nigerian Government, before founding the Colonial Film Unit in 1939. In a paper he delivered in 1953 entitled ‘Making Films in and for the Colonies’ Sellers stated that ‘in 1926 during a serious outbreak of plague in Lagos I made a film for the purpose of encouraging the people to co-operate in reducing the rat population’ (Sellers, Royal Society of Arts Journal, 16 October 1953, 830). In an earlier article Sellers suggested that he began making films in 1929, and a number of historians – including Megan Vaughan, James Burns and Rosaleen Smyth – argue that the original version of the film dates from 1929. Burns suggests that Sellers had spent three years ‘observing audiences’ and ‘studying the reactions of Africans to British documentaries’ before making Anti-Plague Operations in Lagos (Burns, 2002, 39). While it is possible that shots of the slums and methods of rat catching date from 1926, subsequent sequences of the Lagos Town Planning Scheme – introduced in 1928 – appear to date from 1929. The final sequences of the Lagos Health Week are from 1937.

The composite nature of this film, with the apparent merging of these three different sequences, prompted Megan Vaughan to describe the film as a ‘conceptually and visually elaborate film’ when compared to ‘many health education films of the period’. The ‘elaborate’ narrative development shifts from rat catching, to town planning, to Lagos Health Week (which Vaughan noted was the subject of a separate Sellers film) and finally to the new housing area and so brings together a variety of health and welfare issues. The film also contained shots that Vaughan noted would later be regarded as ‘confusing’ and unconventional – for example moving from an aerial shot of Lagos to a close-up of a rat – and Vaughan suggests that this film is distinct from Sellers’ subsequent productions, such as Yaws and An African Hospital (1933) which ‘were less ambitious and more single-minded in the conveyance of their messages’ (Vaughan, 1991, 189).

Sellers would subsequently emphasise the different filmic requirements for African and European audiences, promoting, in a series of lectures and articles, the need for a separate film language for ‘primitive peoples’. James Burns argued that Sellers’ films ‘influenced a generation of colonial filmmakers’ (Burns, 2002, 40), as he promoted simple film techniques – ‘show a horizontal “panning” shot of buildings to an illiterate and he will tell you he saw the buildings rush by’ – and emphasised what he perceived as the specific requirements for African audiences (Sellers, Documentary News Letter, September 1941, 173). This is illustrated in two oft-quoted stories. Sellers remarked that after screenings of Anti-Plague Operations, ‘the illiterate members of the audience’ would often refer to the appearance of a chicken within the film. Sellers was unaware of the creature’s appearance but on reviewing the film discovered a chicken at the base of the screen in one scene. From this he determined that ‘illiterate people do not use their eyes and look at the screen in quite the same way that educated people do’, further arguing that ‘they fasten their gaze on to any movement in the scene to the exclusion of everything else in the picture’. Sellers thus reasoned that films for African audiences would have to rely on simple action, with few characters or props. A further story related to a film Sellers made on malaria, which featured microscopic close-ups of mosquitoes. ‘The people became alarmed’, he wrote, ‘and enquired about the country where the people had to contend with such wicked looking monsters and remarked that they themselves were very fortunate to have mosquitoes which were quite small and comparatively harmless’ (Sellers, Royal Society of Arts Journal, 16 October 1953, 831).

James Burns suggests that Anti-Plague Operations In Lagos was ‘perhaps the first motion picture created specifically for a colonial audience’ (Burns, 2002, 39), while Rosaleen Smyth argues that ‘this was one of the first occasions on which film had been used as a medium for information and education in any African colony’ (Smyth, 1988, 286). Sellers had previously used lantern slides to illustrate his lectures on health in Nigeria, but Femi Okiremuete Shaka suggested that this film was used as a ‘visual aid’ as part of an ongoing government campaign against plague in 1929 (Okiremuete Shaka, 2003, 157). Sellers received a grant for his work from the Colonial Development Fund and made a further fifteen films over the next seven years. He organised a health propaganda unit, which toured the colony giving exhibitions ‘in schools, in halls and out-of-doors’, and in his 1941 article ‘Films for Primitive People’ he explained that these films were presented using Cinema Vans and Travelling Projection Units (Smyth, 1986, 286). An interpreter would often get the attention of the audience – ‘the technique used to reduce the level of the noise is to ask the audience a question to which the obvious answer is yes; such a question might be ‘Are you proud to be British?’ – while further questions may be asked during the projection ‘in order to check up if the audience are following the story’ (Sellers, Documentary News Letter, September 1941, 174). 



Anti-Plague Operations represents a very early example of a film intended for African audiences. Significantly the film contains a number of shots and conceptual shifts that would subsequently be avoided in Sellers’ own work and in his productions for the Colonial Film Unit. For example, the film contains frequent panning shots, close-ups of the rats, aerial views over the houses, and extensive editing, when subsequent films for African audiences – for example the Colonial Film Unit’s Mr English at Home (1940) ­– rely on lengthy single shots and, in the case of the Bekefilm productions, avoid excessive camera movement or crowded frames.

Certainly the development of a specific film language for African audiences occurred after this film. However, the apparent complexities of the film can also be credited, in part, to the additional material added in 1937. This additional material re-contextualises the earlier sequences – for example the final aerial shots of an ideal landscape of brick housing in Lagos appear in direct contrast to the earlier aerial shots of the Lagos slums – in order to promote the developments by the British within the area. This may suggest that the 1937 version was intended, at least in part, for British audiences. It was for example shown to the Colonial Office Social Services Department in 1939 (Smyth, 1979, 446). The earlier sequences directly show the dangers of poor housing, the need for improved sanitation and highlight the methods of catching rats, showing the process in close-up at ground level. While there are links with the latter sequences – as in the use of aerial shots – the subsequent sequences of the Lagos Health Week more broadly indicate the westernisation of Lagos. Megan Vaughan noted the ‘highly ritualistic’ form of health education here, arguing that the film ‘merely documented an elaborate colonial ritual, and connected it, albeit rather tenuously, with the problems of plague, poverty and housing’ (Vaughan, 1991, 189). This connection between footage filmed in 1929 and 1937 seemingly shifts the film’s message and purpose – from illustrating the problem and encouraging local action to celebrating the British response to the problem.

The technological advances of the Europeans are emphasised throughout, from the scientific approaches to killing rats, to the food and welfare exhibitions, which include cinema shows. The latter sequences more explicitly reveal the spread of British ideals within colonial Africa. The Infant Welfare exhibition contains a baby contest and presents model houses – ‘Clean House’, ‘Unclean House’ – based on British ideals, so that the African visitors are, as Megan Vaughan noted, ‘acting out the roles of perfect housewife and mother’. The film shows the colonial public health officials and missionaries – for example, an African woman, a European woman and a nun sit behind the food exhibit – directing this welfare work. Abigail Markoe, in her work on the baby competitions and public health weeks in Nigeria, spoke of the ‘rhetoric of modernity, civilisation and consumerism’ promoted during these events, yet she argued that the Africans were active participants in shaping this ‘modernity’ (Markoe, 2007). The increasing agency of Africans may be evident in the presentation of African nurses, of an African school teacher and of skilled African town planners, but these figures remain under British supervision – for example, a white hand lays out the Lagos Town Plan Scheme – and the role of the British in administering the development of a modern Lagos is apparent throughout.

Tom Rice (July 2008)


Works Cited

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

Markoe, Abigail, ‘Advertising Healthy Babies and Marketing “Modernity”: Baby Competitions and Public Health Weeks in Colonial Africa’, unpublished paper delivered at the ‘Popular Cultures in Africa’ conference at University of Texas, 30 March - 1 April 2007.

Okiremuete Shaka, Femi, Modernity and the African Cinema: A Study in Colonialist Discourse, Postcoloniality, and Modern African Identities (Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 2003).

Sellers, William, ‘Films For Primitive People’, Documentary News Letter (September 1941), 173-174.

Sellers, William, ‘Making Films in and for the Colonies’, Royal Society of Arts Journal, 16 October 1953, 829-837.

Smyth, Rosaleen, ‘The British Colonial Film Unit and sub-Saharan Africa, 1939-1945’, Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, 8 (1988), 285-298.

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.

Vaughan, Megan, Curing Their Ills: Colonial Power and African Illness (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1991).



  • ANTI-PLAGUE OPERATIONS, LAGOS 1937 <> (Alternative)

Technical Data

Running Time:
13 minutes
Film Gauge (Format):
16mm Film
404 ft

Production Credits

Production Countries:
Great Britain
SELLERS, William
Production Company
Nigerian Medical Department